During the move to emergency remote teaching in March 2020, many instructors put empathy at the heart of their courses. Assignments were removed and some due dates were extended, while greater emphasis was put on ungraded quizzes. The common thread? Accommodation and accessibility became staples of the student learning experience. And that doesn’t have to end with the return of in-person learning.

This fall, make sure you continue to create an empathetic course environment and put student needs first by making simple adjustments to your syllabus, communication strategy and accessibility and equity efforts. Here are 6 ways to do just that.

1. Commit to a ‘basic needs security statement’

The pandemic exacerbated socioeconomic and financial concerns for many students. A basic needs security statement on your syllabus serves as an important reminder of the resources available on campus and can help those in need. This statement conveys support for students’ basic needs—whether financial, housing or food insecurity, to name a few—and can help struggling students learn about the resources available to them. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice also offers a sample basic needs security statement for you to adapt for your next syllabus.

2. Use an annotated syllabus

Annotating a syllabus is the process of inviting students to mark up your course document with any questions or seek clarification pertaining to concepts, lectures, due dates and more. This process reminds students that your syllabus isn’t static and that your planned activities and policies can change accordingly to help them thrive. This activity can additionally incentivize shy or international students to share what they are—and aren’t—satisfied with in your course without having to verbally participate. 

Consider facilitating this activity in a Google Doc in small groups or tutorials, allowing students to capture their questions and concerns either live or asynchronously. The process of annotation can also be a social activity that lets students better understand who’s in the same boat as them. Annotation also promotes close reading, ensuring that all students are familiar with what your expectations are when it comes to lectures, readings, assignments and more—and where to seek help.

3. Give students the option of attending virtual office hours

No one enjoys heading across campus to ask for clarification on a course concept. Plus, with forms of blended learning likely to continue for the foreseeable future, not all students will be able to attend live office hours. Switching to asynchronous or appointment-based office hours can be an effective solution.

Alternatively, try what Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, calls radical availability. Miller swaps traditional office hours for an online scheduler system to meet students’ needs in a more immediate way. This system also lets students reach out for help at a time and place that suits them.

4. Frequently survey students

At the start of the term, consider surveying students with the likes of a student interest inventory to gauge prior knowledge of course concepts and what learners hope to get out of your course. These insights can help you design a tailored course that matches the needs of your students, which in turn, can level the playing field for every learner.

During your course, continue running stop-start-continue exercises where students can share what they want you to stop doing, start doing and continue doing with respect to your course delivery. You may want to facilitate these pulse checks anonymously in order to maximize participation and help students succeed academically from day one.

5. Consider the needs of historically excluded students

Empathy in the classroom also means accommodating students who are likely to feel unseen or invisible—which can be the experience of minority students. Beyond checking in with these learners frequently, use the following tactics to support marginalized groups in any course.

  • Emphasize the contributions of diverse scholars to inspire success for underrepresented students and highlight how your discipline has benefitted from a multitude of viewpoints
  • Offer feedback that speaks to work ethic and improvement as opposed to intrinsic ability, which is proven to improve academic performance
  • Facilitate peer-peer teaching, where students sign up for a topic of their choice and teach the class about it in order to lower levels of intergroup prejudice
  • Grade student work anonymously in order to avoid activating potential stereotypes that may lead to microaggressions or biased evaluation based on one’s identity—or randomly assign x number of papers to your teaching assistants to grade

6. Complement your live lectures with recordings and transcripts

Give everyone flexibility in how they consume course content by recording your lectures using a platform such as Loom or Panopto. Other options like Kaltura allow educators to record lectures with automatic transcription.

Keep disabilities top of mind when forming your next course. Holly Scott-Gardner, a postgraduate student in the field of Social and Public Policy at the University of Leeds—and someone who is blind—offers suggestions on how educators can create more accessible classrooms.

  • Share slides in advance: Post your slideshow to your LMS in advance of your lecture to give blind students enough time to set up their assistive technology. This practice can also support those with invisible disabilities.
  • Ask students about their access needs if you’re unsure: Invite students to stay back after class to share what barriers they might face. From here, work with them to make simple adjustments—such as adding alternative text to all images in your lectures. Even if you’re not sure how to help your students, be open to learning and don’t be afraid to communicate that to your learners. Consider facilitating these discussions anonymously to make students feel comfortable sharing—Top Hat’s discussions can help.

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