[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ccess can mean many different things in a classroom. For students with disabilities, access means having material, spaces, and coursework accessible for a variety of learning needs. Access can also mean recognizing the limits of time, money, and basic necessities when students come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Of course, we also have universal access in education, which states that all people have equal opportunity in education, regardless of marginalized positions and social inequities (Dolmage, 2015).
At its heart, access is about recognizing the differences in students’ lived experiences and designing and teaching courses that work with these differences. How then can we make classrooms accessible for a diverse student population with a wide range of learning needs?
Here we outline three simple techniques for increasing accessibility.
1. Have more assignments worth less. We all understand that the lives of teachers are packed full with obligations and responsibilities. Having more assignments means grading more assignments, but courses with a lot of low-stakes assignments help students in a number of ways. First, it means that students will not bomb the course because they got one bad grade. For students who have health issues, kids, elderly parents, work multiple jobs, or struggle to find food to nourish their bodies enough to learn, this approach recognizes these factors. Second, it provides students with more feedback from instructors to facilitate deeper learning. Rather than having one big project due during midterms and another due toward the end of the course, students work on assignments throughout the course with opportunities to demonstrate growth and improvement from start to finish.
2. Be strategic and fair when offering extra credit. Extra credit continues to be a controversial policy in college courses (Osborn, 2011). Although extra credit is something students crave and can be effective when done strategically, many teachers offer extra credit opportunities at the last minute, such as when special events or speakers are hosted on campus. This can be an inaccessible opportunity for some. Was there enough warning so that students who are deaf/hard of hearing could request an interpreter or other accommodation services like Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART)? What about students who have family and/or childcare obligations? Does the event conflict with a student’s job responsibilities? Are there other conflicts that prevent students from being able to attend and therefore earn some extra credit?
To offer equitable extra credit opportunities faculty must provide ample notice of the event so that students can request accommodations or make arrangements that enable them to attend. Another option is to offer choice. For students who cannot attend a live event, consider allowing them to demonstrate their participation in a live-streamed event. Or provide an alternate option by allowing students to complete extra credit work at-home. Many libraries offer students access to video streaming services, such as Kanopy, which can be accessed from anywhere.
3. Assess skills differently. A heavy reliance of multiple choice and true/false questions as assessments of learning certainly makes grading easier but designing all assessments in this way does a disservice to the many students who struggle to present their understanding of the material in response to objective exam questions. Create assignments that allow students to rehash, learn, and assess in different ways. Utilize short answers, essays, and projects that highlight their ability to explain and build on concepts. If you already have lots of assignments worth a lesser percentage, why not test this knowledge in different and more equitable ways? People learn differently and knowledge is applied in diverse ways. Let students grapple with course content beyond the standard multiple choice and true/false exams. Assess knowledge and skills in ways that foster creativity and a fuller understanding of course content.
Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful as you work to implement more accessible policies in your courses. There are many more resources you can use to make your classes accessible. Working toward Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and practices that recognize differences and social inequalities is a must in today’s classrooms.
Dolmage, J. (2015). Universal design: places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly.
Hamilton, L & Armstrong, E. (2012). Social life and social inequality. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Osborn, C. (2011). Should you offer extra credit? Chronicle of Higher Education.
Paige Hoffmann is a doctoral student in the Department of Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Amanda Hurlbut is an assistant professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Woman’s University.