Dr. William Neumann, Senior Lecturer and Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Management and Information Systems (MIS) at Eller College, has been teaching large freshman classes (MIS 111) since 2005. He has always worked with DRC to ensure that requested accommodations are available to his students. However, in the last few years he has begun to approach access more proactively, during course design.
When the University began to use Centennial Hall as a classroom, Dr. Neumann was one of the faculty members asked to teach in that space. While considering how he could modify his classes to effectively teach over 600 students in each lecture, Dr. Neumann also used the opportunity to infuse strategies to minimize individual accommodations for disabled students. Here he shares some of the course policies he has implemented, the thinking behind those decisions and how the changes have had positive results for him and all his students, including those who don’t use accommodations.
Considering Access and Accommodations in Course Design
Dr. William Neumann
My approach to access and accommodations is from a somewhat different perspective than most instructors due to the size of my classes (600-800 students per section). With classes this size, I have to expect that I will have students with disability. In most of my classes, about 1 student in a 100 uses accommodation, so an instructor teaching smaller classes might not have any requests for accommodations in a semester. For those instructors, addressing requests for accommodations on a case-by-case basis may make sense. However, in large classes, that same probability means that I will most likely have at least 10-20 students who request some type of accommodation every semester. For that reason accommodations (note-taking, extra time on exams, alternate format exam, assistive technologies, etc.) must be considered in my class design and not thought of an exception.
One of the things I’ve heard is that while accommodations are legally mandated for some individuals, we all benefit from accessibility features at times - like the wheelchair ramp I use when I have my cart of exams. Given that this is largely true, I try to design accommodations into my classes and then leverage them for the various situations that many of my students may encounter. For example, in defining the guidelines for students taking a test at the DRC, I create processes so that they also work for any remotely proctored exams. This allows me to use the same guidelines for requests to take exams at the DRC (for additional time or assistive technologies) as I use for the requests I get from Dean’s Excuses for academic and athletic activities. In fact, this is an instance where having guidelines I can apply consistently across the board makes my life easier. I create a consistent rule that makes it fairly easy for all students to understand when non-UA (personal) activities would even be considered for different test taking arrangements.
I also design my exams in ways that most students who use accommodations can feel comfortable taking exams during the regular class period. First, I offer clicker-based testing. All students get an exam booklet and a printed answer sheet (single-sided copy) and use their clickers to submit the results. This approach has several advantages. Since each student has a paper exam booklet, they can progress through the exam at their own pace and answer in any order. While students can enter responses in order directly into their clickers, the most common approach is to complete the written answer sheet and then enter the answers into the clickers. This allows students to use very flexible testing strategies, and ensures that technology does intrude on the testing process. If it works better, for example if a student has a physical disability, students can also simply write their answers on the answer sheet, and the class TA will enter the responses into a spreadsheet for processing. Since this is the same process I use for all remotely proctored exams, manually entering the answers isn’t an exception; it’s just part of our routine post-exam processing.
As to requests for extended test time, I’ve had a change of heart about exams in the last few years. In the past, I’ve felt that if I dedicate a class period to an exam, I need to “fill up” the entire hour. It’s basically the same approach I take when preparing a lecture – I need about 75 minutes worth of material to present. I used to think that having an exam that didn’t take the full class was “wasting time” – an opportunity cost, if you will. When I noticed that many students finished multiple choice exams quickly, I considered making longer exams – perhaps to test more concepts, but also because I felt the students themselves might consider the class was wasted on an exam that was too easy or didn’t challenge them sufficiently. However, as I’ve reconsidered that the academic content I am assessing, I’ve realized it was adequately tested in the “short form” exam, and consider that lengthening the exam would mostly likely just be adding redundant questions or broadening the scope to include secondary concepts that are not germane to the learning outcomes. Therefore, the result is that I’ve kept the shorter exams.
An unplanned advantage of a shorter exam is that, just as most students are able to finish the exam in 35-45 minutes, students with extended testing-taking time are able to finish it during the regular exam period as well. This not only “mainstreamed” the students but also made my grading process easier since I didn’t have to wait for exams to be returned from the DRC for grading. Since objective questions mostly focus on outcomes (what’s the correct answer?) and not the process (show your work), this also means that students who have language- related challenges with exams but who don’t meet the guidelines for formal accommodations can benefit from additional time. This includes students for whom English is a second language and students with general test-anxiety, among others. With shorter exams my classes become less intimidating for a lot of students, and I can feel comfortable that my assessments measure what students have learned and are less influenced by other student characteristics that are unrelated to the class material.
Overall, I’ve found that extra time on exams (especially on objective exams– true/false, multiple choice, and matching) does not provide any of my students with a material advantage, given that the average student completes the exam within the exam period. From my experience, when non-disabled students use extended time, they tend to second-guess correct answers and rarely have an epiphany about something they don’t know. What extra time does do is allow students with exam anxiety to relax. For some students, taking extra time lets them to deal with technology or language, or just use a more efficient approach to test-taking. Since objective tests don’t assess process (unless the exam is designed to evaluate efficiency and speed as a proxy for a particular method of determining answers), time really isn’t a measure of ‘fairness’ or the quality of assessment.
Although I have students complete online quizzes, I don’t time those assessments. Since online, out-of-class assessments cannot be proctored, I treat them simply as study guides. In fact, I encourage students to work together and discuss the answers – basically, I’m trying to encourage them to form ad hoc study groups and routinely engage with the course material. Is it likely there are some free-riders? Of course, however, I haven’t found that timing and randomizing online assessments does more than penalize the students who take the quiz first. While this may not be a good approach for high-stakes online exams, for simple review quizzes, I feel it works well. Beyond needing to consider whether a quiz will necessitate extended time for each student who uses accommodations, timing a quiz may also lead to more questions of “fairness” from the general student population. With timed online quizzes, students often complain that the network/server was slow, I became sick or needed a bio-break in the middle of an assessment, my computer locked up, my dog ate the keyboard, etc. – so not timing quizzes not only eliminates the issue of extended time as a test-taking accommodation, but also handles a broad range of other student issues and concerns regarding the “fairness” of these assessments.
The traditional approach to addressing requests for note-taking is to match-up DRC students with note-takers and have them hand-off notes (either hand-written or electronic) directly. There are several challenges to this approach. First, you (the instructor) have to perform a matching service, just like dorm room-mates, and you might need to repeat the process if the students aren’t compatible. Second, there may not be enough volunteer note-takers to match with students who request notes. Third, if a note-taker is sick, a student may not receive notes for one or more classes, and, as the instructor, you will likely be asked to find notes for those classes. Finally, even if everything works well, the learning styles of the student and the note-taker might not match (style of note-taking), or the knowledge and experience of the note-taker might be at a higher level, meaning that some of the “obvious” topics are omitted or only covered with a cursory explanation. In any case, even though we’ve set up a system that meets our legal obligation for a student to receive a note-taking accommodation, the overall result may fall short of the spirit of the accommodation – notes for the semester may not be a useful or effective learning tool.
Therefore, in my class, I setup a separate CMS (i.e., D2L or Blackboard) class for “MIS 111 Notetaking”, and I recruit multiple note-takers. I simply enroll all of the students with note-taking accommodations and all of the note-takers in that class. I ask each of the note-takers to post notes for each lecture as scanned, hand-written notes; annotated PPT files; Word documents; PDF files; etc. This approach has proven to solve the problems that I mentioned. One note-taker missing a class is not an issue, which also means that more students volunteer since they don’t feel they will “let down” a student if they miss a class. Also, sometimes note-takers are concerned that non-disabled students may see their notes and get a “free ride.” Since the CMS controls access, note-takers feel more comfortable knowing who has access to their notes. Likewise, since there are multiple versions of the notes (and even notes from different class sections), the students receiving the accommodation can find a set of notes that fits their learning style best. Also, the CMS allow you, as the instructor, to see if the notes are being accessed by the students. The overhead of managing the separate CMS class for note-taking is relatively small and well-worth the effort given the benefits.
In closing, it’s important to recognize that full access isn’t usually something that can be a “dealer installed option” after the course has been designed – when access is considered as part of the ground-up design at the factory, it is can be fluid and accommodations can be easily arranged. The way I approach exams works because I have other assessments that evaluate process and critical thinking, so the limitations of objectives exams are not significant. Likewise, my conscious decision that online assessments would focus on awareness, engagement and collaboration more than assessing individual knowledge helped me decide what flexibility could be built-in. Realigning a course to be more accessible works best when it is done at the design stage, not at the implementation stage.