The hidden classroom

Public School, 1892. (Boston Public Library)

As you stand at the front of your class, about to start the session, what do you see? What do you notice about your students? Who sits at the front? Who sits at the back? Who is chronically late? Who rarely makes it to class? Who always sits alone?

While we see our students at class, what do we really know about them? There was once a student in my class who consistently fell asleep. As a very new teacher, I was really surprised and, at times, wondered if there was something I was doing wrong. Was my class really that bad? I also wondered about the student and the choice to come to class just to sleep through it. The reality is that I don’t know why the student was falling asleep. Perhaps it was from the fatigue of working two or three part-time jobs in order to pay for school. Possibly, the student’s role outside class was the main caregiver for a sick relative. Maybe 3:30pm on Monday in a darkened 250-seat lecture hall just didn’t work.

In course design workshops, we ask participants to explore the context of their classroom. As part of that reflection, we discuss factors such as the class size, required/elective course, the distribution of majors and non-majors, TA support, etc. But what about the hidden context, the part we rarely hear about.

The reality is that we don’t know what is impacting students’ participation or engagement in our classes. I remember speaking with a colleague several years ago who spoke about how she never attended class. Having never pondered the idea of missing class when I was a student, and knowing how successful my colleague was at school, I was surprised. In essence, the lecture hall didn’t work for her. It was much better for her to learn from the textbook and the assignments. She wasn’t “skipping” class, she was making a choice that made sense for her as a learner.

Given that there is no way for us to know about all the contextual factors that are impacting our students’ success in our class (and, of course, online), what can we do? One option is to consider universal design, which focuses on design for all. Although its roots are in designing accessible places and spaces for persons with disabilities, anyone can benefit from this design modality. Consider curb cuts. Although originally designed to support people with mobility limitations, as a mom, I can tell you they are a blessing when you are pushing a stroller, your toddler is on their tricycle, or your pre-teen is pulling a wagon full of flyers to deliver. There are examples all around campus of design choices that originally served one purpose but benefited many others.

The same holds true for our courses. Thoughtful design that focuses on engaging a broader spectrum of learners, or one that was made consciously to support a specific group, can have far-reaching benefits. Consider transcriptions of video content. While this text helps students with hearing impairments, it can also be really helpful for students whose first language is not English. I would have loved podcasts and video content as a student simply because I am not the best note-taker in the world and am sure I lost a lot by scrambling to take notes. With a podcast, I would have the chance to go back to catch what I’d missed.

There are countless examples of how we can make small changes in our course’s design, our teaching methods, learning activities, and assessments, that can provide deep learning experiences for a broader spectrum of students. If you would like to explore this idea, why not join Jay Dolmage and I next Friday, March 8, as we explore universal design. For information about the workshop, please go to CTE’s events listing.


Published by

Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

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