INSPIRE - the Teaching Fellows' newsletter

Some thoughts on inclusivity awareness: every little helps

 By Edward Currie, Faculty of Science and Technology

When dealing with different needs, and particularly with disability, the University has robust procedures for evaluation of students’ impairments and putting in place appropriate adjustments, such as assigning note-takers and allowing more time for assessments. While such adjustments are undoubtedly valuable, a little extra thought and care from us as lecturers can also make a great deal of difference.

For example, I once had a student in a first year computer science class with a number of impairments, which included poor motor skills. He had a note-taker assigned to him, but this was of little value in a typical CS lab class, where the emphasis is on learning by doing. Furthermore, tasks in this class often involve working with mathematical symbols and diagrams, with which the note-taker was unfamiliar. At an early stage, I watched how the student interacted with our learning materials, and I tried to establish how his impairments affected that interaction. As a result, I felt that I needed to modify the way in which I conducted assessment, to  minimize the stress on the student, while still enabling him to be fairly assessed.  I found that the fine-grained assessment strategy we use in the first year, which is based on observing students completing many small tasks, provided flexibility in interpretation, which in turn enabled me to effectively assess this student’s achievement without requiring him to write large amounts of text. For example, exercises on propositional logic normally require students to construct so-called truth tables, which necessitate a level of draughtsmanship that was difficult for this student. Instead, I asked him to explain how the table should be constructed, then I drew out the structure of the table, leaving him to enter the required logic values, which are single symbols. Thereby, I was able to assess the student’s knowledge and skills with reference to the learning outcomes without requiring him to undertake what was (for him) a major writing exercise. I found that other aspects of the assessment could be adapted in similar ways to enable the student to demonstrate his skills without unduly stressing him.

The impact of these relatively minor adjustments was that the student was freed from what were, for him, laborious and stress-inducing tasks and able to focus on the essential elements of learning the subject. I learned that sometimes, small changes to one’s procedures can make a big difference and when dealing with a student with impairments, one should examine the required classroom activities through the lens of that student’s needs, to see where adjustments can be made to facilitate their learning.