ACCESSIBLE SYLLABUS

Accessible classroom resources promote student engagement and agency

Policy

 

Examine Traditional Policies

Deadlines, grade distributions, and other classroom policies are often seen as classroom management issues rather than course content issues. Disability studies helps us understand how all of these classroom choices affect and possibly exclude students.

Disability scholar Linda Feldmeier White argues that traditional academic accommodations often arise from limitations in standard methods of teaching. For example, students with disabilities may need extended test time, so educators could question the concept of timed testing. Requests for accommodations, official or not, signal spaces for stronger pedagogical design and require us to create multiple ways of completing an assignment.

Instructors can go further and build multiple options into all assignments for all students. This kind of flexibility is central to learning motivation as well. Nira Hativa explains in Teaching for Effective Learning in Higher Education, “The more students believe they operate under their own control, the greater is their learning motivation.” Countless researchers in self determination theory agree that providing choice for learners is essential to creating autonomy. Likewise, Ken Bain and Robert Boice suggest in their two extensively researched books that too much teacher control leads to problems in the classroom. Strict policies create counterproductive effects like resistant students.

Students depend on faculty to provide inclusive pedagogies, yet the flexibility of inclusive pedagogy creates greater independence in students. The options proposed below take into account common course accommodations that strengthen learning environments.

 

Begin with an Inclusive Learning Statement

Beginning the syllabus with an inclusive learning statement emphasizes cooperation and flexibility for disabled and nondisabled students. Tara Wood and Shannon Madden provide an excellent resource called “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements,” which gives examples of inclusive language. Here is one example that borrows liberally from their suggestions.

Sample Inclusive Learning Statement
Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or exclude you, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course.

I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There are also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center.

 

Expand Deadlines

Extended deadlines are a common disability accommodation because learners perform at different speeds and college students juggle multiple time commitments. Ken Bain, in his fifteen year study of nearly a hundred college teachers, found that the most effective college professors didn’t deduct points to ensure timeliness. These threats were often counterproductive to motivating students to learn.

Several studies across disciplines report positive outcomes when students have some control over deadlines.

  • Time Banks: In computer science, John Aycock and Jim Uhl use “time banks.” In this model, students have a two-day grace period for one assignment or two one-day extensions for two different assignments. They report that students are “overwhelmingly in favor of the time bank” and that it created little work for them to track.
  • Self-Set Deadlines: In psychology, Susan Roberts, Myke Fulton, and George Semb compare the pacing of students who worked with instructor-set deadlines against self-set deadlines. They found that “Students in the self-scheduling condition attempted [the last exam] significantly earlier, distributed pacing more evenly, and complied with their schedules to a significantly greater degree than did students in comparison conditions. Accelerated pacing rates were obtained without detriment to academic performance.”
  • Week-Long Paper Deadlines: In English, Anne-Marie Womack reports favorably on her use of student-set deadlines within instructor-set ranges. Students have usually a week within which to submit major papers online. Papers are graded in the order they are submitted–often within hours for the first round of submissions–to encourage early papers. Because it spreads out her grading, it helps Womack handle her workload too.

 

Build Flexibility into Grading Distributions

Many innovative grading approaches build in some degree of flexibility and choice.

  • Grading Contracts: Critical pedagogy advocate Ira Shor negotiates grade criteria with his students to form a contract. For example, students in one class negotiated standards for an A which included: A quality work, 3 absences, one late assignment, two group projects, etc. Lower grades required less of each of these standards.
  • Everyone Gets a B: Composition scholars Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow detail their version of contract grading in College Composition—everyone gets a B for completing a set of requirements without taking into account writing quality. Students who want to score higher than a B must demonstrate higher quality prose.
  • Contract Weighting: Computer scientists John Aycock and Jim Uhl developed a system called “contract weighting.” They allow students to allocate weighted percentages to assignments within an instructor mandated range. So, a student could assign 10-15% to project 1 and 15-25% to project 2.
  • Grade Includes Daily Work or Not: Composition scholar Anne-Marie Womack describes a summer course in which she taught nontraditional working students. She created two possible grading distributions that students chose from: in the first, the grade was made up of low stakes work and major essays. In the second, only major paper grades were averaged.
  • Later Exam Grades Replace Earlier: Professors that give exams often allow the grade on the cumulative final to replace lower earlier exam grades.