Three steps towards making your classroom more accessible

As faculty continue to consider how to make classrooms more inclusive, one area of discussion has been approaches to make our classrooms more welcoming for students with disabilities. In the summer of 2018, the LTC, Academic Technology, and the Office of Disability Services teamed up for a couple of targeted workshops with small groups of faculty to discuss this topic. Last month, both the new faculty workshop and the advising workshop included some tips and ideas for supporting students with disabilities. Tuesday’s LTC lunch will be a chance to learn about the work of the Carleton Assistive Technologists, student staff who are trained to support students with disabilities who are using assistive technologies.  

I have learned a lot from the programming, and from associated conversations with Celeste Sharpe and Chris Dallager, but I have also found that the sheer number of recommendations for improving classroom accessibility for students with disabilities can be overwhelming. I can become frozen as I ponder where to start making changes. Here are three do-able suggestions to make your course more accessible.   

Make your documents friendly to screenreaders. 

Formatting elements that make a document friendly to screenreaders include: 

  • Using headings to format sections of your document (rather than just changing the size or formatting of the font). 
  • Embedding hyperlinks and using informative link text (rather than pasting links in a document or embedding hyperlinks in text that says “link.”)
  • Including alt text for images that describes the content of images or graphs. 

Here are some resources for key software: 

  • For Microsoft Word uers, the built-in accessibility checker in Microsoft Word will help identify formatting that will not be friendly to screen readers and make the suggested changes. 
  • For Google doc users, reference this list about how to make your Google doc or more accessible. Also, when you create a new Google doc, underneath the “Tools” menu, go to “Accessibility settings” and check on the box to enable screen reader support. 

Be aware that if you scan a document to a PDF, it will not be screenreader friendly. To make scanned documents accessible to screen readers, use the tools in Adobe Acrobat Pro to convert the document to text (with appropriate tags) in order to make the document compatible with screenreaders. Web Accessibility In Mind provides a resource about how to make PDF documents accessible with Adobe Acrobat Pro

Present information in multiple modalities

Not all students access information equally well with all senses so aim to provide students the opportunity to engage with course material in multiple modalities. Here are three things you can do:

  • Caption video content. 
  • Verbally describe images that you reference during lectures or class discussions. 
  • In course materials and activities include text and graphics, audio and visual, rather than only one or the other.  

Learn about the Universal Design for Learning framework and use it to help design your courses. 

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for rethinking how you structure course activities and resources so you can support all students. The UDL guidelines consist of three key components: 

  • Provide multiple means of representation (e.g. materials are available in accessible file formats; use a variety of media; use both instructor created and student created course materials). 
  • Provide multiple means of engagement (e.g. vary the type of activities in the classroom; integrate self-assessment and reflection; invite students to apply their learning in a variety of different contexts; provide low stakes assessments with feedback).
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression (e.g. give students options for assignments; allow student choice about some aspects of course activities; provide opportunities to get feedback).

Many of these suggestions aren’t new, but UDL provides a more intentional approach to thinking about how you design your courses. If you would like some specific ideas about how to revise your course, the University of Calgary Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning has a UDL guide that includes reflection questions and planning worksheets for faculty.  

One important thing for faculty members to remember is that making your course and your course materials more accessible for all students doesn’t happen overnight. Each time you teach a course, consider one small change you could make that would address some of the points above. A series of small changes add up so don’t become discouraged if the number of tasks seems daunting. 

Meditation and mindfulness

Mental health is a widespread topic of conversation on campus. Often our focus is on student wellness, but faculty and staff also benefit from developing healthy practices. One program offered by Carleton’s Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) is Koru mindfulness classes, designed to provide an evidence-based introduction to mindfulness and meditation. This four session course helps build the habit of using mindfulness in your daily life on a regular basis. Koru mindfulness was originally developed at Duke University for “emerging adults”, but SHAC reserves several spots in each Koru class for faculty and staff.

The 2018-2019 Koru pilot program at Carleton included 32 students, 18 staff, and 2 faculty members. To explore the impact of the Koru course, participants were asked to fill out a pre/post assessment (the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised).  Results show that participants experienced a increase in four aspects of mindfulness — attention, awareness, acceptance, and present-focus — with an effect size of 0.8. Participants also reported less stress, more in-the-moment awareness, better sleep, and increased focus. These results are consistent with finding at Duke University that Koru produces meaningful changes in participant self-compassion, perceived stress, and sleep (Greeson et al. 2014).

If you are interested in participating, or if you want to recommend that one of your advisees participates, the winter term 2020 schedule is:

  • Koru Section I: Wednesdays,  1:15-2:30 pm, Jan 15, 22, 29 and  Feb 4 (weeks 2, 3, 4 and 5) 
  • Koru Section II: Tuesdays, 4-5:15 pm, Feb 11, 18, 25 and Mar 3 (weeks 6, 7, 8 and 9)

For more research about correlates of mindfulness in higher education, check out the summary sheet with bibliography, compiled by Betsy Lane-Getaz of SHAC.

Connecting with Art Exhibitions and Artist Residencies Across the Curriculum

The November 12th LTC session provided some excellent examples of how faculty can make use of exhibitions or artist residencies to bring new dimensions of teaching and learning to their classrooms. Barbara Allen (Political Science), Stephanie Cox (French & Francophone Studies and Cross-Cultural Studies), and Bill North (History) all shared experiences and lessons learned. For faculty who are interested in bringing a guest artist or group to campus, Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts, can help with scheduling, venue, technical support, and funding. You should contact him before contracting with an artist.

Exhibitions, featuring tangible artifacts and organized around research questions, are powerful formats for creating and sharing knowledge. Three facilities host Carleton’s exhibition program: The Perlman Teaching Museum, Gould Library, and the Weitz Center for Creativity White Spaces. Here is information about these spaces that was shared at the LTC lunch.

Perlman Teaching Museum

Presents exhibitions of art and artifacts organized around ideas connecting the liberal arts, materializing scholarly questions, and cultivating visual literacy.

Curated by: Museum Director and Curator (currently vacant); faculty and student co-curators; and outside professionals

Timeframe: Exhibition projects generally take one to three years to develop.

Facility: The public spaces comprise the soaring Braucher Gallery, with 24 foot ceilings and an adjustable lighting grid, and the more intimate Kaemmer Family Gallery. The facility is secure and climate-controlled to high museum standards. Museum staff are fully involved in realizing and installing all exhibition projects.

Contact: While Museum Director and Curator position is vacant, contact Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts. More information at the Perlman Teaching Museum website.

Gould Library Exhibitions

The mission of the Robert C. Larson ’56 Art in the Library Program is to bring library users into daily contact with works of art, artifacts, and natural objects in a spirit of discovery and learning. Exhibitions, drawing from library collections and other sources, feature student and faculty research, course projects, and more.

Curated by: Zoe Adler, Curator of Library Art & Exhibitions, in collaboration with students, faculty, and others.

Timeframe: Proposals accepted for projects one term to one year in advance.

Facility: Gould Library is a semi-secure, climate-controlled environment. Exhibitions are mounted in cases, on display walls, and throughout the Library.

Contact: Zoe Adler, Curator, Robert C. Larson ’56 Art in the Library Program. More information at the Gould Library Exhibitions website.

Weitz Center White Spaces

Active places to create, critically analyze, and share exhibitions, creative projects, and learning laboratories.

Curated by: Students & faculty

Timeframe: Proposals accepted for same-term and advance projects to be displayed from one week to a full academic term.

Facility: Two small former classrooms (260 square feet), and the Hamlin Creative Space (1000 square feet). No security provided; exhibitors are expected to manage their own install, de-install, and publicity.

Contact: Submit requests to Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts.

Feedback and assessment in collaborative projects with students

Last week, Matt Whited (chemistry), Susannah Ottaway (history), and Ellen Iverson and Kristin O’Connell (both of SERC) presented at an engaging LTC session that explored strategies for communicating expectations, assessing student learning, and helping students articulate what skills they are developing in student-faculty collaborative projects.

Susannah shared her evolving perspective on the key elements for successful research partnerships with students. She noted that having a framework for projects that encourages a faculty member to think through key aspects of the project before starting is helpful. Because of her work with CCCE and the usefulness of community partner agreements when working with community organizations, Susannah suggested that faculty who want to spell out expectations more clearly, and think through aspects of a research partnership, might consider using the community partner agreement documents as the basis for developing a research partner agreement between students and faculty.

Matt shared his experience teaching a 300-level course-based research experience in the chemistry department. In particular, he noted the challenge of articulating learning goals and assessing student learning when the skills needed and progress made for each research project might be different. Rather than focusing on particular skills, Matt focused on fostering particular habits of mind. Assessment then involved metacognitive activities that asked students to reflect on both their experimental goals and progress and the development of other skills like teamwork and resilience. Matt noted that being explicit both about the course goals and how they would be assessed was important; this was uncomfortable for some students who were used to chemistry courses that involved problem sets and exams to assess learning.

To see more details of Susannah and Matt’s presentation, check out the slides from the event.

Teaching Toolbox: Coaching Students on Collaboration

Carleton faculty members often encourage students to collaborate with each other in many different ways:

  • Informal opportunities to work together on class-related activities outside of class time,
  • Assigned group work outside of class time,
  • Informal partner or small group activities during class time,
  • Formal group work during class time, and
  • Long-term projects with the same group of students over an extended period of time.

However, we don’t always explicitly help students understand what we mean we encourage them to collaborate nor do we always provide them with the tools they need to address the inevitable difficulties that arise when working in teams. This term’s teaching toolbox provided an opportunity to discuss approaches that faculty are currently used, as well as exploring ideas from other institutions.

My sense is that that are many techniques out there for helping students collaborating on formal projects over an extended period of time. Some of the the tools that faculty use include:

  • Group skills inventory,
  • Team contract,
  • Peer evaluation, 
  • Group process assessment.

For a thoughtful discussion of how to structure long-term team projects, consider taking a look at the work by WPI faculty members Geoffrey Pfeifer and Elisabeth Stoddard. They have explored the challenges of designing group work with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind and developed a series of tools to help faculty structure teamwork.

The above approaches may not make sense for group work of a shorter duration, but discussing and assigning group roles and include a pre- or post-activity reflection assignment can be valuable, even for short-term collaborations. At the LTC discussion, Sarah Deel shared some excellent resources that she and others have developed for Bio 125, including document about Group Work Hints and Roles as well as some group work scenarios for discussion during class time.  

In addition to formal group work, our courses often include informal collaboration during class and outside of classroom. Some suggestions for informal group work include:

  • Asking students to report who they collaborated with outside of class on each part of an assignment that they submit
  • After an assignment, inviting students to write a short reflection paper about whether or not they collaborated and the associated benefits/drawbacks.
  • Being cautious about letting students self-assemble into groups as that students who don’t find a group right away feel unwelcome. 

During the discussion we also took a look at the Harvey Mudd Math Department’s Guidelines for Collaboration. That document does an excellent job of making explicit what collaboration (including informal collaboration) entails and provides tips on collaborating both on homework assignments and on projects. As always, being transparent about expectations helps make our learning environments more inclusive for all students. 

What approaches do you use to explicitly help coach students to build collaboration skills?

Feelings of learning in active learning versus lecture settings

Earlier this month, the article, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom”, in PNAS garnered a lot of buzz. In a carefully controlled classroom environment, researchers gathered direct measures of student learning in an introductory physics course, as well as student self-reported perceptions of learning. They found that students learned more in the active learning classes (as would be expected based on much existing research), but students’ perception of learning was lower in active learning environments than in passive learning environments. This suggests that when instructors try to evaluate teaching based on students’ perception of learning, they might mistakenly find themselves lecturing more because students will self-report that they are learning more from lectures than in-class activities.

What’s going on here? The paper notes that the cognitive fluency of lectures can lead students to believe that they are learning more than they actually are. Active learning requires more cognitive effort, and as students struggle with activities, they become aware of what they don’t understand, which can lead to diminished feelings of learning. The paper suggests that instructors should discuss with students the research showing that perceived fluency and feelings of learning can be misleading as compared to actual learning. As always, explaining to students the “why” of the pedagogical choices we make is important.

Reading the PNAS paper reminded me of other discussions I’ve seen that explore how students are poor judges of the effectiveness of various study strategies. For example, students believe that massed studying is more effective than interleaved studying, although students actually perform better after interleaved studying. This once again seems to be a case of students assuming that feelings of fluency reflect actual learning.

For faculty who are looking to help students develop better self-monitoring skills, there are a variety of different approaches. Saundra McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn is available in the LTC library, and a number of faculty have found its suggestions for fostering metacognition to be useful. This recent blog post at Improve with Metacognition provides some suggestions for smaller activities to incorporate into classes to help students develop metacognitive skills. And this blog has highlighted Chico Zimmerman and his approach to using learning assists as a way to foster metacognition in the classroom. What are some of your approaches to encouraging students to become better a monitoring their own learning?

Information literacy in the age of disinformation

Recently, Serena Zabin, professor of history, brought to my attention the Washington Post piece by Karin Wulf titled, “Could footnotes be the key to winning the disinformation wars?” After spending time this summer with Carleton’s reference and instruction librarians exploring how we might assess the development of students’ information literacy skills, I am convinced that this is an area where faculty can do better in being intentional in their instruction and more clearly scaffolding learning about choosing and using sources. Both Wulf’s article and Barbara Fister’s Inside Higher Ed essay “Learning Why, Not How” from early August provide lots of food for thought.

Fister’s article highlights some concerns about how students typically approach citations. I regularly see students get so wrapped up in the rules of formatting citations or so concerned about using citations to avoid charges of plagiarism that they entirely miss the point of citation as a way of engaging ideas to produce an ethical, responsible argument. Although Wulf’s focus is on footnotes, she acknowledges, “[T]he format is not the point: It’s the principle and function behind the reference tool that’s so essential. It allows us to weigh evidence against assertion.” Fister notes that teaching the why of citation requires us to ask students to reflect on the process of finding out and how they decide who or what to trust. And Wulf reminds us that this skill is important for anyone who aims to be a knowledgeable citizen, particularly in the current era of fake news.

For those who are interested in thinking more about how to teach information literacy, the the reference and instruction librarians have compiled relevant readings and resources on the Information Literacy Core Program website. If you are thinking about how to make expectations for information literacy more explicit for students, you might consider adapting the  information literacy rubric developed by the librarians. And I’d encourage faculty members to talk with their liaison librarian to hear about lessons learned from their work assessing information literacy.

Slow teaching debrief

Following their LTC presentation this fall, Neil Lutsky and Janet Lewis Muth along with Donna McMillan at St Olaf gave out mini-grants to faculty who wanted to experiment with slowing down their courses in order to encourage more meaningful engagement with the course material and foster student wellness. Last week, mini-grant recipients got together to debrief their experiences. The results were mixed, but I appreciated hearing about the range of things that faculty tried, as well as some of the challenges. Barbara Allen (political science) started each class period with two minutes of breathing/meditation to give students the opportunity to center themselves in the classroom before diving into course material. Kim Huynh (chemistry) reduced the number of problems she assigned for homework. She provided students with a list of suggested practice problems from the book but only required students turn in a handful of problems (similar to what they might find on an exam) for each assignment. A couple of faculty asked students to turn off their phones in the five minutes before class started and use the time to engage in face-to-face conversation with their peers — with varying degrees of success.

A number of participants admitted some trepidation when they initially began their experiments. What would students think? What would colleagues think? What do you choose to do less of? I walked away with the sense that it was important for faculty who were engaging in slow teaching to explain to students the choices they were making in their teaching and why they were making those choices. These weren’t choices designed to make a course less rigorous, rather they were choices designed to foster student well-being.

Some faculty noted a tension. If students still have lengthy problem sets or readings in their other courses, they may not choose to engage more deeply with the assignments or readings in a class that is designed with slow teaching in mind, but simply move on quickly to other assignments. For example, Clara Hardy (classics) replaced several required class prep assignments with opportunities for students to engage in any activity that they thought would help their learning for the class and then asked students to report on what activity they chose, but some students didn’t effectively use this flexible learning opportunity.

I applaud all of the faculty who participated in the slow teaching experiment. Trying new things in the classroom is often more stressful than sticking with the familiar, but hearing the energy around some of the successes and the thoughtful reflection around some of the less successful experiments made me appreciative of how committed this group of faculty was to supporting student wellness in the classroom.

More ideas:

Teaching toolbox: Creating classrooms that are brave spaces

Last term, the LTC teaching toolbox lunch tackled the topic how to create classrooms that are brave spaces, and how to calibrate students expectations about classroom environment. Diana Ali’s NASPA policy paper on safe spaces and brave spaces provided important historical context for the meaning and development of safe spaces, within movement-building, academic theory, and student support services. While the word has somewhat different implications in each context, one of the key takeaways is that using the terminology of classroom as “safe space” can lead to a mismatch of student expectations and the reality of the classroom environment. The alternative? Referring to classrooms as “brave spaces.” As Ali notes, “By using the term brave space, faculty are able to distinguish an inclusive classroom discussion from programming on campus that commonly provides respite space for traditionally marginalized communities.”

The term “brave spaces” was originally proposed by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in 2013 in the context of social justice education to describe mechanisms for creating supportive environments so that all students may participate in challenging dialogue. Brave spaces are not “safe”; the risk of discomfort exists, but there is an effort to provide support for those who are vulnerable. There are five key elements to a “brave space” set out by Arao and Clemens and summarized by Ali in her NASPA paper, but we also discussed a 2018 article by Lynn Verduzco-Baker that highlighted the need to consider that the principles of “brave spaces” were developed with social justice contexts or dialogic courses in mind. Faculty must be mindful of the differences in the goals, power dynamics, and formats of conventional courses and may want to modify the brave space framework accordingly. For example, the faculty member can make it their responsibility to integrate personal experiences of people with marginalized identities through videos, blogs, essays, and qualitative research. That lifts some of the burden from students with marginalized identities who otherwise have to make difficult choices about when to step in or step out of a challenging conversation.

Verduzco-Baker lays out a framework that she presents in the first week of her class to “call in” a student in a conventional classroom who makes a problematic or offensive comment. Assuming that everyone engaged in a classroom discussion is making a good faith effort to understand an issue and that comments are made of ignorance rather than intent to harm, Verduzco-Bakers uses a five point strategy that includes repeating the problematic statement in a revised (and more appropriate) manner, once again stating the assumption that no harm was intended, explaining the misconception in the comment, describing the harm caused by the comment, and drawing on class content to reveal the flawed assumptions underlying the content. She also notes that instructors need to let students know that they can call in instructors when they make mistakes. 

The discussion provided lots of food for thought. Here are the relevant references for those who want to explore more:

Helping students provide more useful feedback on teaching

Hearing student perspectives about what they experience in the classroom is important for faculty members as they revise their courses and try new teaching strategies. To get the most out of student feedback, it is worthwhile to help students understand how to frame their comments in a manner that is helpful and respectful. McGill University has developed an excellent website aimed at students that discusses how to give constructive feedback on course evaluations. With the freedom to develop our own course evaluations, as opposed to using a standardized course evaluation form, Carleton faculty members already have the benefit of being able to probe students about particular aspects of their courses or their teaching.  If you want to provide some direction and examples to your students about how to provide better feedback on their course evaluations, I’ve adapted the resource from the McGill website and created a short document that you can share with your students:

For students — Constructive feedback for faculty members

If you have other ways that you encourage students to give you helpful feedback, feel free to share them in the comments.