Inclusive and accessible learning and teaching in higher education embraces the view of each student as a unique individual. It celebrates that diversity as having an active role in enriching the lives and learning of others. This way of thinking about the curriculum design considers pedagogy, teaching methods and assessments that engage students in meaningful tasks and learning that are not only relevant, but accessible to everyone.
This is not about making higher education easier for students; it is about making sure that it is not harder for the wrong reasons. This is especially important now that assessments have moved online, which may change the way that information is presented to students.
The word “accessible” means different things to different people. Accessibility in higher education is no longer just about removing the physical barriers that can hinder a student, but the potential social, environmental and cognitive barriers that can make it harder for students to succeed.
So how can we remove barriers to learning?
Accessibility and learning differences
We do not always know if students have a learning difference, or need more accessible material, but there are things that we can do when creating our assessments that make sure that no student is disadvantaged by format or presentation of the assessment. With assessments moving online, it is important to make sure that considerations are made for the way that written material is shared with the students. Here are some practical and quick tips for creating more inclusive and accessible assessments.
Ensure that documents given to students with dyslexia contain only the instructions needed for the exercise; omit any unnecessary details as these could be distracting
All materials for students with dyslexia should have a clear layout, short sentences and an uncomplicated structure.
Use images that exemplify sentences or unfamiliar words
Space out the instructions and add a diagram, so that students can follow it without having to understand every word.
Fonts and background colours
Use sans serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans, as letters can appear less crowded. Alternatives include Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Trebuchet, Calibri, Open Sans.
Font size should be 12 to 14 points. Some dyslexic readers may request a larger font.
When you can, avoid using stark white backgrounds.
Show students the Immersive Reader option for Microsoft Word, which will read out the documents for them.
Make sure that you have used the “Check Accessibility” function on all Microsoft products.
Consider whether a written brief is the best way to deliver the task to your students.
Make sure there are closed captions and transcripts available for any video or audio files you provide.
Consider the diversity of your student population with inclusive language. Inclusive language further highlights our respect for the diversity of backgrounds in the classroom.
Use varied names and socio-cultural contexts in test questions, assignments and case studies.
Use language that is truly generic, ie, winter/holiday break instead of Christmas break and house of worship instead of church.
Use language to acknowledge different lived experiences: “For those of you who have studied abroad/seen Field of Dreams/been on a ferry…”
But this is not the only way to think about the accessibility of our assessments.
Creating meaningful and manageable assessments
While the tips above are quick and practical, we also need to go beyond the practical to rethink assessments with inclusivity and accessibility as a central component of assessment design.
This can mean moving beyond the traditional assessment types such as exams and essays and creating more meaningful assessments. Creating a meaningful assessment is about de-obfuscating achievement – creating a situation where the learning that students display cannot be faked by preparation or go unrecognised by the conventions of teaching.
These assessments also mirror what students might be asked to do in a real-world scenario. Thinking about assessments this way further supports the accessible nature of the assessments because both meaningful assessments and accessible assessments are designed with the idea of excising the arbitrary, and arbitrarily alienating, tasks that hinder student engagement with the assessments.
Accessibility through assessment literacy
The last tip is perhaps the most important. All assessments can be accessible to students if they understand what the assessment is and how they are supposed to engage with it. Assessment literacy means that students have the knowledge of how to complete an assessment regardless of the format.
Take the time to help your students become assessment and feedback literate.
Teach students to understand the purpose of assessment, and be explicit about your expectations related to how they engage with and complete the assessment.
Explain how feedback will be provided and how it can be used to support the students in their learning.
By taking the mystery out of the process, the students can then focus on the most important aspect of the assessment: the demonstration of their skills and knowledge of the subject material. This means that students no longer have to decode what is being asked of them or demonstrate how well they have mastered the skill of test-taking.
Assessment and feedback literacy is an easy way to build accessibility and inclusion into everything that you do from the ground up. It then allows you to deal with specific examples and specific instances with accessibility as they arise.
Kimberly Wilder-Davis is an academic and digital developer at the University of Glasgow.