Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula

There is a growing movement to not only include but also involve students in curricula decisions. Students in higher education have challenged the notion that they are customers receiving a transactional education and instead call for higher levels of participation and agency in their learning (Matthews et al., 2017). Students collaborating with institutions, programs, and faculty to design curricula is a framework known as students as partners, or student-faculty partnerships. At Portland State University, student body President Nya Mbock has called for more student involvement with faculty in the curriculum (Swordfisk, 2021).

Positive outcomes of student-faculty partnership include increased student engagement, motivation, and ownership for learning, a positive shift of power dynamics between faculty and student (toward more equitable power), engagement and empowerment for students who are historically excluded, and increased student confidence and self-determination (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).

With any approach to curricula, the intention of including students can end up harming students. It’s important to set intentions, to be transparent, and to reflect on how power affects the partnership. Without these intentional pieces, partnership work may end up tokenizing students and essentializing the student experience (Cook-Sather et al., 2014; de Bie et al., 2021). As a result, and despite good intentions, partnerships can reinforce the inequitable learning environments that they seek to disrupt. For example, partnership work may focus on an increased sense of belonging for students, which may be problematic when the institution students are invited to feel connected with has a history of erasure and colonization for some student populations (de Bie et al., 2021).

Example Partnership Approaches

Here are three examples of partnership approaches you can include in your own practice:

  • Student-faculty course design. This happens before a course is taught and when you are designing the course. A student or group of students collaborate with the faculty member on the design of a course. This might include a redesigned syllabus or elements such as course outcomes, a course assignment, or an entire course.
  • Students create and choose. This includes students in a course you are teaching. This might include having students choose the weekly discussion topics or create and vote on quiz questions, embedding students’ social bookmarking annotations to shape course content, or having students collaborate to create course content (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).
  • Partnerships in assessment. Invite students to identify grading criteria for an assignment or final essay or invite students to co-assess their own final presentations. Another example is to bring a rubric with past student papers (used with permission) and have current students grade the papers based on that rubric. Have a discussion about the rubric and invite students to offer suggestions on adapting it for their course term.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reflecting on how you currently involve students in your curriculum.
  2. Create a list of when students get to make decisions within your curriculum. (If this is currently  “never,” consider starting with a negotiated syllabus.)
  3. Acknowledge that this iterative process never really ends.

Examples in Practice

Negotiated Syllabus

Provide a diversity of materials in formats that remain consistent from week to week. Students choose which materials to engage with to learn the concepts outlined for that week. The focus of the negotiated syllabus is to highlight student agency within their learning by creating opportunities for students to choose the way they want to learn a concept.

For example, provide lecture slides, supplementary texts, and external videos covering the information being taught each week. From this collection, students can choose which items are most useful to them and will have reliable access to their preferred materials for each new topic.

Reflection

Reflect on the level at which students make decisions and identify opportunities to increase student involvement: Hold a discussion with students in class to determine course learning outcomes and discuss how predetermined assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Be prepared to make small changes to assignments based on the class discussion. This is expected, as every class will have different students. The discussion may also yield ideas for new or different assignments to help the class meet their co-created learning outcomes.

Alternatively, hold a discussion with students in class to create course assignments based on predetermined course outcomes and how these assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Identity Expression

Integrate the student voice into your course by providing ample room for identity expression and application of the material to students’ own lived experiences — in ways such as including languages spoken beyond English and encouraging cultural and community practices. This engages more parts of the brain and allows for greater communication between them, along with deeper integration of the learned material into long-term memory (Johnson et al., 2006)

Co-created Syllabus

Develop a syllabus, in partnership with students, that reflects your collective values. Co-creating a syllabus is a chance for students to democratically participate in their own learning. It signals that a course is designed to share power and encourage not only student involvement but also engagement and agency.

The syllabus might include co-created community guidelines, flexible deadlines based on the class’s needs for that quarter, or opportunities for students to self-grade. You might also consider including a list of linked resources (where to find cost-considerate course materials, necessary technology, internet access), a land acknowledgement, and an acknowledgment of bias.

References

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felton, P. (2014). Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching : A Guide for Faculty. John Wiley & Sons. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/lib/psu/detail.action?docID=1650837

De Bie, K., Marquis, E., Cook-Sather, A., & Luqueño, L. P. (2021). Promoting Equity and Justice through Pedagogical Partnership. Stylus. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/lib/PSU/detail.action?docID=6647714

Johnson, S., & Taylor, K. (2006). The Neuroscience of Adult Learning: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Wiley. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/p82vj0/CP71182273540001451

Matthews, K. E., Groenendijk, L. J., & Chunduri, P. (2017). We Want to be More Involved: Student Perceptions of Students as Partners Across the Degree Program Curriculum. International Journal for Students As Partners, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v1i2.3063

Swordfisk, K. (2021, September 27). In pursuit of student success: ASPSU president prioritizes student involvement, improving the post-COVID learning environment. PSU News. https://www.pdx.edu/news/pursuit-student-success

Learn More Elsewhere

Website


Equity and Inclusion Practices: An Overview

This guide introduces a few pedagogies you can adopt into your inclusive teaching practice. They can help facilitate connections and conversations leading to inclusive and equitable learning — but this is not an exhaustive list.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Culturally sustaining pedagogy builds on the work of culturally relevant teaching and culturally responsive pedagogy. It affirms and sustains students’ connections to their culture, language, and community. It focuses on students as active contributors of unique lived experiences essential to learning. It also resists monolingualism and deficit student framing by promoting cultural equality (Paris, 2012).

In Practice

“I Notice, I Wonder” is a useful culturally sustaining practice in many teaching contexts. It’s an introductory brainstorming activity in which students from all backgrounds and abilities can participate.

Further Reading

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) attempts to minimize barriers and create equal opportunities for all students to express what they know. UDL creates multiple paths to learning and understanding that benefit all students, regardless of disability. This framework focuses on adding flexibility, choice, and relevance to three key areas of instruction: expression of knowledge, representation of information, and engagement.

In Practice

Further Reading

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Originating in neuroscience, trauma-informed pedagogy acknowledges and attempts to mitigate the trauma’s impact on learning. Trauma can come from sources including but not limited to adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) such as physical or emotional abuse, institutional and systemic oppression, and COVID-19. While trauma affects each individual differently, it’s likely to impact cognitive functions such as memory, emotional regulation, stamina, and focus. Strategies within this framework include a focus on community, relationships, routine, and flexibility.

In Practice

Further Reading

Community-Based Learning Pedagogy

What is the role of a university in a community? How might curricula contribute to students’ civic identity? How does a course honor the life experience students bring to the classroom? Community-based learning (CBL) pedagogies attempt to address these and other foundational questions concerning the intentional interplay between movements for justice, academic knowledge, and the spaces we share.

In Practice

Further Reading

Contemplative Pedagogy

Contemplative pedagogy encourages deep learning through focused attention, reflection, and mindfulness practice. It engages students in an introspective, first-person way of knowing the world around them through an embodied educational experience, which allows students to see themselves in their courses. “Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness…. These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing….” (Hart, 2004, pp. 29–30).

Many common classroom practices — such as close reading, writing, and reflection — can draw from contemplative practices to help students focus deeply, retain new information, and integrate learning into meaningful situations.

In Practice

Further Reading

Student Voice

Student voice “aims to signal not only the literal sound of students’ words as they inform educational planning, research, and reform, but also the collective contribution of diverse students’ presence, participation and power in those processes” (Bovill et al., 2011, pp. 2–3). Notably, student voice work is shared decision-making between students and faculty that involves value, agency, and action for students and aims to be transformative for both students and faculty.

In Practice

Further Reading

Anti-Racist Pedagogy

Anti-racist pedagogy is a “paradigm located within critical theory utilized to explain and counteract the persistence and impact of racism using praxis as its focus to promote social justice for the creation of a democratic society in every respect” (Blakeney, 2005, p. 119). Further, anti-racist pedagogy reveals the structural inequalities within U.S. society while fostering students’ critical analysis skills as well as their critical self-reflection (Kishimoto, 2018). Per Kishimoto, incorporating anti-racist pedagogy at the classroom level begins with examining one’s own pedagogy and curriculum to implement change. This could involve understanding how inequitable education structures impact students differently, reevaluating assumptions we may make about students’ backgrounds, inviting a colleague to review syllabi or other course materials to identify where bias might impact curriculum and organization, meaningfully incorporating the work and voices of minoritized scholars, and incorporating high impact learning practices that create the foundations for collective exploration of historical, social, and cultural biases in the field of study.

In Practice

Further Reading

References

Blakeney, A. M. (2005). Antiracist pedagogy: Definition, theory, and professional development. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 2(1), 119–132. https://doi.org/10.1080/15505170.2005.10411532

Bovill, C., Cook‐Sather, A. & Felten, P. (2011). Students as co‐creators of teaching approaches, course design, and curricula: implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133–145. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2011.568690

Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(28), 28–46. https://doi.org/10.1177/1541344603259311

Kishimoto, K. (2018) Anti-racist pedagogy: from faculty’s self-reflection to organizing within and beyond the classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(4), 540–554. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1248824

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12441244


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM

What are diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how are they related to higher education?

You have probably encountered these terms a lot over the past few years. Although they are popular, their application varies depending on the situation. Overall, the primary goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion work are to:

  • Promote the value of a wide variety of identities, abilities, value systems, and life experiences.
  • Recognize that these experiences have not been valued equally and make changes to promote justice and healing.
  • Create long-term, sustainable changes that allow everyone to fully access opportunities for success.

By being mindful of common hurdles such as textbook cost, different styles of learning, and diverse life experiences, you can find out what students need for success in class. This article offers some resources to promote a collaborative, equitable learning environment where students and instructors alike are fully engaged and feel successful.

Diversity and Inclusion in STEM Programs

Researchers have tried to understand why some students are more successful in STEM classes than others. Some evidence suggests ZIP codes play an important role. Knowledgeable teachers and healthy physical environments for development tend to link together in resource-rich areas. Some of these areas are rural and some more urban. The most common factors are the quality of available education and social determinants of health (Tate, 2008).

These resource-rich areas have benefitted from STEM leaders and innovators, so the emphasis on strong STEM education makes sense. However, this also means early STEM success has more to do with a student’s environment than personal interest or ability. Disparities that begin in K-12 education inform the opportunities available to students in higher education, both in college access and student engagement in classes. And as some ZIP codes progress while others stagnate, students with similar life experiences will continue to reinforce assumptions about who is “good” at STEM and who is not (Tate, 2008).

Socio-economic factors — such as physical environment, family system environment, family income and occupation, and teacher experience at the K-12 level — impact not only who has access to higher education, but also the future of STEM fields (Phillips, 2019). “…[W]e note that STEM is the only field where Black and Latina/o youth are significantly more likely than their White peers to switch and earn a degree in another field…. In summary, we find evidence of white privilege in STEM degree attainment that is not mirrored in other major fields. (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2019).” Similarly, women who graduate from STEM programs are less likely to continue into STEM careers than men. Trans and genderqueer students are heavily under-represented. This means an even more homogenous group than the STEM student body is designing future technology and changing the world for everyone else.

An important approach to innovative STEM classrooms is to include and support students from varied backgrounds and lived experiences. Inclusive classrooms help everyone stay engaged and passionate, pursuing their interests in the field.

Anti-racist and inclusive practices, in the classroom and in STEM teaching, can be grounded both in pedagogy and in the instructor’s personal experience. Here are some reflective practices along with some resources available at PSU.

Incorporating Inclusive and Anti-Racist Practices into a STEM Course

Anti-Racist Reflection, Research, and Action as an Act of Self and Community Care

“Teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students (hooks, 1994, p. 15).”

Teachers can only go as far in the classroom as they have in their own growth and cultivation of well-being. Creating equitable, diverse, and inclusive classrooms is not one-size-fits-all. Arguably, it’s most effective when instructors have grounded their approach in critical reflection and continued learning. bell hooks describes emphasizing the community of the classroom and instructors leading with vulnerability to create an environment where students are empowered, curious, and engaged in learning.

The more instructors pay attention to their own well-being, the more vulnerability is possible in the classroom. Here are resources for fostering an inclusive, responsive classroom environment that invites instructors to care for themselves and learn about anti-racism practices.

Personal Reflection

Our identities and life experiences inform the way we teach and learn; it can be easy to accidentally alienate students who have different life experiences. Approaching students when maintaining a growth mindset and reflective teaching practice can help instructors engage in the classroom as learners themselves.

Researching Anti-Racist Practices

Action

Inconsistencies in Inclusion Practices

You might find diversity, equity, and inclusion discussed in ways that conflict with each other. This can be frustrating when you want to engage in this work effectively but without causing harm. When looking at DEI efforts abstractly — without the context of your own students in mind — choosing techniques may seem impossible. It can help to ask, “What does my learning community need to fully engage?”

You might reflect on some of these questions as you think about how to best support your learning community:

  • What are the traditional research or learning methods in your field? Do these methods create barriers based on race, gender, class, age, or ability?
  • What are some guidelines for class engagement meaningful to you as an instructor? How can you create space for others with different values to express themselves?
  • Are there elements of your job that limit or broaden your ability to create an inclusive classroom?

Engaged Pedagogy in the Classroom

Resources and Tips for Building an Inclusive Course

Campus resource centers provide sample syllabus language and additional resources:

Adding Diversity to Your Syllabus

Reach out to STEM subject librarians for assistance finding resources from diverse authors and sources to supplement your syllabus.

Some external lists to consider:

Additional Resources for Structuring Courses and Incorporating Student Feedback

Surveys can be useful for gauging student interests, needs, and familiarity with the course material both before and throughout the term.

Consider scheduling mid-quarter student feedback (a teaching consultation) through OAI, to collect qualitative student feedback anonymously.

Universal Design for Learning emphasizes creating more opportunities for students to learn course material by offering multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

Consider assignments that can both help you get more inclusive material and engage student interests. Some ideas:

  • Ask students to find information about scientists of color or how the field has impacted groups who have been under-invested in.
  • Ask students to write their own quiz or learning goals and discuss as a class how you can support each other to meet the objectives.
  • Ask students to update the curriculum, or build their own curriculum based on what they learned in the course and their lived experiences. (Consider a negotiated syllabus.)

Beyond the Classroom: Structural Changes

You might feel limited by what you can do in the classroom, knowing the structural inequalities that contribute to a lack of diversity. Here are some ideas for thinking about equity, diversity, and inclusion outside of a class environment.

Promote National and Local Community Initiatives

Movements making historically and systemically marginalized STEM professionals more visible are growing. Promoting these initiatives can be a great way to support marginalized students and expand everyone’s thinking.

Build a Network of Support with Students and Faculty

Students are often looking to instructors for guidance on how to create change. You may get questions about diversity already. Collaboration can be powerful and can help identify what is needed to prevent exclusion based on gender, race, class, ability, and other identities. Here are some suggestions for supporting this collaboration:

  • Complete OAI’s Certificate of Innovation in College Teaching. This program helps current and future instructors think about accessibility, develop their own teaching pedagogy, and build a support network with other educators.
  • Check out other professional development opportunities offered at OAI.
  • Build a network of former students who want to speak to your class and mentor students in the course.
  • If you have access to a Teaching Assistant (TA), promote hiring TAs who have different experiences than instructors, and work with your TA to build the syllabus.
  • Meet with other instructors in your department to share resources and discuss opportunities to make the program more equitable and inclusive.

References

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge. https://www-taylorfrancis-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/books/mono/10.4324/9780203700280/teaching-transgress-bell-hooks

Phillips, A. (2019). The Quest for Diversity in Higher Education. Pepperdine Policy Review, 11, Article 4. https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/ppr/vol11/iss1/4

Riegle-Crumb, C, King, B., & Irizarry, Y. (2019). Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields. Educational Researcher, 48(3), 133–144. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/10.3102/0013189X19831006

Tate, W. F. (2008). “Geography of Opportunity”: Poverty, Place, and Educational Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 37(7), 397–411. https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/docview/216911261


Introduction to Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a flexible pedagogical framework to minimize barriers and increase accessibility for the fullest range of students possible. A ramp allows the full range of people to access a building while a stairway allows only some. In the same way, UDL asks us to trade “one size fits all” thinking to imagine curriculum designs that open the doors to any student. UDL focuses on increasing flexibility, choice, and relevance within three main components of curriculum design and implementation:

  • Engagement: how students interact with and are motivated by the instructor, content, and their peers
  • Representation: how information or learning experiences are taught and presented
  • Expression: how students demonstrate their knowledge

While standard accessibility practices such as structuring text for screen readers and captioning videos are part of UDL (specifically increasing the range of how content is represented), these practices do not encompass all of UDL. Applying a holistic UDL lens to your classroom means deepened comprehension, accurate assessment of student knowledge, and a truly inclusive learning environment that welcomes physical, cognitive, and cultural diversity.

A Lens, Not a Checklist

So how can we apply UDL to course design? Here are a few ideas to get you started, but the possibilities are truly infinite. UDL is a lens or mindset that prioritizes increased flexibility, choice, and relevance; it should be continually adapted for your particular course(s) and students.

Engagement


What it is:

How students interact with and are motivated by the instructor, peers, and content


Strategy to try:

Use a variety of response options during synchronous and asynchronous sessions.


Examples:

  • Verbal responses during discussion
  • Written responses in chat
  • Artistic responses (doodles, flowcharts, metaphors, etc.)
  • Small group breakout rooms
  • Paired sharing
  • Whole group call and response
  • Self-rating levels of understanding in a poll
  • Written responses in online discussion forum
  • Video responses in online discussion forum (e.g. FlipGrid)


Representation


What it is:

How information or learning experiences are taught and presented


Strategy to try:

Allow students to choose when and how they receive content.


Examples:

  • Optional small-group Zoom sessions
  • Readings from various source types (research articles, primary sources, fictional or artistic interpretations, etc.)
  • Videos (documentaries, news broadcasts, etc.)
  • Audio (podcasts, radio, etc.)
  • Choose Your Own (students find their own related resource and share with the class)


Expression


What it is:

How students demonstrate their knowledge


Strategy to try:

Use key learning objectives as a guide to offer options for how students can show their learning.


Examples:

Learning Objectives:
  • Construct a thesis statement.
  • Support with at least three pieces of evidence.
  • Analyze connections between evidence.

Assessment Menu:
  • Write a traditional research paper.
  • Present with slides.
  • Build a website.
  • Interview experts in a podcast.



Supporting Students through Difficult Conversations

The classroom can be a place to explore controversial topics including equity, identity, religious beliefs, and political views. These topics may come up as part of your curriculum, or through external factors and events. You may or may not choose to engage students in difficult conversations — but either way, it’s important to prepare.

Notice your own responses and emotions surrounding a topic and recognize that you and your students may not be able to show up as your best selves for these conversations. One approach to this might be transparency with your students, acknowledging how challenging the topic is and giving everyone space to process before moving forward with a conversation.

If you do choose to engage students, it will be important to acknowledge the range of perspectives and intense emotions that are likely present in your classroom. The following tips may be helpful for framing a conversation where students with diverse experiences and points of view can engage productively with one another.

Helpful Tips

Establish community agreements before discussing difficult topics.

Encourage your students to help create these collaboratively. They might include one or more of the following agreements:

  • Addressing ideas rather than people
  • Taking and making space to ensure everyone has a chance to speak
  • Entering the conversation with a spirit of curiosity and good will
  • Welcoming correction and reflection

Identify a clear purpose for the conversation.

Is the class interested in exploring a question, better understanding the context of a recent event, reflecting on the impact of current events, or something else? There is no right answer, but it is helpful for students to agree on a focus and purpose before diving in.

Provide space to summarize the discussion.

Provide space to summarize the discussion, receive student feedback, and allow students to reflect on their feelings and experiences. This might look like a brief exit email or poll, a word in the Zoom chat, or a Google Doc with reflection notes.

Recognize that difficult topics may impact students differently.

Your students likely experience a range of emotions when responding to difficult topics, informed by a range of factors including their lived experiences, intersecting identities, and feelings of safety in the class space. Particularly during uncertain and highly stressful circumstances, some students may be more at risk for marginalization connected to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or region/country of origin.

  • It may help to encourage a discussion of students’ relevant experiences while being mindful to not ask students to self-disclose information they may not be ready to share.
  • Consider asking students to complete an anonymous poll about their questions or concerns (or email you privately, if an individual response is needed). Options include Google forms, discussions, and survey tools. Find out whether students feel they are making progress, if they are having difficulties with the course, and if they have specific suggestions for addressing any challenges they identify.

Acknowledge the impact on your students.

If you do not choose to address a difficult topic substantively but still want to acknowledge it, you can:
  • Begin by recognizing that different people have strong emotions from a variety of perspectives, and it may be hard to focus.
  • Give your students a chance to write for a minute or two to process their thoughts and feelings, and/or identify people they want to reach out to for the types of connections and processing that would benefit them. Then move on to your plan for the day.
  • Note the difficulty of focusing and of controlling strong emotions and let students know they can feel free to take a brief break to refocus.

If a student raises a topic when you had not planned to discuss it, classroom discussion agreements might provide guidance to have a productive and respectful conversation. If you do not feel prepared for a conversation, you can recognize that the student might want to have the conversation, but explain that you want to think further about whether and how to engage it as a class.


Student Voices on Remote Learning

Students had a range of responses to the sudden shift to remote learning during Spring term 2020. While many students expressed appreciation for PSU’s efforts to keep them safe and for their instructors’ efforts to support their learning, some areas of challenge also emerged. Students face many situations outside of the control of individual instructors, but here are a few common scenarios along with suggestions for approaches instructors might take to address them. 

Quotes and vignettes are based on student feedback received during Spring 2020. See more details about Spring 2020 remote learning experiences in the Office of Student Success Remote Pulse Survey and the Disability Resource Center Student Survey. Student quotes have been edited for clarity.

Students felt overwhelmed in digital spaces.

“… The zoom lectures often feel like they are moving all over the place and even the instructor is having a difficult time staying on task, as there are more interruptions than typically experienced in lecture halls. … The zoom lectures seem to be more stimulating and exhausting than in person lectures…”

“…One class has a reading list on the syllabus, but the articles on the reading list are in the library, and not grouped by week or in any order, so one has to have the syllabus in one window, and the library list in another window to open the correct articles. Another has videos that are buried in the Table of Contents…”

“It’s much more difficult to read and focus. I feel frustrated with some professors who make me jump through hoops as a person who gets help with DRC. “

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Consider reducing duration and/or frequency of Zoom sessions in favor of asynchronous learning activities to meet course goals.
  • Intentionally plan your Zoom sessions and share interaction guidelines with students. Set standards for how students should ask questions, and whether and when they need to have their cameras and mics enabled.
  • Give extra attention to how you organize your course. Consider a weekly course structure, which may be different from how you’ve previously organized your course.
  • Work with the Disability Resource Center as needed to enact remote accommodations that meet students needs.

Spring term coincided with global crises.

“Trying to survive is hard enough, let alone worrying about class. Trying to maintain eligibility for grants by going full time when I can’t even cook dinner some nights. Sleeping badly which doesn’t help. Eating poorly which doesn’t help. Having to relocate to a different household due to my roommate being very ill doesn’t help. Losing my job doesn’t help. My whole life has been uprooted”

“Mental and physical health challenges that are being felt by most of us doesn’t seem a priority in adapting our course load to this reality.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Anticipate that you and your students will be feeling a variety of emotions that may make teaching and learning more challenging. Consider additional flexibility in how students engage in and demonstrate their learning. Universal Design for Learning offers valuable suggestions. 
  • Balance curricular challenges with a supportive and affirming learning environment. Offering students multiple opportunities to take quizzes or complete homework is one way to support students.
  • Share information about campus services and resources with students. For example, the Food Pantry, SHAC, Learning Center, and Financial Wellness Center are all resources here to help students succeed. The C.A.R.E. Team addresses concerns regarding specific student’s wellbeing. Faculty and staff may submit a CARE report to notify the team of a student concern.

PSU students continue to lead busy and complex lives.

“It is very difficult to sit through a Zoom class session when my child is also home. As a single mother, my resources have been stripped due to this virus and the virtual experience has been hard to manage at home with family.”

“…. I have deadlines almost every day of the week, and many of them can’t be started whenever I want to, as I have to wait for a professor to upload assignments, or for another student to do their work first, that means I can’t control when the work needs to be done, which is hard because I am a primary care provider to a 5 year old, who no longer has school, so I mostly have to do work after she goes to bed, sometimes until 2am.”

“I don’t have a space in my house (a one bedroom apartment) where I can study or attend classes without interruption, and I don’t have childcare for my daughter.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Trust your students and recognize that they may be facing challenges to showing up to your class that you can’t anticipate. Consider the impact of course policies on students at the margins. For example, might a “no late work policy” disproportionately hurt essential workers or students who take care of family members? 
  • Offer flexibility where possible. This might mean offering alternative ways to complete assignments or attend class sessions. 
  • Connect your class to students’ experiences. If you’re not sure how your course content relates to students, ask them to help make the connections. Seeing how what they’re learning in class connects to the real world and their own lives helps sustain engagement and motivation.

Students feel increased time pressure.

“I found some instructors made classes even more time consuming than in the past and this is not the time for busy silly work.”

“… I feel the professors have decided to make up for lack of in-person time with additional assignments which only stresses myself and others out as we try to figure out our life financially and health specifically….”

“Since switching to remote learning there has been an increase in coursework for most of my classes. Since going to remote learning I also have had less access to reliable internet, which has made online learning more difficult.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Plan your course activities and expectations carefully, so that students spend thee to four hours on course work for each credit hour of a course. This total time includes both instructional (“class time”) and homework/study time.
  • Anticipate that students are juggling additional stressors and may benefit from extra time to complete assignments.
  • Ensure strong alignment between your required course assignments and your course learning outcomes.


Encouraging Student Agency through Alternative Assessments

Research shows that the more we give students qualitative feedback and withhold quantitative grades, the more students are able to absorb that feedback and improve their learning (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Alternative assessments can support that process.

Building trust with your students is foundational for developing alternative assessment practices that work. It’s important to explain to students why you chose your assessment methods. Wherever possible, provide clarity and transparency around your decisions and expectations. Keep in mind that your students may have spent most of their academic careers growing familiar and comfortable with standard assessments.

Questions to inform your assessment decisions:

  • What does it look like when students are learning?
  • How can you clearly communicate your expectations to students?
  • How can you give students opportunities to reflect and assess their own learning?

Reflecting on your answers to these questions can help you prioritize where and how to include alternative assessments in your course.

Alternative Assessment Examples

The Five-Point System

The five-point system is a compromise between students wanting everything graded and instructors who know that grades can distract from learning. Students earn five out of five points for every assignment, big or small, as long as they do three things:

  • Submit it on time.
  • Follow the directions.
  • Do the work completely.

The work doesn’t have to be correct or high quality; it just has to be done. Students receive not just points, but feedback in multiple ways throughout the term: peer review, instructor comments, self-reflections, and comparing their work to models and examples. This helps students learn from their effort and progress. Points averaged over the term are the “effort grade.” At the end of the term, students write a final reflection letter to the instructor explaining what they’ve learned and making the case for the grade they think they deserve. Their proposed grade is averaged in with their effort grade, and that is the grade they earn for the class.

Contract Grading

Popularized by Danielewicz and Elbow (2009), contract grading clearly lays out — at the beginning of the class — the tasks students must complete and the behaviors expected of them. The instructor attaches a grade to the contract so students know exactly what to do to earn that grade.

Peer Reviews

Asking students to give feedback to their peers gives them an opportunity to learn from one another and think critically about their work. Consider giving students specific elements to focus on during peer review and model what good feedback looks like. It helps to provide students with a rubric, checklist, or series of questions to answer as they examine their peers’ work.

Student Self-Assessment

Possibly the most radical of alternative assessment methods, student self-assessment requires a paradigm shift for both the instructor and the student. It requires students to truly believe they have the freedom to determine their own grade and the instructor to truly believe that students are capable of doing so fairly. Students can self-assess in large or small courses when they are taught how, and doing so deepens their learning and motivates them to keep learning. Self-assessment can happen in a variety of formats:

  • Exam wrappers
  • e-Journals
  • Blogs
  • Weekly reflections/check-ins
  • e-Portfolios

Implementing Alternative Assessments

Any use of alternative assessments is likely to be new for at least some of your students. As you implement alternative assessments in your course, it can help to prioritize clear communication around students’ process and progress, and your expectations — even when you and students have designed those pieces collaboratively.

Feedback

Give students regular feedback on their process work that is not linked to points or grades. Students are more likely to remember feedback and incorporate it into future work if it is not paired with a grade. Check out these research-based tips for giving students meaningful feedback. Low stakes, formative assessments that give you and your students feedback about their learning come in many forms:

  • Practice quizzes
  • Zoom polls during presentations
  • Follow-up surveys
  • Google Doc reading quote and question collection
  • Discussion-forum-based, student-led Q and A
  • One-on-one check-ins

Guidelines

Give students clear guidelines, examples, and rubrics that describe the desired learning outcomes for a given assessment. Allow time and flexibility for students to ask questions and make suggestions about how they might meet the learning outcomes in more than one way. Employing a Universal Design for Learning strategy will serve a diversity of learners.

References

Danielewicz, J., & Elbow, P. (2009). A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 244–268. https://stats.lib.pdx.edu/proxy.php?url=https://www.jstor.org/stable/40593442

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

Learn More Elsewhere

Articles

Website (blog post)


Create Accessible Course Materials

When course materials — readings, videos, slides, websites, etc. — are accessible, all students benefit.

  • Students with disabilities can engage with your course materials without barriers, often using assistive technologies such as screen readers or closed captioning.
  • Even students without disabilities often use more than one device — such as a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop — and may not have reliable internet access. Accessible materials help them, too.

To support all learners and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s important to include accessibility throughout your course.

Note: At times, you may need to discuss accommodations with the Disability Resource Center.

Images

Images, graphics, diagrams, charts, and tables are key communication tools and can greatly enhance learning. For each image, include alternative text (alt-text) to describe the image to someone who uses a screen reader. Write your alt-text to describe:

  • The intended meaning or use of the image
  • Any included text or visual information (especially in diagrams)

Example: For an image of a course banner on the homepage of a course, the alt-text would include any text in the banner and the name of the course.

It’s important for alt-text to convey the same information as the image — so it’s best to include information-heavy items as readable text rather than images.

  • Rather than images of tables, include readable text-based tables. Make sure the tables have headings.
  • Write mathematical equations using the math editor in Canvas.

Note: Ask the Disability Resource Center about access to EquatIO, an institutionally licensed mathematical equation writing software.

Color

Color in a digital environment requires sufficient contrast between text and background — but don’t use text color as the sole means to communicate information. For example, “assignments in red are due on Thursday” would not be accessible. It would exclude people who don’t see the color red or who use screen readers. Instead, use bold or italic to emphasize or highlight important information.

Another consideration is to use darker bolder colors for text used against a white screen. For best usability and accessibility avoid neon and bright colors in course content.

Headings

For anyone who navigates from a keyboard, headings are important to quickly move through content on a page.

  • Use heading style H1 for only one heading on each page — typically the title or main subject of the page.
  • Use heading styles H2 through H6 to identify subsections.
  • Follow a logical nesting order and don’t exceed six levels.

Lists

Ordered and unordered lists are commonly used in content authoring. Be sure to use list tools to create them.

For ordered lists — in which numbers or letters indicate chronological or hierarchical items — a common mistake is typing each number or letter rather than using the list tool. This does not create a structured list that screen-reading software can use.

Don’t rely exclusively on lists for organization. For example, use accessible headings to begin each major section.

Document Formatting and Layout

Document types such as PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Google Docs, etc. are often part of course content. Consistency among documents is important for readability and findability. Here are a few guidelines to consider.

Make sure PDF documents are selectable, searchable, properly tagged, and in accurate reading order. If you create them by scanning paper, use OCR (optical character recognition) instead of creating an image. OCR allows each letter and word to be read by a screen reader and makes all text searchable. You can scan with OCR in the PSU library.

For all document types:

  • Don’t use underlined text for emphasis. It can be mistaken for a link. Use bold and italics instead.
  • Use the same style and navigation in all documents.
  • Make a document’s title easy to understand — both in the file name and in the H1-level heading within the document.

Checking Accessibility

Canvas has a built-in accessibility checker! Anywhere Canvas has a rich content editor you can run the checker to flag potential issues and accessibility errors. The checker will then prompt you to fix each item it flags. Learn to use the accessibility checker in the rich content editor in Canvas.

Microsoft products such as Word and PowerPoint also have built-in accessibility checkers. Learn about the accessibility checker for Word and PowerPoint..


Flexible and Affordable Teaching Materials: Using OER

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER can be full courses, course materials, lesson plans, open textbooks, learning objects, videos, games, tests, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.”SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)

Consider using OER to:

  • Reduce textbook costs for students.
  • Increase access to course materials (e.g., available on-demand across devices).
  • Build collaboration (between educators, between students and educators).
  • Improve flexibility and material quality (e.g., tailored material for specific purposes, adding current content).

OER reduce barriers to education while increasing the quality of teaching and learning.

Where to Find OER Textbooks

  • In online textbook collections. OpenStax has free learning modules and textbooks both developed and peer-reviewed by educators. Open Textbook Library is another collection that pulls titles from multiple OER sources.
  • By discipline. OER textbooks serve many fields, including commonly required coursework and high-enrollment classes. The PSU Library curates materials by discipline.
  • By PSU faculty. PSU has its own publishing initiative, PDXOpen, which supports faculty in developing open-access textbooks.
  • Using search engines. Two great options to begin your search are OASIS and Mason OER Metafinder (MOM), which search across OER repositories and thousands of entries. These are particularly helpful for more advanced or specialized courses.

How to Use OER

Where to Find Other Forms of OER (and Free Teaching Materials)

Videos

  • Khan Academy: A collection of instructional videos, practice exercises, and other educational videos across many subject areas.
  • Moving Image Archive: Over a million free films, movies, and other videos. Many (but not all) are available for free download. Be sure to check for permissions information in the video description.
  • YouTube Education University: Primarily a collection of lectures in various disciplines. YouTube offers a filter so you can search for videos published under Creative Commons licensing.

Photos and Other Images

  • Wikimedia Commons: Openly licensed and public domain images and visual media hosted by Wikimedia.
  • Flickr: Many photos on Flickr are available for free use and editing with a Creative Commons license.
  • Unsplash and Pixabay: While all photos on these sites are free to use, photographers appreciate being credited to help expose their work. Crediting can simply be including the photographer’s name and a link to their profile and/or photo.
  • The Gender Spectrum Collection: Seeks to add gender diversity and representation to “stock” photos for lecture slides, presentations, and so on. Free to use for educational, non-commercial purposes, but requires you credit the photographer and use photos without editing.

Books and Other Literature

  • Bloomsbury Academic: A collection of books and digital resources in the humanities, social sciences, and visual arts.
  • Project Gutenberg: Over 58,000 free eBooks digitized and proofread by volunteers, with a focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired.

Supplemental Materials

  • OER Commons: “A public digital library of open educational resources,” including syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, modules, textbooks, etc.