Student-centered teaching requires us to make our learning environments accessible and inclusive. When students are unable to fully participate in class because of environmental, pedagogical, and/or attitudinal barriers, our teaching is not truly student-centered. This chapter introduces strategies and resources for creating and maintaining an accessible and inclusive classroom. It explores what an “accessible and inclusive classroom” is and what steps you can take to create one through your teaching.
What is an Inclusive Community?
As part of the Forward with Integrity framework, McMaster University has identified “building an inclusive community, promoting equity and fairness, and celebrating our rich diversity” as a major strategic focus. McMaster describes an inclusive community as “one in which there is real, visible, and meaningful representation of the diversity evident in the wider community at all levels and in all constituencies on campus (faculty, staff, students, administration). It is a community in which all members feel safe and empowered, valued and respected for their contributions to the shared purposes of the University. It is a community where the rights of all individuals and groups are protected. Inclusion occurs when an organization provides equitable access to its services, benefits and opportunities, when systems and structures facilitate full participation by all members and where members are treated equitably and fairly and are recognized for their contributions. The key ingredients are equitable access, participation (especially in decision-making processes) and equal attention to the needs and aspirations of all.”
In particular, an inclusive community is one that shares three core values: respect, collaboration, and diversity. You can read more about these values in the McMaster University Statement on Building an Inclusive Community with a Shared Purpose.
What is an Inclusive and Accessible Classroom?
An inclusive classroom is a classroom in which all students and instructors are invited and welcomed to contribute ideas, views, and concerns. In turn, an accessible classroom is one in which accessibility is fostered and where accommodations are established and supported by teachers and students alike. In an inclusive and accessible classroom, content is selected from a broad range of sources and is presented through a variety of teaching methods. Everyone in the class is collectively responsible for contributing to the accessible and inclusive classroom by asking questions, challenging assumptions, and allowing for mistakes to be made. Teaching assistants and instructors also have the responsibility of providing individual accommodations to create accessible classroom spaces and experiences.
What is Accessibility? What Does Accommodation Mean?
In the context of the university, accessibility refers to the extent to which students, faculty, teaching assistants, and staff can access all McMaster classes, resources, and experiences at the time that they are needed and without encountering any barriers. In keeping with good pedagogical practice, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, university education must be accessible. This can sometimes mean that accommodations are put in place for students with disabilities, as well as for students who may require accommodations for other reasons, including religious, spiritual or indigenous observances.
Accommodation is a process that is formally triggered when Student Accessibility Services (SAS) identifies a barrier that may negatively affect a student’s ability to achieve learning outcomes. Common accommodations include additional time for assessments and the use of a note taker. Student Accessibility Services communicates these accommodations to the professor, who should inform you, the TA, of what changes are required in your teaching environment. The teaching team is responsible for fulfilling the accommodation, but is not entitled to know why a student has an accommodation. Bear in mind that students do not always want or need accommodations to be applied to all of their courses. Teaching staff should consult with Student Accessibility Services and encourage students to discuss what their needs are in a particular course.
Students may also approach you about accommodations independently of Student Accessibility Services. For example, a student may indicate that a significant personal issue is preventing them from completing their assignments on time. In consultation with the instructor, you may use your discretion to determine the most appropriate allowances that will enable the student to meet the learning outcomes.
Tips for Creating an Accessible and Inclusive Classroom
- Integrate principles of universal design into your teaching. Universal design is an approach that asks you to consider how you can make learning experiences more accessible to a greater number of students from the outset, rather than when a request for accommodation is made. You can learn about universal design principles in the Flex Forward Teaching and Learning Resource.
- Recognize and work to remove any barriers that might keep a student from fully participating in your class. Barriers can be found in attitudes, in the architecture of a classroom, in the way communication is carried out, in the ways technology is used, in the way assessments are designed, and in other realms. To find out more about each of these barriers, you can go to the Accessibility@Mac website.
- Get to know your students! If you are comfortable doing so, tell them a little about yourself (e.g., relate your interest in the course subject matter or briefly describe your research project) and allow them the chance to tell you something about themselves in return. You could do this by inviting each of them to visit you during office hours, to send an email, or by chatting before and after class. This can function as an invitation for students who wish to discuss formal accommodations with you, as well as for students who might wish to share information about what names or pronouns they use (if these are different than the information on your class list). You can also encourage your students to get to know one another. You could do this by working in small groups, having a round table discussion, or working with partners as part of your class activities.
- During initial introductions, if you are comfortable doing so, share your pronouns when you introduce yourself. This can serve as an invitation to other students to do the same, and signals to students that you will be understanding and respectful of the way they wish to be addressed. It is important, however, that you do not implicitly or explicitly require individuals to share their pronouns. You can also have students introduce themselves, rather than calling names off of a class list, so that students who use a different name than is recorded on their official documentation have the opportunity to introduce themselves as they wish to be known.
- Create classroom guidelines with your tutorial or lab group during the first class of the year. Specify what your expectations are for participation, attendance, deadlines, and classroom behaviour and discussion, and allow students the opportunity to respond to these expectations and to contribute their own. For example, how will you respond to disruptive students? What is the phone policy in your tutorial or lab? Be prepared to challenge students (or yourself) when you do not meet these expectations.
- When setting your attendance policy and keeping track throughout the term, make sure you are aware of religious holidays that may exempt some students from attending a particular class. You can view the Multicultural Calendar on the Equity and Inclusion Office’s website to find out when particular holidays fall in a given year. McMaster also has a Policy on Religious, Indigenous, and Spiritual Observances that extends appropriate accommodations to individuals on those grounds.
- Be sure that you systematically take attendance and do not rely on your memory to note how often particular students have missed classes. If a student raises a concern about attendance related to accessibility, meet with the student and the course instructor to review their letter of accommodation and adhere to the specific accommodation needs outlined. Ensure that you, the student, and the instructor understand the accommodation being made.
- Clearly explain your grading criteria to your students (for example, by providing a rubric) and allow an opportunity for students to express any concerns they might have about the criteria. Make sure you clearly communicate (both orally and in writing) what modes of evaluation you will be using. Outline explicitly how grade disputes will be handled. If this is not already in the syllabus, you might want to create a written copy of these criteria and ask the course instructor to post it on Avenue to Learn, as well as distributing copies in your lab or tutorial, if possible.
- In class discussions, strive to use variety in your cultural reference points or ask for examples from your students in order to maintain diversity in the kinds of examples that circulate. For example, when using examples of names, seek to draw from a spectrum of linguistic and geographical backgrounds. If discussing families or domestic life, work to represent a variety of family forms and structures. Encourage students to think critically about what is presumed to be ‘normal’ in your field of study.
- Your instructional strategies and assessment tools should likewise be varied. If you prefer one instructional strategy to another (e.g., organized debate over discussion), consider including a handout, video link, chart, or group follow-up discussion to allow students who learn in various ways to be included. Shifting your teaching format will help to draw more students into participating and create more opportunities for students who may be reluctant to engage.
- Give students frequent opportunities to provide you with anonymous feedback, both about the course content and about how the class is run. Be prepared to respond to the feedback either by making changes or by explaining to your students why you cannot make a particular change.
- Recognize and respect the confidentiality of students’ academic accommodations. As a teaching assistant, the only way that you will learn about accommodations is through the professor or by student disclosure. Many students find it very difficult to disclose, even to you and the professor, that they have a disability. Remember that students are not required to talk with you about their diagnosis, nor should you ask. Be careful not to breach a student’s confidentiality by drawing attention to their disability or to their accommodations in a classroom setting. Discussions related to this subject should take place in a private setting (for example, in your office).
If you would like to know more about accessible teaching, contact the MacPherson Institute for consultations and workshop opportunities about accessibility and universal design. If you have further questions about accommodations more broadly, contact the Disability Counselors in Student Accessibility Services. If you have more questions or concerns about equity and inclusion, contact the Equity and Inclusion Office.