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Guest post Learner Experience Teaching

Low-effort, high-impact: how small changes to your teaching can create a more inclusive learning environment

One of our most popular accessibility drop-in clinics featured three practitioners sharing how they support staff with accessibility. View the recording and access the transcript on the accessibility drop-in clinic page (November 2020: Supporting teaching staff to create accessible content).

Here, one of the presenters, Miranda Melcher, shares more detail on her approach. For more specific recommendations about particular principles to adopt along with baseline and aspirational examples of good practice and short explanations of how this can help students, see Miranda’s inclusive teaching primer: “Teaching to Include Everyone: A Practical Guide for Online Teaching of Neurodiverse and Disabled Students.”

Why does inclusive teaching matter to you?

Inclusive teaching practices for students with disabilities and neurodiversities can benefit all students, especially in online environments.

Improving your inclusive teaching methods can include learning and deploying new technologies, but high-impact, low-effort tweaks to how we communicate to our students can have significant impacts, especially for students with disabilities and learning differences.

Disabilities (including long-term and chronic medical conditions) and learning differences or neurodiversitities (for example ADHD, non-verbal learning disorder, or autism spectrum disorder) can often be invisible, or less visible to teachers, especially in an online learning environment.

Although recent legislation is improving digital accessibility and public inclusion of students in these categories in higher education and further education is improving, there is a still a significant fear of stigma that prevents students from coming forward to seek accommodations and share their experiences.

Existing data shows that at least 10% of students in UK higher education settings declare a disability or learning difference, signaling that this is not an insignificant part of our student population, and that by improving inclusive teaching practices, even if you don’t know if you have any such students in your classes, is likely best practice.

Inclusive teaching also helps students from international educational backgrounds, for whom English is not their first language, and more.

Three key principles

My research and teaching of students with learning differences in secondary schools and universities over the last five years has shown that there are three key principles that can significantly increase students’ abilities to successfully participate in learning, both online and face-to-face:

  1. Be specific – The single largest cause of confusion, anxiety, and underachievement in students with disabilities and learning differences is a lack of clarity about what they need to do. While some instructions like “write a 500-word essay” may sound simple, they include a number of potential hurdles for students. Does this essay, short though it is, require a formal essay structure including an introduction and conclusion? Are students expected to do outside/independent research? Those are just two of many questions that need to be specified for students to effectively complete this task.
  2. Be transparent – Many of the rules, norms, and procedures about how academia functions are consistent across universities and even across countries, allowing those of us who teach in higher education to transfer relatively easily between institutions. What can be forgotten, however, is that these rules and norms about academia are created and learned, and many students have not yet had that opportunity. Therefore, giving them the information clearly about what expectations are is crucial, even if it seems obvious to us. For example, how should students interpret marking criteria? Where can marking criteria even be found? Who are the specialist support people available to help? (Pro tip: most libraries have great services for disabilities that many students and staff are unaware of). Deadlines for assignments are often much stricter than in secondary school, do students realise that a technical fault of a VLE/Moodle is still a late submission? Clarifying these kinds of norms and assumptions is a key part of being transparent and simply involves you sharing knowledge that is second nature to you already.
  3. Be mindful – Everyone learns differently, but more importantly, what is easy for some is incredibly hard for others. Consider the instruction of “you can find this source in the library” or “the library is available for you to do some research.” Navigating to the library (still relevant under current COVID-19 restrictions) requires being able to follow visual directions or a map, which students with NVLD or ADHD may have trouble with. If navigating to the library involves crossing busy urban areas (as in my department), there are sensory challenges to address as well that can be debilitating for some students and serious distractions for others. For students with mobility issues, this simple instruction requires significant planning and understanding of available infrastructure. For students with communication struggles, even once they get to the library, feeling able to ask for help presents another challenge.

Questions to consider

To make your teaching more inclusive, consider these three principles in every aspect of teaching you do, which may include:

  • Asynchronous activities like forums (Around how many words should students be writing? How often should they be posting? How much time should they be spending on this as compared to other aspects of the module?)
  • Synchronous sessions like seminars (How will you encourage participation from students via chat, if they are not comfortable or able to use video/microphone? What does “let’s have a discussion” actually look like and mean to you?)
  • Asynchronous learning like recorded lectures or readings (What are the main things students should focus on acquiring from the information? Is the information presented in accessible formats? Do students have enough time to learn and process the information before being required to participate in asynchronous or synchronous activities?)

About the author

Miranda Melcher is a teacher, researcher, and author (NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children, 2020) and a Fellow of the HEA. She is pursuing her PhD on post-conflict military reconstruction at King’s College London’s Defense Studies Department. Miranda has taught in a variety of environments, including as a graduate teaching assistant in the departments of War Studies and Defense Studies at King’s College London, a fellow at the Ecole de Guerre, a PhD tutor with widening participation initiative the Brilliant Club, and through 1:1 tutoring for students with learning differences aged 13-70.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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