By Cynthia Rutz, Director, Valparaiso Institute for Teaching and Learning (VITAL)

 Many of our students are struggling right now. Some are hampered by two years of lockdown and missed learning. Others have learning disabilities, whether diagnosed or not.  How can you help these students succeed in your classes?  Christina Hearne, Director of the Access & Accommodations Resource Center provides some simple ideas you can implement right now to help with student learning. Then Ruth Wertz (General Engineering) explains how she gives her students multiple chances to master a skill.


Christina Hearne: Making Your Classes Accessible to All

Different students learn differently.  Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes that into account by providing teachers with a set of principles and a structure to help them meet the diverse needs of all learners. UDL is based on neuroscientific research about how the brain recognizes, processes, organizes, evaluates, and responds to varied types of information. (Meyer, Rose & Gordon 2014).

What Christina Hearne  likes best about UDL is its three basic principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.  From her work as Director of the Access & Accommodations Resource Center, she knows that one size does not fit all for VU students. A single way of presenting information or engaging students doesn’t work for everyone.  

On the other hand, Christina has seen that when faculty give students purposeful options to show what they know, then they apply the principles they have learned.  With this method, students are learning for a lifetime, not just cramming for the exam.  ( See Beyond Exams: Other Ways To Measure Student Learning for how Mandy Brobst-Renaud gives her students options for presenting their learning.) 

Christina would like faculty to know that you have many more neurodivergent students and students with invisible disabilities in your classes than you may realize.  Many mental illness diagnoses are not made until the ages of 18-25.  Many students will not self-disclose even though they might benefit from accommodations.  Some may have had a bad experience with peers who think they are getting an unfair advantage or gaming the system. Others had teachers dismiss their accommodations in the past because “they won’t get them in the real world,” even though many workers do get reasonable accommodations in their jobs.

In addition, after two years of COVID, many of our students need more help than in the past. While some high schools pivoted well to online learning, some of your students may have just spent two years at home with a parent and their computer, sometimes passing their classes with minimal effort. (Some schools mandated pass/fail grading during the lockdown.) These students might seem perfectly OK one day and then are filled with anxiety the next.  We need to help these students engage more fully with their peers and with our class content.

So here are some simple things Christina thinks faculty could do to help all your students succeed now and become lifelong learners: 

  1. Begin each class or power point presentation with your learning goals/objectives.  Write on the board or on your PP slides the 2 or 3 things you want students to get from this particular class session. This keeps them from merely writing down every word that you say. Knowing your goals, they will have a better sense of what to focus on in their note-taking or later studying. 
  2. Give students access to your notes, recorded lectures,  or PP slides.  She knows that faculty worry about intellectual property.  However, students with ADHD, dyslexia, or auditory processing disorders simply cannot process information as quickly as you are speaking it.  The ability to go back and listen again or read again will help these students process information, making them more engaged with the class. Other students will also benefit from the chance to review the information in another format. 
  3. Repeat the Question.  When a student asks a question in class, even if you think everyone heard it, repeat the question, especially  if it is a question that other students may share.  Some of your neurodivergent students are so focused  on you in class that they literally cannot hear or process what another student has said. Other students may just be temporarily distracted.  You could also phrase your response in such a way that the question is clear. 
  4. Explain in writing what an assignment is meant to accomplish.  Neurodivergent students in particular need to know WHY they are doing what they are doing:  what skill are they learning or what real-life application does this assignment have?  But every student will benefit from knowing why you are giving a particular assignment.  
  5. Use multiple formats for important concepts:  When you cover the most crucial concepts for your class, be sure to present it in multiple ways: charts, graphs, videos, etc. Brain research shows that we retain information better when we receive it in multiple ways.  When we present information in only one way we leave many learners behind.


Ruth Wertz: Helping Students Master Skills

Ruth Wertz enthusiastically embraces UDL in her classes. She also uses the principles of mastery-based learning, as does most of the Electrical & Computer Engineering department. Mastery-based learning focuses on students mastering the necessary skills, even if it takes them several attempts. Her innovative teaching brought her the 2021 American Society for Engineering Education Outstanding Teacher Award (Illinois/Indiana section). 

Ruth is especially sensitive to students who process information differently because she was diagnosed two years ago with ADHD, which includes moderate dyslexia and a moderate auditory processing disorder. But even before her diagnosis, Ruth had always known that if a person talks for more than 10 minutes, she had trouble focusing on what is being said. She also struggles to decode someone who speaks with a heavy accent.  So she always felt like she needed something from her schooling that she was not getting. That is why she makes sure to check in with students who seem to be struggling in her classes.

Her first step is to meet the student in person to assess what tools they may be missing.  She asks them how they are preparing for class, what goals they have set and how they go about meeting those goals.  She calls this “seeking the crack in the foundation.” Often it turns out students have never had a conversation about how they learn.

Because not every student learns on the same timetable, Ruth makes sure to vary the kinds of things she asks them to do through a mix of daily and weekly assignments. The daily “skill development assignments” are for routine practice; she allows students to keep trying until they get it right. These assignments are not worth much, but they keep students using the skills they are learning. 

She tells students that the most important part of getting something wrong is revising it right away. So she has them turn in a google doc showing their work. But she looks only at their final answer.  If they get it wrong, she provides the correct answer and they can try again.

After that first submission, students can get help on the revision from classmates or the Hesse Learning Center. They only get credit for the assignment once they get it right and can show their work. She sees this revision process as a confidence builder for the exams, where they face problems similar to those they have already mastered. 

Her exams also use mastery-based learning techniques. Students first take the exam in class. If they do not get full points, they may take it up to two more times after a review session that they must schedule and participate in.  The rationale is to reward practice and revision, even if mastery is slower to develop for some.

Since this exam structure is unusual for first-year students, Ruth explains it in her syllabus as follows: “This model values your learning just as much if it happens on the first try as it does on the third. Think about that… your knowledge does not get less valuable just because you have to work for it.” 

In general, Ruth tries to interrupt her teacher talk after 10 minutes with some discussion or problem-solving time so that students can process.  When presenting new information, variation is the rule, since not everyone learns a concept in a single way. She also makes allowances for those who can’t learn on a given timetable. 

In conclusion, Ruth finds that teaching this way can be a double-edged sword. Her student evaluation comments sometimes ding her for being too lax.  She realizes that engineers love their deadlines, so she does establish some firm deadlines with consequences if they are missed.  But, as she tells her students, everything in between is negotiable.