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Accessible teaching strategies

“Accessibility is about recognizing that access is a complex, relational configuration as people move and share space together. Accessible teaching requires us to be in conversation with and responsive to our students.”

Stephanie Kerschbaum, UW professor and disability studies scholar

As Kerschbaum suggests, accessibility is a mindset and an ongoing process of planning, designing, and adapting our teaching around the needs of our students. While designing accessible, inclusive learning environments is essential for meeting the needs of students with disabilities, doing so also helps all of our students learn and succeed.

Integrating accessible, inclusive strategies into your teaching practice takes effort. However, investing in accessible teaching strategies can reduce last-minute scrambling, saves time spent remediating inaccessible materials, and may reduce the need for students to request accommodations through the Disability Resources for Students office.

This page shares general and specific strategies that will help enhance the accessibility of your course materials and teaching practices.

General strategies

General Strategies

  1. Frame accessibility as a process and mindset. On the first day and in your syllabus, acknowledge that creating accessible spaces and experiences is an ongoing process and indicate your willingness to learn and be flexible.
  2. Encourage participation in advancing accessibility. Consider working with students to co-create community agreements or grading criteria that address accessibility.
  3. Have students explore accessible formats. Consider sharing the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” Checklist with students so that they can develop documents and files that are more accessible.

  1. Learn from the past. Reflect on what questions students had in the past and develop accessible resources you can deploy when these issues arise in subsequent classes.
  2. Plan your course well in advance. This will minimize your need to add things at the last minute, which can create accessibility challenges for some students.
  3. Point students to DRS right away. Include a statement in your syllabus explaining that students with disabilities who need accommodations should connect with the Disability Resources for Students office.

  1. Keep things simple. Reflect on whether the value of a technology tool outweighs the additional complexity, reliability issues, and accessibility challenges it might bring.
  2. Be wary of free tech. Technology is not automatically accessible and many free technologies available through the web are not accessible. Connect with UW Learning Technologies to explore what UW-supported technologies might fit your needs.

  1. Connect with UW Accessible Technology for guidance on developing accessible materials.
  2. Use UW’s accessible templates, which are designed for screen readers.
  3. Take advantage of Canvas

  1. Give students time to plan and prepare. Consider what information you can share in your syllabus, rubrics, and assignment instructions so that students can plan well in advance of due dates.
  2. Respond promptly to requests from the Disability Resources for Students office.
  3. Develop a library of reusable, well-captioned video lectures on core content.
  4. Place materials for in-class activities in Canvas. Having things like discussion questions, handouts, and group work instructions in Canvas gives students a digital version of these materials and also allows them to see materials in advance.
  5. Publicize timed exams. If your course has timed exams, let students know in your syllabus and encourage those who need additional time to contact Disability Resources for Students as soon as possible.

  1. Adopt Universal Design for Learning principles. Designing assignments that allow students a degree of choice in how to engage and demonstrate understanding can help students with accessibility needs succeed.
  2. Articulate the parameters of your flexibility. When integrating flexibility into your course and assignment design, be clear about your expectations. For example, you might decide that students need to complete late assignments before being able to begin the next assignment. Take time in your syllabus or on the first day to review this information.

Strategies for specific classroom situations

Strategies for specific classroom situations

  1. Develop a plan for how you will make impromptu activities or discussions accessible. For example:
    • Allow students to contribute to in-class discussions by posting comments in a Canvas discussion forum or shared Google document
    • Post announcements in Canvas that summarize impromptu class conversations.
  2. Give yourself time. If student feedback points to a need to adjust, give yourself time to respond in an accessible way. Implement your adjustment or follow-up instruction in a subsequent class session.
  3. Post new content/materials in Canvas. Post an announcement Canvas to preview changes so that students can think ahead.
  4. Develop a plan for make-up exams. Anticipate the need to offer make-up exams and set up clear expectations and processes ahead of time.
  5. Consider offering alternative assignments. Options (e.g., alternative assignments, smaller quizzes, and/or take home exams) provide students greater flexibility and agency.

  1. Provide information about resources. Consider including information about mental health support in your syllabus and/or on your Canvas site.
  2. Destigmatize anxiety. On the first day, acknowledge anxiety as a disability, note that you have adopted strategies to reduce classroom anxiety, and that the UW provides services for students struggling with anxiety.
  3. Give advance notice of sensitive content. Let students know in advance that a course or class session may include content or ideas they find upsetting.
  4. Build in flexibility. Creating due date “windows” (rather than single date deadlines) can provide students who experience an episode on a given day with an opportunity to complete work without having to seek an extension.
  5. Provide leave passes. Allow students a no-questions-asked pass that enables students to get up and leave without having to ask to do so. A lot of student anxiety is related to not being able to get out.
  6. Provide discussion questions in advance – ideally before class – as often as possible.
  7. Use “warm” calling rather than cold calling. Give students a chance to think about a question, jot down some ideas, and/or discuss it with a peer before you begin calling on them. Also, consider allowing students to “pass” when called on.
  8. Allow for written answers to questions. Provide opportunities for students to respond to questions in writing (e.g., turn in an exit slip or use an online forum).

  1. Establish or co-create community agreements to ensure that interaction is respectful and inclusive.
  2. Clearly define group roles and consider allowing students to choose their roles or suggest additional roles.
  3. Have groups use a shared doc to allow people to communicate in writing if they prefer.
  4. Call on the group rather than an individual during sharing out time. Consider asking: “What did your group talk about?” instead of “What is the answer?”
  5. Make peer review accessible
    • Give students enough time to complete the review. Consider having students review each other’s work as a homework assignment, and use class time for discussion of the review.
    • Make checking accessibility part of the process. Require students to check their work for basic accessibility before exchanging it with a peer. Consider having them use the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” checklist as a guide.

  1. Make accessibility an assignment expectation. Design assignments in a way that gives students time to make their materials accessible.
  2. Share information on how to make accessible materials. Consider point students to the UW Accessible Technology homepage and including the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” Checklist with your assignment instructions.
  3. Create accessible templates for students to use to share information.

  1. Ask students about their needs. Create ways for students to share what they need in order to engage and participate in the experience and how you as the instructor could support them (e.g., anonymous survey, 1×1 meeting).
  2. Allow learners to develop ideas for their own experiential learning. Consider allowing students to use resources, sites, and people in their own communities to meet your experiential learning objectives. Provide choices or examples of ways students can engage.
  3. Check that sites and facilities are accessible when planning an out-of-classroom experience.
  4. Video-record lab/field visits and use those to create alternative assignments for students to use in the event that they cannot attend.

The guidance and strategies on this page were developed from conversation with members of an Accessible Teaching Working Group convened by the UW Center for Teaching and Learning. For more information on state and federal accessibility requirements, visit the faculty and staff guidelines provided by the Disability Resources for Students Office.