Creating and Maintaining an Accessible University Classroom

Webster University employs an instructional method originally developed to make classrooms accessible to registered postsecondary students with documented disabilities. Now dubbed Universal Design because it has been found to be equally successful with all students, its basic premise is that making a classroom accessible and applicable to students with different backgrounds, learning styles, and different abilities and disabilities requires careful attention to essential course components and classroom climate as well as to instructional strategies and assessment methods.

The Universal Design framework makes identification of the essential course components the instructor's first task. This involves examining the relationships between the course and external licensing requirements as well as university and departmental standards and requirements reflected in Course Descriptions, syllabi and course learning objectives in order to determine the outcomes (skills, knowledge, and attitudes) all students must demonstrate with or without using accommodations.

This exercise highlights the fact that the essential course components are the outcomes, not the instructional strategies used to produce these outcomes or the assessment methods used to measure them. This view, then, makes it possible for the instructor to see that varying instructional and assessment processes enhances performance but is nondiscriminatory, while varying the expectations for mastery of outcomes is discriminatory. This recognition, in turn, not only enables instructors to determine whether accommodations for students with disabilities are reasonable and effective but also to feel more confident when considering course modifications for students who have different learning styles, become ill, or encounter extreme personal circumstances.

In addition, the ability to view student outcomes as related to, but distinct from instructional and assessment processes highlights the reality that these processes can have a significant effect on class climate as well as student outcomes. Research suggests that the following instructor actions significantly enhance the class climate for most postsecondary students, not just those students with disabilities:

  • Selection of instructional methods that most effectively address the essential outcomes, but which can be varied or adapted to meet student needs (e.g, preferred learning style or sensory deficits) and to promote the kind of student-instructor and student-student involvement, interaction, and cooperation the student will encounter in the workplace.
  • Selection of materials that provide multiple ways for students to interact with and respond to them in order to find the kind of meaning that enables them to motivate themselves.
  • Early decisions regarding the instructional materials that most effectively address the essential course outcomes because it often takes at least six (6) to eight (8) weeks or longer to get textbooks translated into alternative formats (e.g., braille, tape, e-text). It also takes time to enlarge handouts or put them on tape. Obviously last minute decisions can have a negative effect on students who need texts and readings in an alternative format.
  • Inclusive syllabus statements, examples of which can be found here (Link opens in a new window).
  • Multimodal presentation of clear expectations (e,g., both orally and in the syllabus).
  • Modeling of respect for diversity by valuing all students' experiences and building on their strengths.
  • Provision of a variety of ways in which students can show what they know (e.g., written, oral, film, etc.)
  • Provision of timely and useful feedback on assessment measures because research shows that the longer it is between performance and feedback, the less students learn from assessment tools.

Additional Faculty Resources
The director and assistant director of the Academic Resource Center are always willing to consult with individual faculty members who have questions about provision of services to students with disabilities. Other resources can be found here (Link opens in a new window).