Posted November 5, 2020
By Jacob J. Coutts
Organic chemistry. Differential equations. Statistics. It’s common to hear about dread courses for students and the effects they have on student learning and self-efficacy. But let’s introduce two other terms: accessibility and accommodations. Although ultimately good things, these words have sort of become “dread subjects” for teachers and university faculty. In some ways they have become buzz words that carry little meaning, but they’re also words with a great weight attached. When talking about accessibility, I merely mean ensuring your content is usable by students. Accommodations refer to anything you provide to students to make content accessible. Barriers to accessibility include (but certainly aren’t limited to) problems with one of the five senses (particularly sight or sound), hyperactivity or behavioral disorders, or other psychological disorders such as depression. Accommodations would consist of things like making sure your online content can be read by a screen reader, upping the size of your font in presentations and handouts, and offering alternative assignments to students who may struggle with an in- or out-of-class activity. We’ll go into specifics later.
A question I’ve heard asked in a lot of discussions is: Why now? Why are these needs revealing their faces all of a sudden? Truth be told, these needs have always existed, they’re just now getting the attention they deserve. Students who would have previously been cast out of school or dropped out because they felt inadequate are now receiving attention and have opportunities to succeed that they deserve. Before we go on, it’s important to differentiate two different needs for accommodations (and discuss why they lead to the same outcome). There can be state or trait needs for accommodation. Because of this, your entire class should be accessibility-friendly regardless of whether you’ve had contact with Disability Services (or your university’s equivalent) about a particular student in class. A trait need for accommodation would be a documented disorder (either physical or psychological) where a student has contacted Disability Services and gathered the appropriate paperwork. Trait needs are usually accounted for but not always. Sometimes students don’t know who to contact in order to receive accommodations or have a fear about revealing their condition and decide to suffer silently. Either way, it’s not unreasonable to assume you have a student who could be registered for Disability Services and isn’t. But not all needs are documented or lifelong. There are also state needs for accommodations. Sometimes students don’t have a condition, but something temporarily comes up in their life where they would require the same accommodations as someone with a trait need. For instance, let’s say someone gets an eye or an ear infection and has trouble with vision or hearing respectively. They would now require accommodations that students with sight/hearing problems have but would have no way to get that approved in a reasonable amount of time. Thus, it is critical that you make as few assumptions about the ability of your students as possible.
Needs can take on many forms, but I believe this is best demonstrated through analogy. Imagine you are on a construction site and are tasked with painting the side of a two-story building. You will need to use a scaffold to work on some part of the building. Let’s say that the scaffolding your boss provided doesn’t have a ladder and you are thus prevented from doing your work. You try jumping to the ledge to pull yourself up but are unable to do so after several attempts. At the end of the day, your boss comes by and sees that no work was done and decides to write you up. How unfair! You could have easily done the work if you could simply reach the proper height, and it’s not fair for your boss to punish you when the equipment they provided was insufficient. You bring this issue to your union and they go and ensure this doesn’t happen in the future: all scaffolding equipment must either have a ladder or something built-in that allows you to climb up to your needed workspace. What if a fellow employee—a brilliant painter—was unable to climb the ladder that worked for you? Perhaps the bars were too skinny and they have an injured foot or a motor control problem that makes climbing up that specific ladder dangerous. Should they be written up? The easy answer here is no, they should also approach the union and see if there’s anything they can do to allow them to reach the needed height to perform their work. It wouldn’t make sense for your boss to get upset that they needed a different ladder any more than it would be for them to be upset you needed a ladder if some employees were able to climb up the scaffolding without assistance. This situation may seem implausible, but only because labor laws have been in effect for a number of years and safe working conditions have become the norm.
The employee who could jump up the scaffolding without a ladder represents your most gifted and able students. They have no limitations to receiving or understanding your class material. The second employee, the one who needed a “standard” ladder to do their job, represents your average batch of students. They may go through state needs of accessibility on occasion and would benefit from standard accommodations (e.g., loud videos, instructions on slides for activities). The third employee represents those students with significant state or trait barriers that require accommodations usually sanctioned by your university’s Department of Disability Services. It is safe to assume you have all three types of students in your class. This assumption only becomes more reasonable as societal barriers are removed precluding those with disabilities from attending college. In this case, however, these aren’t employees you’re paying to do a job laid out in advance. They’re students paying a great sum of money to receive instruction in topics that (hopefully) interest them. As such, it is even more critical to implement healthy accessibility practices—in some ways, they’re your boss. Regardless of the need of the individual, modern accessibility practices are helpful. It’s not as if a ladder with wider steps will be harmful, indeed it will help all students. One may ask: Isn’t it a lot of work to make a classroom accessible? The short answer is yes, no, and it doesn’t matter. Let’s take a look at different dimensions of your class and how they relate to accessibility:
Classroom policies and procedures
Do you have a strict “no late work accepted” policy?
Classroom policies are probably the easiest domain for you to change since it requires no work on your end. Refusing to accept late work can be problematic for a number of reasons, including for students who need accommodations. Some students simply need additional time to complete an assignment. One month to complete a paper may seem reasonable on your end—and if your class was the only one they were taking it may be reasonable—but students are taking many classes concurrently and going through a difficult transition period. Couple that with the fact it may take them additional time to write six papers across their classes due to some need and a month may no longer seem reasonable.
Do you take attendance and count late students as absent?
Punctuality is a cultural construct, so there are many potential problems here, but consider a case where someone has OCD and they’re late because their compulsions kept them from leaving for class on time. Would it be fair to penalize them for being late then? What if they were in a wheelchair or crutches? Had a limp? You get the point.
Do you require participation from your students in class discussions?
The last policy involves class discussion. Are you forcing students to talk once a semester? Once a unit? Once a class? Hopefully it’s none of these. If you force students to talk during class (and you’re not teaching public speaking), this can cause trouble for international students and those with anxiety disorders. There need to be alternatives in place—half sheets turned in at the end of class or posts in online discussion boards—that would allow students to earn credit if they didn’t participate in the class discussion. These alternatives also allow you to better assess their learning since they’ve had time to think through their thoughts before putting them on paper (as opposed to extemporaneously giving them during class). This also applies to assigned groups. It is important for students to have agency. Assigning groups is a tactic that teachers should sparingly—if ever—use. It has all the same problems as above, but you’re preventing students the opportunity to find someone they feel comfortable talking to for the duration of the activity (a problem worthy of its own blog post). Classroom policies can be summed up with two words: be flexible.
Classroom materials and distribution
Are your PowerPoints loaded with words? Are they designed with accessibility in mind?
These are big ones. They deal with how your students receive the content they’ll eventually be tested on. If this isn’t up to snuff, the students don’t even have front-row tickets to your class—they have nosebleed seats and aren’t going to enjoy the event. Verbose PowerPoint slides are all too common. Split one slide into three if you need to. A wall of text can be dreadful for students, is harder for them to see (because smaller font is required), and takes longer to write down. If you pride yourself in a 30-slide lecture, but it’s really more like 90 slides, you have a 90-slide lecture. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but I usually adhere to the four-by-five rule. That is, no more than four bullet points and five words per point per slide (unless I’m directly quoting someone). That means I almost never have more than 20 words per slide and I often have less than that. This not only makes your presentations look cleaner, it also ensures you can increase your font so your students can see it. Also make sure your PowerPoints have appropriate contrast between the text and background. You can get this checked by a reader online, but common sense usually applies here (read: usually). I prepared two versions of my semester slides and had my students vote on day one: dark background and light text or light background and dark text. The overwhelming majority preferred the dark background with light text. This may not be true for every group, so I plan to take this vote every semester. But never put light text on a light background (e.g., don’t put yellow or orange or related colors on a white background). The same goes for dark text on dark backgrounds. You might be able to see it on your computer. I promise it is worse on a projector. Make sure your slide contrast is acceptable by using a template or by checking it with an online reader (Google “ADA contrast checker” and thank me later).
Are images on your LMS site paired with alt text? Do your videos have closed captions?
These last two situationally require a lot of work. If you have images on your learning management system (LMS) site (e.g., Carmen, Blackboard, Angel), they should have alternative text (alt text). Alt text provide a very brief description of what a picture says/represents so screen readers can read it. This also holds for images in your PowerPoints if you post those for your class. Additionally, make sure videos you present have closed captions when available. Instead of downloading .mp4s of your videos and putting them in your slides, go to the native site (e.g., YouTube) and turn on whatever captioning the website has. This goes a long way for everyone. Whether the student has trouble hearing or not, they will benefit from this practice for reasons described earlier.
Are you providing verbal and written instructions to your students?
Whenever you assign something in class there should be instructions given verbally and written on the board or given in your slides. It is quite possible something you said is unclear and a visual referent for students would save you a lot of clarifying questions. This also ensures you’re accounting for students who may have trouble hearing or seeing. This is an easy habit to develop and one all instructors should work on.
Do you allow students to audio record your lectures?
Allowing students to audio record your lectures is usually good practice. It is possible that your class is a safe space for students to share sensitive or personally-identifying information. I took an Abnormal Psychology class where we weren’t allowed to record lectures because it was quite possible students would be self-disclosing sensitive information during class. That is a nontrivial concern and thus this is situational. You could go one step further and ask students who are recording a lecture to pause before a sensitive group discussion. Recording is particularly important for international students and those with hearing problems, so it’s not a bad thing to allow students to do this when the class content calls for it.
Do you provide rubrics for your students (and do they match the assignment instructions)?
In my experience as a student, rubrics are relatively rare. Whether this is because they take work to create and think through or for some other reason, this is an item many teachers ignore when creating a writing assignment for their students. I don’t believe this should be ignored for a number of reasons (e.g., objectivity in scoring students), but particularly because it gives students clarity who may have trouble understanding your instructions/expectations (students who may need a time extension on assignments anyway). Rubrics should match your assignment instructions to the letter but provide breakdowns on how they’re going to be scored (e.g., are you grading writing mechanics or conceptual understanding more?)
There is no such thing as a lazy student. They may be going through traumatic life events, excessive daily hassles, or dealing with some kind of physical or mental disorder that prevents them from coming to class or accessing the material the way it is currently being taught. The above examples are only a few of many, many ways for you to ensure your class is accessible for students who do (and don’t) need it. They are far easier to implement while your class is being developed, but—with some effort—can be quickly implemented into an existing class. The benefit for your students absolutely makes the workload worth it (and as we’ve discussed, it’s not as much work as you would expect).
At the end of the day, accessibility is here to stay whether you like it or not. You can let it be something that drags you out of the store while you kick and scream, or you can embrace it, learn from it, and let it inform your perspective about the needs of your students (and community at large). Educators provide a service to their students, and it’s one that they—and taxpayers—pay good money for. Attacking these issues early on in course development goes a long way and ensures your students are equipped to receive the material in a way that works for them. Teachers scaffold material for their students so they can learn the material and become better scholars (and hopefully better citizens of the world), but it only works if there’s a ladder.
Jacob Coutts is a dual-degree graduate student in Quantitative Psychology and Applied Statistics at The Ohio State University. He earned his BS in Psychological Sciences from Northern Arizona University with a minor in Communication Studies. His research interests involve advancing quantitative methods (e.g., dyadic mediation analysis) and programming statistical tools that make these methods easy for substantive researchers to use. His teaching philosophy is in the same vein: to make the subject matter interesting, accessible, and personally relevant to students. In his “free time” you can find him at the movies, at the gym, or on the stage doing stand-up comedy. If you want to connect, you can reach him on Twitter or his website at jjcoutts.com.