Natascha Chtena is a doctoral candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
Over the past few years, I’ve taken TA training courses in a number of departments across campus (four, to be exact) and while their approach varied slightly depending on the discipline, they had one thing in common: they prepared me to teach the average student. But what I realized soon enough, was that there was no such thing as the “average” student.
Our classrooms are highly diverse in terms of student background, personality, cognitive style, ability and interest. For many students I encounter, English is not their first language. Some have disabilities (oftentimes, invisible) that affect their abilities to see, hear, pay attention to, or participate in activities the same ways as their peers. Some are visual learners, others are auditory learners, and some are hands-on learners. And each student has preferred ways of expressing their knowledge (mine, for instance, is through writing).
What we are told during our TA training is that we “must accommodate” students with documented disabilities, which usually translates to extra time on a test or the use of a computer. We are also taught to be “mindful” of cultural, religious and other differences. But creating a truly inclusive classroom takes so much more than that.
Adapting the curriculum to the needs, capabilities and interests of ALL learners, instead of adjusting it as needed, is a good place to start. The former approach, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), banishes the notion of designing instruction for the average student and aims to provide a greater variety of options for how learners are taught information, how they express their knowledge and how they are engaged and motivated to learn more.
So, how can one use UDL to create an inclusive classroom for diverse learners?
- Provide handouts ahead of time, in accessible electronic format. For more information on creating accessible documents, see here.
- If your teaching is lecture-based, provide students with guided notes. Guided notes are handouts that outline lectures, audiovisual presentations, or readings, but leave blank space for students to fill in key concepts, facts, definitions, etc. For information on how to create guided notes see here.
- Create slides with a solid background (e.g., white text on black background) and use a sans serif font, such as Arial or Verdana (they are the easiest to read) with a minimum size of 24 points. Bear in mind that not all built-in designs offered in PowerPoint have ‘accessible’ color contrast or other design elements (I learned this the hard way!). See here for more information.
- Read key information presented on slides, blackboard etc. aloud to ensure effective communication to all, including those with visual impairments, auditory learners and students sitting behind any obstruction.
- Make a conscious effort to speak slowly so that ESL (English as Second Language) students can understand you.
- Face class when speaking to allow students with hearing impairments to read your lips. This will also encourage engagement and interaction with all students.
- Avoid common oppressive words such as “crazy”, “lame”, “handicapped”, ”brain damaged,” etc., as they can be extremely painful for people with disabilities. Instead, speak in a way that puts the person before the disability. See here and here for examples of People First Language.
- Reinforce key points using a variety of formats (e.g. verbally, graphically, or through demonstration) and explain why they are important.
- Use open-ended questions to check for comprehension. Before calling on someone allow students enough time to formulate a response either by pausing for a count of ten, having students record their responses on a piece of paper or electronic device, or having them share responses with their neighbor.
- Find out what your university’s policy is for recording of lectures and consider allowing students to record the class. This can be particularly useful for ESL students who struggle to keep up during the lecture.
- If using videos, make sure they are captioned or contain a text transcript available for students with impaired hearing and those lacking listening comprehension.
- Throughout the course, provide multiple means for student participation and engagement. For example, encourage classroom discussion through the use of small group activities, role-play, debates, think-pair-share, case studies, one-minute papers, or other activities that give students more than one way to interact in class.
- When possible, offer students opportunities to make decisions about their learning. For example, you could give them a choice between multiple essay prompts for an assignment, or give them the option of working solo or in groups to complete an in-class exercise.
- If you’re lucky enough to be designing your own course, use a variety of assessment methods (e.g. papers, learning journals, presentations, tests, quizzes, oral exams) throughout the semester to allow/encourage multiple ways of demonstrating learning.
- Alternatively, consider providing students with the opportunity to complete an assignment in various formats (i.e., a paper, podcast, class presentation etc.).
- Take the time to regularly check in with students with disabilities on a one-on-one basis to discuss their progress and answer questions they may have.
- Personally follow-up with students who seem to be struggling and encourage them to seek support through your school’s counseling office, writing center, etc. Struggling students are oftentimes not aware of campus resources available to them, particularly if their previous experiences have been in a different education system (e.g., homeschooled, international, and so on).
Clearly, these are only a handful of suggestions for making your classroom more UDL-friendly and they are shaped by my experience teaching in the humanities and social sciences. Do you have any suggestions for making your classroom UDL-friendly? Let us know in the comments below!
[Image provided by Flickr user Dimitri B. and used under a Creative Commons license]