Accessible Teaching Practices
In addition to selecting and creating content with accessibility and inclusion in mind, there are ways to approach the act of teaching itself that can improve the accessibility of your course. Some of these ideas may seem simple and straightforward to implement; others may shake up the foundations of what teaching looks like. Not every recommendation will be right for every instructor or every class. But it’s worth considering and reflecting on these accessible teaching practices to see if there are ways you can make your class more inclusive of all your students.
Who Needs Accessible Teaching Practices?
Many of the practices recommended here are aimed at supporting neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that encompasses autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and more. The idea behind neurodiversity is that there is nothing “wrong” with autistic, ADHD, etc. people. Instead, their brains are simply wired differently, and so they interact with and perceive the world differently than a neurotypical person (a person without autism, ADHD, etc.).
In addition, these teaching practices will often help support students with emotional disabilities such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and more. It can also help students with chronic illness, pain, and/or fatigue. All of these are invisible conditions, which means that unless students disclose it, an instructor may never know how many students have benefitted. But these conditions are all quite common--and many of these teaching practices benefit non-disabled and neurotypical students as well.
Organizing and Presenting Content
When it comes to an online course, organizing and presenting course content in a way that is easy to follow is crucial. An online course requires a different approach to communication than an in-person one, and failing to consider inclusivity could leave students behind. Here, we provide some tips to improve the quality of communication between instructors and students so that everyone can be on the same page.
Consistent, logical organization
Consistent and logical organization of content ensures that students do not misunderstand the information that is presented to them. Although you probably have a good idea of what you want to teach, your students may not receive the information in the way you intended. Organizing course content is a way for you to take your students step by step through your thought process.
Content should flow logically in one direction so that students can follow along as they read or listen. Presenting information in a jumbled order will create confusion and make it difficult for students to navigate. A document or webpage should be formatted so that the information builds on top of each other as you scroll down. Make sure to introduce new concepts and vocabulary when they first appear so that students understand them when they reappear later on. If there is any external information that students might need to reference along the way, make sure that it is readily available to them by telling them where they can find it or providing a link.
The design should be clean and uncluttered to prevent confusion. Instead of burying important information about an assignment in a long paragraph, make use of formatting tools such as headings, line breaks, indents, and bulleted lists to clearly and methodically lay out instructions. Information that is easily viewed is well understood.
Consistent formatting within pages ensures that students are clear on what they are looking at and what to expect. If you use a header to highlight the beginning of a new topic, do that consistently every time you move on to a different topic. If you suddenly stop, students may not realize that a new topic is being introduced and may conflate two separate topics. Formatting can change how information is received, understood, and categorized by students. Systematically organizing course content can help you communicate information in the clearest way possible.
Consistent formatting is also important across different pages and course materials. You might decide to create an overview page or a required readings page for every week of the course. Make sure all of the pages have the same format with information presented in the same order. For example, on a weekly overview page, you might insert a photo first to set the tone, then write a short introduction about the concepts taught, then list the required readings, and then list the assignments due for the week. Be consistent and use this format for all weekly module pages. This lets students know where to quickly find a certain type of information on a page.
Additionally, when you present the same information multiple times throughout the course, make sure that it is presented in the same way. For example, the citation for a required reading should be the same on the syllabus and on a weekly overview page. If the citations are different, students could get confused about what reading is being assigned to them. Consistency allows for easy navigation, clarity, and most of all, fewer emails in your inbox asking about information you have already provided.
Calendars are helpful for visual learners and for neurodiverse students who may struggle with time perception. Calendars on Canvas are particularly handy because they allow students and instructors to see assignments and due dates for all of their classes at a glance. You can reference this thorough guide on how to use the Canvas Calendar function to learn how to navigate the Calendar page.
Whenever you create an assignment, quiz, or discussion with due dates, they will automatically appear on the Calendar. Synchronous meetings over Zoom that are scheduled through Canvas will also appear on the Calendar on its own. However, you can also create your own calendar events for any assignments or assessments that do not automatically appear on the calendar. Since the calendar is a visual tool, remember to keep it clean and uncluttered by concentrating on the most important events.
All students benefit from reminders, especially in an online course. Whether a student is in a different time zone, has to juggle multiple responsibilities, struggles with time perception, or just happens to forget, reminders keep students on track.
Canvas offers multiple ways to implement reminders. Using Canvas to create reminders can be a better method than sending out emails or messages from a separate app because it keeps all communications on one platform. Students will experience less confusion when all the information they need can be found in one place.
Lasell University’s helpful guide on Adding Reminders to your Students’ To-Do Lists discusses four ways to implement reminders in Canvas. The most efficient, effective ways to implement reminders are to use the Announcements function and the Pages function.
Instructors can manually send out reminders by creating announcements. One idea is to send out weekly announcements containing a list of required readings for that week. It is also a good idea to remind students of assignments as the due date approaches to ensure they are on track. The most effective announcements are short and concise. You can direct students to the assignment page for more information by embedding a link. These announcements are automatically sent to students’ emails so they do not miss a thing. You can see a full list of announcements you have sent by clicking the Announcements tab on your course page.
Instructors can also include reminders in the pages that they use for the course. You can either create a new page with reminders for the week, or you can edit an existing page to include reminders for upcoming assignments. Most courses use module overview pages that list the readings and assignments for that module.
In addition to using the Announcements and Pages function, you can also use the Assignments function to create reminders by simply creating an assignment. Students will see reminders for your published assignments on the syllabus, calendar, and the to-do lists on the dashboard and course home page.
The Calendar function is another way to implement reminders. Every time a calendar event is created, students will see reminders for it on the syllabus, calendar, and the to-do lists on the course home page and dashboard. Assignments, quizzes, and discussions with due dates will automatically appear on the course calendar. You can manually create calendar events to serve as reminders for required readings or upcoming due dates. This method can clutter up your calendar, so try to condense similar assignments such as the required reading for a week into one calendar event.
Accessible assessments are essential to an equitable, inclusive learning environment. Beyond the implementation of extended time, there are many ways that instructors can get creative to support all students. With the significant weight that is placed on assessments, these simple changes might make or break a student’s success in your class. Throughout your process of carefully designing your assessments, you might consider implementing the following techniques.
Clear, direct, simple language in instructions
Assessments are a major component of any course. With this level of importance, it is crucial that students understand exactly what they are expected to do. Instructions should be easy to read and the language should be straightforward. Doing so will go a long way in ensuring clarity.
Assessment instructions are easier to read if you split them into sections using headers. Instead of crowding multiple instructions or guidelines together, categorize them into different sections and label them accordingly. A particularly important section for assessments is a “Requirements” or a “Submission” section that outlines the submission rules that students must follow, such as the font, a word count minimum, or a submission file format. For a quiz, keep the instructions short and concise. Some examples of information to include are the number and type of questions in the assessment.
Most importantly, use clear, direct, simple language in your assessment instructions. Try to be as concise as you possibly can by reducing the number of sentences as well as the number of words in a sentence. Use paragraph breaks to organize information into multiple, smaller chunks. Avoid using too much jargon, figures of speech, or words with strong connotations. Assessments are what tests a student’s abilities, not the instructions. Keep your instructions easy to follow and your teaching experience will go much smoother.
Rubrics are another handy tool to make assessments easier to follow. A rubric sets out what students are expected to do and how they are assessed on their performance. Providing a rubric can be the difference between a poor grade born out of confusion and an outstanding piece of work.
Canvas allows you to add rubrics to your assessments so that students can view the rubric and instructions on the same page. You can add a rubric to assignments, graded discussions, and quizzes. Using the rubrics function on Canvas instead of putting the rubric on a separate file streamlines the process and makes it easy for students to access necessary information.
Scaffolding and Sequencing
If your class has a major project or assignment, you might be concerned about whether students will complete them on time. Even if a student submits their work, there may be key elements missing that severely impact their grade. Scaffolding and sequencing are two techniques that can help prepare students for larger assessments. Just a few adjustments to how assessments are assigned can change how students understand and apply course content.
Scaffolding is a technique that helps keep students on track for larger assignments by breaking them up into smaller, more manageable pieces. These pieces connect and build on each other to create a strong foundation for academic excellence. For instance, if you have an essay for one of your assessments, instead of simply assigning the essay, you might consider breaking it up into several smaller assignments. You might have students submit their thesis statements a week in advance, or a list of references they plan to use, or a peer review activity before the final submission. Building up to the essay with these smaller, dispersed assignments will help students prepare and will allow you to make certain that they are on the right track. For students who may struggle with time perception or for those who may be feeling overwhelmed, scaffolding can be incredibly helpful.
Sequencing is a technique in which the difficulty of assessments build as the course goes on. As you might expect, students know more the longer they are learning in your class. Accordingly, assessments should follow the students’ progression of knowledge. Before jumping into a complex theorem, it is important that students are able to show their understanding of the simpler elements that make up that theorem. Whenever your course introduces a new skill or concept, consider arranging your assessments from simple to difficult and provide ample opportunities for students to practice what they have learned. A course with assessments that connect to one another will create a smooth learning experience in which students have a full understanding of complex concepts.
There are also numerous ways to give students more control over their assessments. This makes the assessments more accessible by allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in the ways that are best for their skills and abilities.
There are several ways you can implement assessment choice, many of which overlap with Universal Design for Learning principles. If the course goals allow, you may want to give students the option of writing a paper or recording a video presentation on their topic. You can also give students a menu of assessment options. Rather than a single midterm exam, for instance, what if students had the option to take a test, to create a lesson plan for their peers based on what they’ve learned, or to write a short research paper on the subject? Depending on their interests, skills, and abilities, students who might struggle with a standard test might flourish if given another option.
Deadlines, Quizzes, and Grades
Beyond the organization or content of an assessment, there are ways to give students more control over their education and reduce their anxiety and stress. Some of the suggestions here may seem quite radical! Remember that none of these are required: you can use what makes sense for your class, or adapt things so they’re a better fit. You also don’t have to overhaul your entire course. Applying some of these methods to one assessment to test it out is a great approach.
Flexible and Student-Set Deadlines
According to a 2015 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 75% of college students are non-traditional in some way. The “traditional” college student is between the ages of 18 and 24, attends class full time, and has no dependents. This is no longer true for the overwhelming majority of students. They have full-time jobs, children, or other caretaking responsibilities, and they may be older than the straight-from-high-school traditional student. Yet the structure of most classes assume that students have no other commitments beyond classwork.
Adjusting your ideas of deadlines can be one way to adapt to the realities of today’s student population. One option for deadlines is to be more flexible with them in general. You can require that students communicate with you about delays, but offering a day or two (or more!) of a grace period for students to catch up can make an enormous difference--and ensure a higher quality of work. A student dealing with a flare-up of a chronic illness, a last-minute work deadline, or a sick child is not going to do their best work if they’re scrambling to complete an assessment around other priorities. By allowing students a little time to breathe and catch up, they can actually learn from the assessment. Telling students that no late work is ever accepted or that their grade will be reduced by 20% for each day that it’s late only causes stress and anxiety, both of which prevent actual learning.
You can even go a step further and let students set their own project deadlines. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, with dozens of assessments turned in on the last day of class. But this isn’t a free-for-all! Students can be allowed to set their own deadlines within parameters outlined by the instructor. Perhaps a topic proposal or project outline needs to be submitted within the first two weeks of class, with the knowledge that students who turn their work in earlier will have that much more time to start working on the next step. Students can be given a wide range of dates to select from to present information to their classmates. These applications can work especially well in asynchronous, online courses, where students already have some flexibility when they participate in the course.
Quizzes: More Variety, Fewer Time Limits
Quizzes are a quick, easy way for instructors to check on how well their students are grasping the course topics. But they come with a number of challenges. Repetitive, multiple-choice or true-false quizzes do not encourage active learning; instead, students quickly learn to memorize key pieces of information that they then recite back without actually absorbing any of it. These types of quizzes can also raise a risk of cheating, if a student shares answers with their peers online. And finally, strict time limits on quizzes and tests cause anxiety for students--the number one disability accommodation request received at Northwestern is for extended time on tests.
So what can be done to make quizzes better? First, consider what you’re trying to accomplish with a quiz. Checking to see if students did the reading or if they understand key concepts can often be better achieved through discussion boards or individual assignments.
Second, if you feel that a quiz is the best approach for an assessment, include a wider variety of question types. Students who may struggle with the memorization required for multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank might be able to better demonstrate what they know with a matching prompt or a short essay. By including a variety of question types, you can give students many opportunities to show what they know. Short essays can also help mitigate cheating, as students will have to write answers in their own words instead of just selecting the correct options from a list.
And finally, ask yourself if timed quizzes or tests are truly necessary? In a face-to-face class where a classroom is only available for a limited amount of time, there is good reason to have a time restriction (though flipped classrooms are a counter to this). But online, there’s no such restriction, and the limit on time can begin to feel very arbitrary. Establishing a time and date by which the quiz should be completed is one thing, but is there an educational basis for restricting students to just one hour within the time that the quiz is available?
One argument is that time limits ensure students have to stay focused and can’t step away from the quiz to look up information. However, the act of looking up information and returning to the course texts can be a more active, engaging experience than simply regurgitating memorized facts. In many modern workplaces, the ability to research, critique, and synthesize information is much more valuable than simple memorization. Consider constructing quizzes that allow students to use the course resources in a way that encourages engagement and higher levels of learning.
A final area where instructors can give students more control and choice is in grading itself. Similar to the concept of assessment choice, some classes allow students to drop their lowest grade on a quiz or assignment from their final grade. This can make a huge difference in student stress and anxiety. If a student has an off day and does poorly on a quiz, or even fails to turn in an assessment, that one bad day won’t doom their entire grade for the course. It gives students flexibility without sacrificing the academic rigor of the course. Removing one low grade from the average still requires the student to participate and complete their work in the rest of the course.
Content warnings, sometimes referred to as trigger warnings, are a controversial subject in higher education. Some educators see them as unnecessarily coddling students or even as an attack on academic freedom.
However, the reality is far less dire. Content warnings are a lot like ratings on movies. A movie rating isn’t simply the code PG, PG-13, or R; it also includes a description of the content in the movie that earned that rating. It allows viewers to make informed decisions about whether or not the movie is one they want to see, or if they want to see it at a certain time. For example, someone who knows they get easily spooked might decide to see an R-rated horror film in the middle of the day, rather than late at night.
Similarly, consider the following scenarios:
- A class on public administration and ethics has a module talking about Nazi Germany, which includes a number of readings about the Holocaust. This module is clearly labeled and the readings are annotated, so a Jewish student taking the class is able to set aside an evening during his week to work through this emotionally difficult material, instead of reading it at work on his lunch break like usual.
- A literature course includes an assigned reading that graphically describes the sexual assault of a woman. The reading comes with a warning about the content, and so a student who was sexually assaulted by her partner in high school is able to ask a friend to review the reading for her and tell her which pages contain the description, so she can skip over it while still completing the assignment.
- A film studies course includes an assignment in Week 5 to compare a scene from a popular war film to footage recorded on the ground during the Iraq War. Both film clips include notes about the violent content they contain. A veteran enrolled in the course sees this in Week 2 and is able to reach out to the instructor to ask for an alternate assignment that will cover the same topics.
Without content warnings, each of these stories could have ended very differently. The Jewish student may have been overwhelmed by memories of his Holocaust survivor grandmother and been distracted and upset the rest of the day at work. The student who was sexually assaulted may have had a panic attack on the bus ride home while reading the assigned text. The veteran student may have dropped out of the course to avoid further triggering their PTSD.
Content warnings simply provide additional information to students and allow students to decide when and how to engage with potentially troubling material. They no more coddle students than movie ratings coddle viewers. And including a content warning does not mean that the instructor shouldn’t include the material, or that the material has no educational merit. It simply means that the material contains content that some students may find troubling. It carries no moral judgment and no requirement that the instructor change their assignments.
There also isn’t an expectation to anticipate every single potential issue that a student could have with a reading. But there are subjects that are more commonly troubling and are generally worth noting. These include:
- Graphic depictions of violence
- Sexual content
- Sexual harassment and/or assault
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
- Hate speech and/or action aimed at a marginalized group (racial slurs, homophobic/transphobic language, sexist/misogynist language, ableist language, etc.)
- Graphic depictions or in-depth discussions of genocide and/or war
Content warnings do not always require a change of course materials. They simply require an instructor to think outside their own experiences and understand that each student brings their own history to the course and the readings. Providing this information up-front empowers students to make decisions about how best to approach the assigned work so they can achieve academic success.