Universal Design, Accessible Lectures, and Other Fun Buzz-Words — Michelle Ashburner, AccessAbility Services

blogI love the chalk-and-talk lecture in math. I have had the pleasure of teaching thousands of first-years, and with lots of questions, discussions, pauses, and well-formatted notes, the chalkboard lecture can go a long way. It forces students to attend lectures if they want notes directly from the instructor, allows for the presentation of dynamic visual and symbolic material, and most importantly allows for quick correction of mistakes.

Ever since I have been working with the AccessAbility Services office, I have met many students who have disabilities that interfere with their learning in the classroom environment. These students, most of whom have an above-average to superior IQ, have found wonderful ways of compensating. They have inspired me to work on making my lectures more user-friendly to persons with disabilities (Accessible Lectures), as well make my course more readily absorbed by students in general (Universal Design).

The most challenging thing to do here was with regards to testing. The main idea of creating an accessible assessment is to provide choice. In the humanities, for example, students might choose between a 40% exam, a 40% essay, or 20% split between the two. Perhaps in a history class a student could perform an exam orally while another could write a paper exam. Everyone has a preferred learning style and strength of expression, and for students with learning disabilities, being able to use this strength is of even more importance.

Well, what choice can one give with math exams? Traditionally the math midterm is a collection of questions on paper, and the possibility of an oral exam, or an essay in lieu of a problem-style written exam is out of the question. There aren’t enough resources to issue oral exams to 400 students, nor can we ensure that students understand mathematical reasoning and calculations if they are to write an essay composed entirely of text.

The exam that I gave this term was made with large font in LaTeX (which looks like 14-16pt when printed), lots of white space, and clear instructions for each question. After two common questions, the exam splits into a Part 1 and a Part 2, and students are instructed to complete one part or the other. Part 1 is mostly composed of word problems, while Part 2 is mostly composed of algorithmic problems. Part 1 does contain algorithmic, calculation-based material, and Part 2 does require students to create problem spaces and to translate wording into math; they are just presented differently.

Of 400 exams, about 230 students chose to do mostly word problems, while the rest chose the algorithmic thinker option. Keep in mind that deconstructing a word problem and going through the steps of solving takes time, so that there were more questions in Part 2 (yet the points per part were the same).

Students with a case of math anxiety (there are SO many in my classes!) can consider the algorithmic part as opposed to freezing when coming in contact with only word problems under a time constraint. They will continue to hone their word problem solving skills within the tutorial environment, where they may choose to work on a group assignment or on their own. Come the final exam, they will be more prepared for the word problems that await them.

In my experience, those who are verbally strong and are more comfortable learning the “soft” sciences tend to be more linear and algorithmic mathematics students, while those that are more comfortable going through an unpredictable journey with a math puzzle and have a more developed mathematical intuition tend to be less restricted to linear thinking. They could be characterized as “global,” or “intuitive” learners. Honestly, learning styles change and studies continue to bring light to the learning styles and strengths that tend to go together. All I have to go on is what I’ve learned from my students thus far.

It has helped me immensely to see the perspectives of my students at AccessAbility Services. When I present a word problem, I always read the text after having them read it on their own; I give breaks to process information; I try to have the learning as active as possible by prompting discussion, asking questions, and holding votes (we have very poor voter turnout in my classes. I am worried about the future of democracy).  I have digitized note outlines posted on LEARN in 14 point font, which are optional to use, but require attendance to have a complete set. My tutorial assignment instruction sheets encourage any student with difficulty producing written solutions to contact me by email, phone, or in person to discuss alternatives. I allow technology in the classroom (a whole other discussion on its own!), and I try not to assume ability to see in colour.

I have enjoyed the challenge of making an accessible math course so far, and I am looking forward to updating you all when term is over. Your thoughts will make this venture more of a success. Contact me any time.