How to Think about Student Learning: AccessIn addition to thinking about the relationships, design of our interactions, and teaching practices, we should frame all of our interactions in terms of providing access for learners.
Why is access so important? For in-person interactions, access takes the form of physically being able to enter and interact in our buildings, classrooms, and lab spaces; as well as the ability to get and use needed course materials like textbooks, lab materials, and course supplies.
On campus, our students still need access to our course materials, and they also need access to one another, to their instructors, to support services, and to the wider world.|
Video: Meet Stan
Stan is a composite of college students across the UW-Madison service area. For every student from the Madison area who studies with us, there is another student from outside Wisconsin — international students or, like Stan, learners from nearby cities in Wisconsin or the Midwest. All of our learners, whether they are from around the corner or around the world, have similar access needs.
Access Is about Lowering Barriers
We strengthen our students’ learning (and save ourselves from a lot of re-teaching and re-explaining) the more that we give students the chance to study, practice, and engage outside of formal class meetings. The neuroscience behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL) informs practices that we can adopt in order to lower student access barriers. We also address UDL in terms of course design.
An access mindset is different from making accommodations for students with disability documentation. Accommodation is making one change, one time, for one person. It is labor-intensive and narrow in scope and benefit. Rather, think about the interactions that you ask your students to have with the materials for your course, with each other, with you as the instructor, and with the wider world. Consider how you can provide access to those interactions beyond the formal course meeting times or methods — that’s how to decide where to begin with your efforts to increase access for your students.
You don’t need to guess about where to expand access first in your course. One way to learn more about students’ access challenges is to ask them directly: send a survey or ask them to respond in a form, and ask them to describe the tools and practices that they use most often in order to study, interact, and show their skills.
Now that you have a framework for thinking about your students’ access to the various elements of your course and the interactions in it, take a few minutes to plan where you will start taking action to lower access barriers for your students.
In a separate note-taking file, make two columns for your thoughts.
In the first column, list the interactions that you ask your students to engage in throughout a course that you teach. Include things like taking in background information, engaging in course conversations, individual study, talking with you, taking quizzes and tests, lab work, and so on.
In the corresponding area of the second column, think of at least two ways that students could get access to the information, interactions, or people listed in the first column.
For example, for a course discussion about a key concept (column 1), students could engage live or post comments on a discussion forum.
Once you have filled in both columns, review the information for common “themes” around access to information, and select and work on implementing the top two or three access expansions that would help students better to understand or practice with concepts that often challenge them.
You can expand on this exercise by thinking about where increased access can lead to better relationship building or smoother teaching interactions between you and your students. Reviewing those topics can help you to select which elements to work on first.