10 things to consider for a more accessible curriculum

The great work of AHEAD in Ireland in promoting Universal Design for Learning prompted me to develop the ethos of considering UDL in the chemistry curriculum here at Edinburgh. I was discussing with UDL expert Damian Gordon of DIT some of his thoughts on what lecturers can do to make their curriculum more accessible. True to form, Damian quickly generated 10 things to consider, and then a further 10. They’re brilliant checklists.

I’ve compiled 10 of my own below. The aim here is to say to any lecturer: while you are writing your lectures or thinking about assessments, here are some things that aren’t that difficult to do, but can make life a lot easier for lots of people.

1.      Welcome/induction/introductory lab information in video or podcast format.

The first week of any year can be overwhelming with new information. A short video highlighting the main points for beginning the year allows all students to review in their own time.

2.      Provide associated text (allowing text to speech options) for lecture notes.

When writing new lecture notes, put the main points of each slide in the Notes section. Exporting these annotations separately (File > Export > PDF (Options: Publish Notes)) means that students can use text to speech readers to hear associated notes with each of your slides. You can also use these notes as a script and subtitles if you wish to create a video summary of your presentation. Designing with multiple uses in mind minimises later effort.

3.      Figures/diagrams on lecture notes are beneficial but…

Figures and diagrams can help students survey a lot of information but need explanatory notes. If possible, include the source of the figure (webpage/book) on the slide so that students have the link to read more about its context. Figure captions, including reaction mechanisms etc, can include the main highlights so that they can be picked up by text to speech software. Links to learning resources (e.g. ChemTube3D, spectroscopy simulators) can allow students interact with diagrams further.

4.      Provide specific reading lists for your course in advance and annotate them briefly.

There is a balance between students developing the skills to find information and time wasted in navigating a large amount of text for specific information. Reading lists can point to chapters and sections in chapters. It’s especially helpful if you link particular topics on lecture slides to specific places in reading lists. This applies to lab manuals also. If you wish to fade this support over time, a first step might be to suggest words to look up in the index of a reading list book for a particular topic.

5.      Mind-maps facilitate organisation of thoughts.

Mind-maps are useful for getting an overall sense of a topic, course, or laboratory experiment. Encourage their use by students by presenting your course overview or laboratory experiment as a mind-map. They are easy to do on Microsoft, or there are lots of free online tools. In general, helping students develop their own visual representations of subject matter is a great way to develop their understanding.

6.      Surprises mean students can’t prepare.

An unplanned handout in lab class can be very stressful for students who need to prepare in advance.  Ensure lab manuals contain everything they need to have. Manuals presented electronically as individual experiments save time when using text to speech.

7.      Feedback versus feed forward.

When correcting work consider the difference between making corrections to justify the mark or “for the record” (feedback) and the take home messages that you want the student to think about the next time they try a similar task (feed forward). Often these two different messages are confused, and there is too much information to discern the headline points. A summary statement or key point to take away can be useful for feeding forward. Grading forms on electronic submissions allow this to be done well.

8.      Academic writing and presentations.

The reading and writing activities necessary in academic writing and presentations add an extra burden onto the process of crafting an essay or presentation. Offer your student the opportunity to give you a pre-draft verbal overview of how they intend the article or presentation to look (perhaps develop a mind-map). If you notice a written draft with substantial mistakes, aim to focus feedback on improving the chemistry, and suggesting that the student gets an independent reader to help with the spelling and grammar for the final copy.

9.      Tutorials.

If there is always just a few students who speak up in tutorials, arranging it so that students work in sub-groups of three to four can help. Letting them report back periodically means that there is more chance to keep an eye on progress, while everyone is getting involved.

10.  Formatting issues.

Be aware of specific issues regarding design of learning materials. Colour slides with an off-white/cream background and a sans-serif font (e.g. Calibri, Arial, or open source font considering readability (http://www.dyslexiefont.com/en/dyslexie-font/)) are helpful. Note however that these fonts must be installed on PCs where you will use them e.g. a computer in a lecture theatre. A list of suitable common fonts is at: http://www.dyslexic.com/fonts.

11. And finally… Text to speech software on all lab PCs.

Lab PCs should have text to speech software installed, with appropriate files for each lab available for any student wishing to avail of them. Free software for this purpose includes “Free Natural Reader” (http://www.naturalreaders.com/).