Tag Archives: universal design

Help One, Help All: Universal Design in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 18, 2017

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d'après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d’après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

The headline immediately caught my attention: “Atmospheric scientist at Illinois is on leave after refusing to provide lecture slides to student with disabilities.” Not exactly the Kardashians or the latest scorched-earth quote from Sebastian Gorka, but striking to a pedagogy-nerd like me. As I clicked through to the article, I found that the scientist in question wasn’t just “any” teacher, but a Nobel laureate with 41 years of teaching to his credit.

 

Although I’m more interested in this article for what it says about the state of “Universal Design” thinking than for the actual controversy at hand, some facts in the case are still in order.

  • The faculty member in question is Michael Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007, he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building and disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change. Conservative bloggers, for their part, prefer to see him as an “environmental extremist.”
  • According to a report in the Daily Illini, Schlesinger refused “to provide a student with electronic lecture notes, even after Disability Services confirmed the need for accommodation.” Further research reveals that the real issue was Schlesinger’s refusal to share his slides with the student. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he offered to pay for the student to have a note taker in the class, but that he opposed sharing his slides because he was unwilling to give one student an “advantage” over others taking the course who couldn’t access the slides.
  • According to the University of Illinois, Schlesinger was “not currently teaching.” Schlesinger insisted that he hadn’t resigned and did not tend to resign. Rather, he wrote, “I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

The story can be read as an example of “nanny state” administrators stepping in to tell faculty how to teach their courses, or of crotchety faculty members who refuse to change their moth-eaten ways, even if it means noncompliance with university rules and federal legislation (Americans with Disabilities Act). For my part, I have no idea whether Schlesinger is the world’s best teacher or the world’s worst; I have no ability to judge him on the basis of a single act reported in the press. What did catch my attention was Schlesinger’s statement that he intends “to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

364Universal Design for Learning

At the heart of Schlesinger’s statement is a belief that by accommodating one student (in this case a student with reported disabilities), an instructor is ipso facto disadvantaging all other students in the class. The clearest response to this pinched understanding came from James Basham, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, who suggested that “if the professor has such strong beliefs about sharing slides with an individual student, he should simply share with all of his students.” Basham’s approach is the essence of what has been called “Universal Design for Learning.”

Universal Design for Learning took its inspiration from the architecture and product design processes pioneered by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University in the 1980s. A universal design approach aims “to create physical environments and tools that are usable by as many people as possible.” The curb cut is a perfect example: it was designed so that people in wheelchairs could more easily access sidewalks. But, if curb cuts proved beneficial for wheelchair-bound individuals, they were no less a boon for parents pushing strollers or shoppers bringing home the groceries. Curb cuts equally served old people with walkers and young people learning to skateboard. And that was the point. The idea of universal design is that by planning a design that takes account of the needs of everyone at the beginning of a process, rather than waiting to modify designs later when such needs become more visible or vocal, everyone would benefit.

Universal Design for Learning operates in precisely the same way. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 offers the following definition of Universal Design for Learning:

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can benefit, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. [On this, see Judy Marquez Kiyama and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths (Routledge 2018).] Universal design for learning in higher education recognizes that what needs to be “fixed” is not the learner but the the way in which teaching and learning occurs.

How It Works: Using Visual Materials

390I have little doubt that colleagues can provided many examples of how they have used universal design for learning principles in their own classes, sometimes without even knowing that this is what they were doing. I encourage readers to supply further examples from their own practice that I can use to update this article. I include the specific examples below as illustrations of universal design for learning approaches that have worked in my classes. Each instructor will decide what works best for your own classrooms.

This first example, using visual materials with a sight-impaired student, comes from a class I taught many years ago. It was probably the first time that I thought of a universal-design-for- learning approach, although I had no idea it was called that or that such an approach existed.

Matt was a student in one of my Latin American history surveys. (I use his real name because he later wrote a memoir and referenced the incident.) He enrolled in my course having spent the previous Winter Term in Guatemala. Matt was born with cataracts, developed glaucoma as a baby, and soon lost all vision in his left eye while retaining only partial sight in the right. So he came to my class with limited vision: he could read with the help of a computer and got around campus without a guide dog or cane. I made sure he was assigned a note taker and that the readings were available far in advance so they could be recorded for him. Soon after the semester started, however, his limited eyesight vanished completely when a corneal ulcer in his “good” eye became infected. As he was sitting in my class, he later wrote, “Suddenly the lights seemed really bright. Then it got really painful. By the end of the hour I could barely see well enough to get myself to Academic Services.” Matthew had become totally blind.

He returned to class surprisingly soon after, and I had to consider whether to ignore Matt’s new disability, to change my approach to a class that depended substantially on slides with visual (illustrative, not textual) content, or to accommodate him in some other way. I considered asking a classmate to sit beside him, describing the slides as I cycled through them. But the continual, if hushed, commentary would have foregrounded Matt’s disability, making him the center of class attention day after day. I could have sent him the slides ahead of time, but slides without commentary made little sense and I would been have constrained from changing  slides at the last minute to respond to issues that recently arose in class.

The solution I finally hit upon was actually quite consistent with universal design principles, as I later learned. I was forced to think about why I used slides in the class, and when I considered that I realized that some were relatively unimportant, a kind of visual filler designed to hold the students’ attention, and some were critical to the issues we were discussing. By treating each of these two variants the same (i.e., having them up for the same amount of time and not commenting further on the important ones), I was missing an opportunity to enhance everyone’s learning. I decided that when I got to an important slide, I would ask for a volunteer to describe what they saw on the screen; then for a second and a third student who would add depth to the description. Finally, as a class which including Matthew, we could discuss the visual representation and they ways that it helped us understand the subject we were studying. There was no need to call attention to Matt’s visual impairment or to provide him “special accommodation,” and all the students benefited by being made more aware of visual content, by developing their powers of observation, and by hearing others discuss the slide. By leading me to focus more on my goals, Matt helped me redesign my class in a way that helped everyone. The approach didn’t “advantage” Matt or “disadvantage” the sighted students: it helped everyone.

366How It Works: Note Taking

One of the more common accommodations faculty are asked to make is providing students with note takers. Indeed, Prof. Schlesinger, it would seem, volunteered to “pay the student” to hire a note taker in his class (something which led me to wonder whether he ever had prior contact with the Disability Services office at his university, since it undoubtedly would have provided, and paid for, a note taker). In any case, instructors generally ask students to inform us confidentially at the beginning of the semester if they require a note taker and are registered with Disability Services. Sometimes we’ll get a letter later in the semester if a student only recently registered or has sustained an injury that impedes note taking. I doubt that anyone thinks that the student who requires a note taker because she has broken her arm in a field hockey match is now getting an unfair advantage over the other students.

But let’s look at this a bit more broadly. I have no doubt that there were students in my class who had more trouble than others taking notes in class. Perhaps it was because English was not their first language; perhaps because they never developed good note-taking skills; perhaps because they just processed what was being said (often at a rapid clip) somewhat more slowly than other students. I also had no doubt that it would have benefited all students to read a set of notes taken by another student, just in case they missed some important in their own notes.

Thinking of the needs of all students a bit more closely, I decided to assign class note takers for my courses. Two students in each class were asked to take notes that they would share with the other students by posting them to Blackboard. (Students were excused if they qualified for a note taker via the Disability Services office.) Note taking became a (small) part of the final grade. I doubt that having class note takes dissuaded any individual student from taking notes, nor did it encourage absences, and my advice to students who had missed class was always to “get the notes from another student.” What had I accomplished? Many more benefited from this approach: students who didn’t qualify for a note-taker from Disabilities Services and yet could have profited from one; students who could have qualified for a note-taker but felt constrained from asking for one for a myriad of reasons; students who suffered a temporary physical problem but didn’t find the time to get themselves to Disability Services; students who wanted to complement their own notes with those from other students. No one was disadvantaged and everyone was advantaged.

How It Works: Assignment Design:

438When we think about universal design in terms of assignments, we often think of students who require additional time on exams. The clear design of assignments is another aspect of universal design that serves all students. Mary-Ann Wilkelmes, the principal investigator of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project, has developed a simple protocol for assignment design based on explicitly answering three questions when creating assignments.

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?

Often we think that our assignments are clearer than they actually are because students don’t complain about them. But ask the reference librarians who are called upon to help students figure out what we’re asking for, and you’ll discover something different. Many seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Maybe those who are better able to read our minds are just smarter and deserve a better grade. Um, no. They’re not any smarter, but they might be able to suss out what we’re asking for because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. They have what Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, calls “navigational capital.” Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers know the unwritten rules of the game: they know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

But it also happens that the best prepared students really can’t figure out what we’re asking them to do because we haven’t been clear. In this case, universal design in terms of assignment design serves everyone, ourselves included. By being specific about task, purpose and criteria, we can be clearer in our own minds as to what we’re asking for in an assignment while helping all students, those with a strong academic preparation and those who are newer to the game, do well on the assignment. Once again, everyone benefits, no one is disadvantaged.

How It Works: Extra Time on Exams*

One of the more difficult issues logistically is arranging for extra time for exams or quizzes. Here’s an approach from Erik Inglis of the Art Department:

In my intro class, I used to give an in-class quiz, which meant it was limited in time, and cut into content. Now I have the students take the quiz at home–which revealed to me that I didn’t care if it took them 15 minutes or 30 minutes to come up with the answer–instead it was a more a matter of the appropriate length of the essay.  So, instead of students having to request an accommodation, everyone can have as much time as they think necessary–and I give a word-count, not a time-measure, to set parameters.  I tell students that this is one of the many benefits of the honor code (although he worries that students might be tempted to use outside sources for a closed book exam).

Another colleague added the following:**

During my…years at Oberlin I have never given any student a timed assessment. To me the issue of how fast a student can produce information or analyze a problem is seldom a good assessment of what they are learning in class. Given that Oberlin has an honor code, it also seems to me to be a waste of valuable class time to have quizzes or tests during class — I have them all outside of class. I assign them pairs that vary on each quiz so that they DO proctor each other. I actually make half the quiz something that they complete working together and half something that complete alone but in the presence of the other student. I believe that the collaborative discussions they have about answers are useful pedagogically.

This colleague further noted that he had been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and that he was always disadvantaged by timed exams in high school. When he reached college, he found many of his professors more sympathetic, giving him more time on exams. But, he added, “As a student I also felt like I had an unfair advantage [getting additional time] and I always made it a point to try to convince my professors…to allow all students to have more time on tests. I am pleased to say that many DID where it was feasible to do so. And I felt like my grade was fairer in classes when they did.”

Conclusion

When Professor Schlesinger remarked that he intends to “fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students,” a universal design for learning approach could be what he is looking for. By encouraging us to design a learning environment that can serve all students, such an approach can move us away from a concentrated focus on students who require “accommodation,” and towards a consideration of changes that can aid all our students. In the end, all students will profit from a classroom in which all needs, spoken or unspoken, certified or not, are taken into consideration. Such would be the case if the professor, so demonstrably wise in matters of atmospheric science, simply shared his slides with all students.

NOTE: For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Hamilton’s article, “Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching” (Oct. 16, 2016).

354* Added on Sept. 17 at 12:07 PM

** Added on Sept. 18 at 10:07 AM

Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching

Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016


Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)


Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.

Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.

Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?

finney-cropI mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.

We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.

Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”

geschiedenis-van-de-gemeenten-der-provincie-oost-vlaanderen

Frans de Potter, Geschiedenis van de Gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 1864

Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.

Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.

curbcutBuilding Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.

Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.

I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.

music-and-disabilityMy First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]

Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:

Charles-Émile Jacque, "Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement," Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Charles-Émile Jacque, “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement,” Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.

  • They engage a variety of senses.
  • They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
  • They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
  • Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.

As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.

I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff's rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff’s rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)


Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):

3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
main-floor classroom.
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.

1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
significant character.
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.

After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?

Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Steven Volk, April 19, 2015

Our colleagues in the Office of Disability Services recently sponsored a “Light it up Blue” event as part of a worldwide effort to raise awareness of autism. Mudd Library, like the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids, and other sites around the world, was bathed in blue on April 2, part of a month long Autism Awareness (also called Autism Acceptance) project.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, Cairo (NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/global-landmarks-bathed-blue-world-autism-day-n335001)

The Great Pyramid of Giza, Cairo (NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/global-landmarks-bathed-blue-world-autism-day-n335001)

As our colleagues noted, Oberlin is one of many colleges and universities where the number of students on the autism spectrum has been growing. I’ve attended a number of sessions sponsored by the Office of Disability Services as well as by Elizabeth Hamilton’s Faculty-Staff Learning Community, and they have been remarkably useful in providing attendees with a clear sense of how best to create a classroom in which all our students, including those on the spectrum, can learn.

Today’s “Article of the Week” reproduces an article I found particularly useful on how to support students with an autism spectrum disorder, as well as providing some additional resources. This is not an area in which I can claim any expertise, so if you know of better sites or different approaches, or if I have put my foot in it inadvertently, please let me know and I’ll add to this post.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health writes that Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by:

  • Persistent deficits* in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts;
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities;
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (typically recognized in the first two years of life); and,
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

ASD is referred to as a “spectrum” because it refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that individuals can have, with some being mildly affected by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.

Teaching and Supporting Students with an ASD

A large and growing literature offers advice on how college teachers can best support students with an ASD. I found one article, “Academic Supports for College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Overview,” by Marci Wheeler, to be particularly useful. She is part of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her article, which originally was posted in 2011, was generated by input from the Students on the Spectrum Club at Indiana University – Bloomington. I have included most of it below.

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“Academic Supports for College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Overview,” by Marci Wheeler

Cuddle Bud Kids Autism Awareness Decoupage Earrings - CC

Cuddle Bud Kids Autism Awareness Decoupage Earrings – CC

There is a wide range of functioning and abilities seen across individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Generalities are hard to make except to say that communication and social skills deficits are present. There are also neurological differences that affect everyone on the autism spectrum. However, each person is affected in different ways. The sensory perceptions, motor skills, learning styles and coping strategies are often affected and may cause “hidden” challenges that are not understood by those supporting these students. As a result of these challenges the observable behaviors of students on the autism spectrum may make them appear inattentive, bored, rude, defiant or possibly even on drugs. Ritualistic or repetitive behaviors, an attachment to incongruous objects and additional unusual communication and social skills (especially under stress) can make some of these students seem odd and bring unwanted attention to them.

Some students on the autism spectrum may experience sensory overload and/or be distressed by the social and communication demands of a class. They may have learned “acceptable” strategies to cope and have the ability to stay focused on their intellectual pursuits such that they can navigate through their classes (at least the classes in their chosen major) and pass as “normal”. Some students expend a lot of energy, at all costs, to blend in and not be detected. Unfortunately, for some, this may result in them leaving the university without finishing a degree as the stress is too great. Also, on any college campus be assured that there are students who have not been formally diagnosed or students that are not diagnosed until their college years.

Professors and other instructors need to be aware of possible supports that a student on the autism spectrum might find necessary to participate in class and complete classwork. The following six sections briefly state a common concern for most students and list some possible issues and accommodations. Each student on the autism spectrum has unique needs and should work closely with instructors and other college staff to design an individualized plan of proactive support and response to challenges if they arise.

Communication Skills

By definition (following diagnostic criteria) all students with an autism spectrum disorder have some problems which may interfere with receptive or expressive communication. Some of these differences are very subtle and can lead to misunderstandings that are misinterpreted as volitional acts on the part of the student. Students with an autism spectrum disorder may be very articulate and have a large vocabulary which may “hide” their communication challenges. Those supporting students on the autism spectrum should become aware of each individual students weaknesses in this area. Some of these are listed below along with possible accommodations.

Receptive difficulties often experienced by students on the autism spectrum include processing verbal exchanges more slowly, misunderstanding sarcasm, idioms and jokes, very literal interpretation of words, and misunderstanding gestures and body language.

The expressive difficulties of individuals on the autism spectrum may include problems initiating communication; even for those students who at first glance may seem very articulate and even very talkative. Those on the autism spectrum may have trouble staying on topic, turn taking and following conversational “protocol”. Some may be slower to organize thoughts and speak, and/or their voice tone and volume may be unusual. Idiosyncratic use of words and phrases may be present.

Accommodations for a college student with an autism spectrum disorder might include providing the instructor’s lecture notes or a note taker to help key in on important information, providing study guides for tests, allowing a longer verbal response time from the student and allowing for important exchanges of information to be done in written form. It would also help for instructors to be clear, concise, concrete and logical when communicating as well as asking for clarification; don’t make assumptions about what students truly understand.

Social Skills

Social skills (also included in diagnostic criteria) might not seem important in a class setting, but, in fact social difficulties can and do impact the classwork of many students on the autism spectrum. Many college courses require class participation and group work as part of earning a grade. Just going to class with peers necessitates the use of social skills. Some social difficulties and possible accommodations are discussed below.

Phoney Nickle: v2.263: November 18th (My Little Perfection) - CC

Phoney Nickle: v2.263: November 18th (My Little Perfection) – CC

The social challenges for a student on the autism spectrum include problems understanding others perspectives, sharing space and making eye contact. Many high functioning individuals with an autism spectrum disorder have extreme social anxiety and have difficulty negotiating with others, and interacting and working in pairs or groups. These students likely will not understand the “unwritten” classroom etiquette and will often misinterpret facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum include allowing for short breaks to leave class and/or allowing the student to have a “social buffering” object which might include a computer, book or other object that initially might seem distracting or “out of place”. Honoring the student’s chosen level of eye contact w/o judgment can be helpful. If there is group work assigned for class the instructor might assist in the formation and monitoring of pairs or groups of students to assure the proper inclusion of the student with an autism spectrum diagnosis. Also providing written rules for asking questions and other classroom logistics (as needed) may support students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

Sensory Differences

When the DSM-5 was released in May 2013, reactivity to sensory input was added as part of the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.  Sensory processing issues seem to affect the majority of these individuals. Some on the autism spectrum have an extreme over sensitivity or under sensitivity to input, from the environment to the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. A significant number of persons experience synesthesia. Synesthesia may affect any of the senses. Synesthesia is phenomena in which the actual information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. Listed below are some common sensory differences and accommodations that may be important in a class setting.

Common visual and auditory sensory difficulties experienced by students on the autism spectrum include florescent lights that may appear to flicker and certain “bright” colors that may produce “overload”. Someone may see better from a “different” angle or may hear low level frequency sounds emitted by florescent lights. Also certain “typical” classroom sounds may be perceived as “painful” such as the movement and use of desks, people and other objects in the room. Often a person on the autism spectrum may not filter out extraneous sounds and/or may hear sounds in the next room.

Sensory issues related to the sense of touch and/or the sense of smell may occur. For example, certain textures may be “painful” and/or individuals may crave certain textures. Students on the autism spectrum may be disturbed by people accidentally bumping them or the feel of a particular desk or chair. They may wear “unusual” clothing, footwear or accessories because of sensory differences. Also students may be sensitive to certain odors and certain smells may cause “overload”. Some who are very sensitive may be affected by scents from certain perfumes, deodorants and soaps.

Possible accommodations to support a student with sensory differences include allowing hats, sunglasses and tinted lens glasses to be worn and allowing ear plugs or ear phones. Also allowing the student to choose their seat and helping to assure it is always available may be important. If requested by the student, an alternative writing instrument for tests and assignments and/or a computer for in class work, tests and assignments might also be an appropriate accommodation.

A student with an autism spectrum diagnosis may find that a small sensory item brings comfort in class. It is likely, if a student uses a sensory item, that it is inconspicuous but this may not always be the case. Be aware that a student may make a last minute request for a seating change and/or to leave abruptly due to sensory overload. Help devise an acceptable plan to address urgent sensory issues for the student.

Motor Skills

Autism Awareness Ribbon - Wikimedia

Autism Awareness Ribbon – Wikimedia

Both fine and gross motor skills may be affected in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. In addition motor planning and poor awareness of body in space are two areas that often affect motor skills for these individuals. Often fine and gross motor skills as well as motor planning skills are very uneven. Listed below are possible problems in these areas along with possible accommodations.

Fine motor challenges for students on the autism spectrum might affect writing, drawing, turning pages, using utensils, playing an instrument, using locks and keys, and manipulating small objects. Gross motor challenges may affect walking (may have “odd” gait), running, sitting and balancing. Motor planning and the awareness of the placement of their body in space can affect the ways in which an individual moves their body and is able to navigate themselves to accomplish all motor tasks.

Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum with motor skills difficulties include allowing a computer for in class work, tests and assignments, providing a note taker, allowing work assignments done at a slower pace, providing models and step by step instruction, providing extra time to take tests and providing readers and scribes (or technology that reads and takes notes). Further accommodations might need to be considered for students taking physical education courses in which motor skills differences might provide further complications.

Learning Style

Students with an autism spectrum disorder often have a very uneven learning profile. They often excel creatively in a non-conventional way. Students on the autism spectrum tend to have excellent long term and rote memory abilities. Executive functioning deficits cause these students many problems. Many are thought to be right-brained thinkers. Most need to like and trust an instructor before they can perform in a class. Some common learning challenges, strengths and possible accommodations are listed below.

Executive function challenges experienced by students with an autism spectrum diagnosis include general organization and planning skills, problems with impulsivity and problem solving and the ability to monitor themselves in the completion of a goal.

Along with the executive functioning deficits, common learning barriers include poor sequential learning, easily bored with repetition once something is learned, attention problems, literal thinking, nebulous sense of time and as mentioned previously, perspective taking deficits. Other issues that impacts learning for students on the autism spectrum are the fact that they need to understand why something is important, relevant or meaningful to them and they may not realize they are having academic difficulty until it may be too late or too difficult for them to rectify on their own.

The strengths of students on the autism spectrum can sometimes help them compensate for their weaknesses. These students can do quite well academically, especially in their chosen field, and their strengths should be respected and used whenever possible. For example these students may have extremely good visual and visual-spatial skills. They often learn best from whole to part (complex to simple) and they can be very creative; out of the box thinkers. These students can also show an amazing knowledge on topics of interest which is most often their major field of study at the university.

Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum to support their learning style include providing review sheets, work checklists, and “sub” deadlines and/or intermittent “check-ins.” If possible provide hands on learning, models, demonstrations and other visuals. If possible, pair with peer mentors who might help with feedback and provide “proof-read” opportunities and ongoing structure to keeping on target with work assignments.

Instructors can help support students on the autism spectrum by providing reinforcement at every opportunity. Other accommodations that might be helpful for some students are allowing advanced negotiation of deadlines, extra time for tests, and/or a separate “quiet” place for tests.

Instructors and other college staff can also encourage the use of calendars (computer, traditional, phone w/alarms). Most likely the student has experience with using an organizational tool or tools, of choice, before coming to college. However, sometimes in a new environment the tools and skills used and learned to compensate for executive function deficits do not transfer easily to a new setting. Because the setting has changed, the student may need time “extra” transition time to begin the use of these tools and to maintain routines in the new environment.

Coping Skills

Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder frequently describe themselves as dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress. Sensory sensitivities, social and communication expectations as well as transitions and unexpected changes often trigger this anxiety and stress. It is during these times when these students may display behavior that can seem bewildering, rude or disruptive. Most often when a student displays these behaviors they are doing what they know to do to cope. In fact, these sometimes “confusing” behaviors are often experienced as calming. Included below are examples of coping behaviors in which students with an autism spectrum disorder may engage and possible accommodations.

When under stress, students on the autism spectrum may engage in stress relieving activities which look odd and may even make others feel uncomfortable. These activities may include body rocking, pacing, waving or flapping hands or fingers repetitively, chewing on their clothing or body, “lecturing” on a topic of interest or they may display the “opposite” emotion for the situation. They also may abruptly leave the situation with no explanation before or afterwards.

A possible accommodation in helping the student cope, in the moment, might be to discretely ask the student if something is overwhelming and/or ask if the student needs help or wants to leave. Do not discourage or interrupt behavior unless truly disruptive and understand that student does not intend to be disrespectful. Allow sensory items and/or other “comfort” objects. A student, who is having a hard time coping, might not realize when s/he is being disruptive and needs to leave. The instructor and student can agree on a cue that the instructor can give to signal to the student that it is okay/time to leave. They can also agree on a signal, to inform the instructor when the student is overwhelmed or confused.

Ideally, preparing young adults with an autism spectrum disorder for the demands of college has started years earlier. With a proper diagnosis, individualized early intervention and careful transition planning, college students with an autism spectrum diagnosis, will be better prepared to advocate for themselves. At the same time college professors and other staff at post-secondary colleges and universities need to be prepared for students on the spectrum who are seeking to be a part of these institutions in greater and greater numbers. These students must be given reasonable accommodations to provide an equal opportunity for pursuing a college education. Many great minds and opportunities for society could be lost if individuals on the autism spectrum are not supported in their post-secondary academic pursuits.

Divider Check that Metaphor

Another useful article was Lee Burdette Williams’ nicely titled “Rethinking Everything…Literally,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 12, 2014). Burdette works with in a residential and academic support program designed to help high-functioning autistic students or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. These students, he writes, “can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam. What they can’t do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.”

So, when she cajoled a student not to “throw in the towel,” or advised another to not let his adversary “get his goat,” she was met with everything from alarm to blank stares. She realized that figurative language, which is so central to how we think, feel and act, had to be, well, rethought in his new teaching context. She concludes, “I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, ‘I’m going to make a comparison between two things’ (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum). I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself.” Most of us are not teaching in Williams’ circumstances, but “re-thinking” our teaching strategies in light of our changing classrooms is never a bad idea.

799px-Page_009_(The_Art_of_Distillation,_1651)Resources

Very few of us have any expertise in this area, but we are fortunate that good information is available and that we can always seek the reasoned and informed advice of our Office of Disability Services as well as some of our colleagues such as Elizabeth Hamilton.

Here are a few sources that you might also find useful:

Kathy DeOrnellas, “Teaching College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Faculty Focus, April 17, 2015.

The College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders at Marshall University

Abigail Sullivan Moore, “Students on the Spectrum,” New York Times (Nov. 5, 2006).

Chantal Sicile-Kira’s “Autism College” blog is also valuable. Sicile-Kira is an autism consultant specializing in adolescence and transition to adulthood who has authored a number of books on autism.  Her most recent book, A Full Life with Autism: From Learning to Forming Relationships to Achieving Independence (Macmillan, March 2012) was co-authored with her son, Jeremy, who was diagnosed as severely autistic when he was an infant. Her first book, Autism Spectrum Disorder, was recently updated by Penguin.

National Autism Center

Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2007.

John Harpur, Maria Lawler, and Michael Fitzgerald, Succeeding in College with Asperger Syndrome: A Student Guide (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2004.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Aquamarine Blue 5: Personal Stories of College Students with Autism (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002).

Lorraine E. Wolf, Jane Tierfield Brown, and Ruth Bork, Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel (Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company), 2009.

Michael R. Dillon, “Creating Supports for College Students with Asperger Syndrome through Collaboration,” College Student Journal 41 (2007): 499–504.

Ann Palmer, Realizing the College Dream with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publisher), 2006.

*A very good point has been raised as to whether a word other than “deficit,” with its connotations of something lacking (as opposed to something different) exists to discuss people with an autism spectrum disorder. The same term was often used to describe those who were learning English, whereas now the preferred term is an “emergent” bilingual. Suggestions? [Added April 20, 2015: 7:59 PM]

Designing Classroom Spaces to Promote Active Teaching and Student Learning

[NOTE: This is the first of a series of suggestions for making modest changes to the College in order to strengthen student learning]

Whether stated or implied, a tight link exists between classroom design and learning theory. For planning reasons, we tend to organize our classrooms (leaving labs and studios out of the question for the moment) on the basis of class size. The largest spaces (King 106 and 306; West Lecture Hall, Craig, Hallock, Severance 108, Warner, etc.) are designed for large numbers of students; the King, Peters, Bibbins, Severance, and Science Center classrooms (e.g. K337) will hold 20-60 students; and the “seminar” rooms around campus are designed for less than 20 students. The pedagogical implication of this are unspoken: “linear” classrooms are designed around lecture or other presentations; “horizontal” classrooms allow for class discussion.

King 106

Many faculty engage in concerted guerrilla attempts to subvert the design of the classroom to which they are assigned: schlepping chairs from rows to circles; reconfiguring desks; allowing smaller groups to spill out into the hallways to find congenial discussion space. The large amphitheater spaces most deeply resist these seditious desires. I was defeated in my attempts to do anything other than lecture in King 306, although some faculty will have their students wheel around in their (fixed) seats to talk with those behind them; many will allow students to sit on the desks in a desperate attempt to promote discussion.

At the end of the day, though, we must admit that a large number of our classroom spaces were designed with student bodies, not student learning, in mind. They have been upgraded (at great cost and with much staff dedication and support) to provide access to technology, drapes have been changed, carpets added, desks swapped out. But a simple truth remains: except for the smaller seminar rooms, our classrooms are designed to have a “front” (from which point the teacher controls the technology console and the front black or white board/s), and faces out on the rows of chairs. Even seminar rooms are hard to re-purpose to allow small group discussions.

What we know about how students learn has been developing over the past generation. Based on the research findings of some influential studies [e.g. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney, R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn; John Seely Brown, “Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn,” Change (March/April 2000); Theodore J. Marchese, “The New Conversations about Learning Insights from Neuroscience and Anthropology, Cognitive Science and Work-Place Studies,” AAHE Conference on Assessment and Quality, Assessing Impact: Evidence and Actions (1997), etc.], we can say with some confidence that deeper learning experiences (i.e., those that are at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy) occur when learning is social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned (see Colleen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner, “Mind over Matter. Transforming Course Management Systems into Effective Learning Environments,” EDUCAUSE Review (Nov/Dec 2002), p. 29).

I have full confidence that Oberlin teachers will make the most out of the classroom geographies they are assigned to create a learning environment which can provide these experiences. But it is hard to be fighting our furniture all the time.

Lena Dunham (’08) – Tiny Furniture

As much as I try to make 100- and 200-level classes (from 20-50 students) student-centered, I often feel trapped behind the technology console: I’m a (supposed) “sage” who is quite consciously trying to get off the stage, but there I am, in front.  Further, what we know of “universal design,” is that design (whether of buildings, classrooms, or course instruction) should take everyone into account from the ground up, not “accommodate” to special needs. Our classrooms, as currently configured, don’t take our students’ different learning styles into account. Again, we do our best to “accommodate,” to make it work. But shouldn’t we be designing for student learning from the beginning?

The more I think about this, the more I wonder what it would be like to have a classroom that was capable of supporting what we know about how students learn. What if Oberlin faculty  had a fully flexible classroom space, with modular furniture (both chairs and tables on casters), and tables that could hold 6-7 students, that could be shifted easily to meet the demands of a particular class session, with decentralized computing and networking (where there were flat-screens in 3 of the room’s corners and white/black boards on at least three walls)? (Photos of two examples, from Brown and the University of Minnesota, Rochester, are below.)

Helpfully, researchers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tried just such an experiment to evaluate the impact of  a variety of factors in a classroom design on student learning and engagement. You can find the full results of the study (Stern Neill and Rebecca Etheridge, “Flexible Learning Spaces: The Integration of Pedagogy, Physical Design, and Instructional Technology”) as a pdf on the web or in Blackboard. They conclude that “student-centered approaches to learning require a physical space that adapts to learner demands. Using modular furniture and accessible information technology better supports alternative approaches to teaching and learning. As instruction moves toward co-creation of the learning experience, the flexible, networked classroom provides an appropriate physical setting. Investment in flexible learning space design supports students and faculty and reinforces institutional commitment to educational excellence”(p. 7).

So here’s what I propose: Select 3-4 classrooms around the campus (King, Peters, the Science Center and Bibbins) to be fitted with modular furniture, accessible information technology,  three-wall displays (flat screens and white/black boards). All faculty who are interested in more active, experimental pedagogy can request the rooms while (for the purpose of evaluation), they will also be assigned to other faculty. Enlist some of the faculty with good experience in experimental research design to modify the Cal Poly experiment to our own needs and environment, and then rigorously assess the impact of classroom design on student learning.

Let me know what you think and what other ideas you may have on this subject or ideas for changes on campus that can positively impact student learning.

Steve Volk (Feb. 24, 2013)

Classroom in Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. Photo: S. Volk

Andy Petzold talking with students during a biology class at the University of Minnesota Rochester. (Photo: Suzanne Pekow)