How to make courses more accessible for all students

Prepared by the Return to Campuses: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group and Student Accessibility Services

Below is a collection of ideas and best practices based on our observations and expressions of students' experiences during COVID-19. You may also want to review "Accessibility and Course Materials". 

  1. Help students understand to expect:
    1. How does the number of hours of instruction in the academic calendar (e.g. 3-0) line up with how the course will be delivered?
    2. Ensure there is one place that serves as a map for everything else in the course (similar to a table of contents or an index). If you have different documents describing separate components of the course, make sure students can find them from the primary document/location.
    3. Use CourseLink for communicating academic expectations to your class. This helps ensure there is consistency across courses and reduces student confusion.
  2. Treat your course outline like it is a contract. Changes should only be contemplated if it is an emergency. Remember: changes inevitably have a bigger negative impact on students from equity-seeking groups.
  3. Ensure your course outline has concrete, specific information including:
    1. Critical details for all assessments (which are needed for setting up appropriate accommodations) including dates, times, duration and format.
    2. Specific, measurable learning outcomes that are logically tied to the curriculum.
    3. A complete reading list of materials that are readily available.
    4. Standard language about accessibility found on the provost’s website.
  4. Have a few weeks spread across the semester where nothing is due.
  5. Choose due dates or submission deadlines that fall within the “academic day” (Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 10:00 pm)
  6. If you have a scheduled class time each week, establish your submission deadlines for assignments to correspond with the start of class.
  7. Think about offering multiple ways for students to engage with course content that complements assigned readings. While this is good pedegogy, it also helps improve accessibility.
    1. Why is the information relevant today?
    2. What is weird, amazing, unexpected, surprising or compelling about the information?
    3. How do we know the information is true, valid or reliable? How do we make sense of evidence that might contradict it? What are the gaps that we cannot explain?
    4. Are there other worldviews that might think about the phenomenon differently, or that might approach studying it in a different way?
    5. How might the information be misused?
    6. What is the narrative that connects the different ideas you’re sharing?
  8. Plan for flexibility. Rather than giving everyone an extension by default, build your timeline to allow for up to 3 days extension on deadlines for anyone who presents with a reasonable request.
  9. Plan for a make-up opportunity on missed tests or exams that is 7 days after the original date for anyone with a reasonable explanation. Consider creating two versions of the exam from the outset.
  10. Offer multiple ways of engaging with weekly lessons.
    1. Synchronous classes allow students to ask questions or engage in interactive activities.
    2. A recording of the lecture allows students to learn the material if they experience symptoms, distractions or technical problems when the class was originally delivered.
    3. If you will be lecturing live using an online platform, consider using Microsoft Teams instead of Zoom. Teams has a built in feature for captioning that is simpler to use.
  11. Recognize that some students must limit camera time to manage eye strain, concussion and mental health symptom, and traumatic effects from past online harassment, bullying, or stalking.
  12. Offer students choices on assignments. Could there be more than one format?
  13. To support setup of accommodations and to help students learn the design of your course, use universal design for quizzes at the start of the semester (e.g. everyone gets double time).
  14. If you have multiple small quizzes:
    1. Offer students the opportunity to drop their worst one or two marks.
    2. Consider allowing students to skip or miss one or two quizzes.
    3. Only ask students to complete a maximum of one assessment per week (e.g. a quiz, a midterm, or an assignment).
  15. Online exams:
    1. Choose a format that lets students go back and check their work.
    2. If an exam is 60 minutes or more, consider splitting it into two parts where students can take a break between each part or immediately complete the second part if they prefer.
    3. Build in occasional text boxes where students can comment if they had a problem understanding a question and want to offer an explanation for their answer.
    4. Consider whether you can design an assessment that does not require Respondus (which creates a variety of barriers). The Office of Teaching and Learning can offer ideas to help with the design of your assessments.
    5. If using Respondus:
      • Allow students to use scrap paper. They can show the front and back to the camera at the start of the exam.
      • Remind students that foam earplus (inert) are permitted in order to reduce distractions.
  16. Avoid high stakes assessments where 50% or more of the student’s final grade rests on having a good day.
  17. Regularly affirm for students that it is hard to live in a COVID world. For many of us, the situation is terrible and it is that we might feel badly about it.
  18. Only adopt alternate learning platforms (e.g. Mobius, Top Hat, Pearson Quizzes) if you have worked with an accessibility specialist to confirm that it meets accepted standards.
    • ​​​​​​​Never use Kahoot for graded assessments where the speed of a student's response is a factor.
    • Always have a contingency plan in case a student cannot see, hear, quickly process information, or efficiently manipulate the interface because of a disability.
  19. Help students to know about resources that can teach them strategies for learning more effectively (such as those offered by the Library).