1. Course Planning

Recommendation 1.4: Flexibility & Accommodations
Provide clear policies regarding how you will offer flexibility and accommodations.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Understand the requirements and resources available to help you make individual accommodations. Communicate these policies and practices of accommodation clearly in a syllabus statement or other course document. Identify where your course offers—or where you might consider offering—flexibility around how students learn.

How to Put Into Practice

UW-Madison is committed to providing an accessible and inclusive learning environment in all modalities and circumstances. Student accommodations may need to be adapted or adjusted for online and hybrid environments, and will depend on your course content and assessments. Be in touch with students to discuss updated accommodation plans for your course.

Accommodations are changes made for individual learners to address a specific need. All approved accommodations that have been requested through McBurney Connect should be implemented by instructors as long as they are timely and reasonable. Accessibility is proactive and strives to remove barriers during the design stage of an event, program, or service: “Accessibility starts with all of us” (from Accessibility@UW: Your Role). 

Accessibility and flexibility are broader practices and design principles that expand access to learning including and beyond students with formal accommodation plans (see Accessibility vs Accommodations). Offering flexibility in a course does not mean any and all student behaviors are acceptable. Instead, providing points of flexibility activates students’ sense of agency as learners—encouraging them to apply self-directed thought as to how they learn best and should best organize their workload. This mindset benefits learning for all students.

The following breakdown of potential areas for accommodations is designed to aid you in your reflection, decision-making, and communications around this topic. It proceeds roughly from low-prep and low-time commitment strategies to higher-prep.

Set a welcoming tone in your statements regarding accommodations. Explicitly connect the ability to have one’s needs for learning met to the ability to succeed in the course. Statements like the following help build trust and lay the groundwork for having positive interactions with students around their learning in the course.

  • Use a syllabus statement (such as the syllabus statement provided by the McBurney Disability Resource Center) to highlight campus resources and accommodations available to students with disabilities. Remind students about these resources periodically.
  • Consider extending this invitation to talk about individual learning needs to all students. Tulane’s Accessible Syllabus site offers a sample “inclusive learning statement” to model what this might sound like. Such an invitation could be included on the syllabus, incorporated into a “Welcome Survey” early in the semester, or folded into your communications about office hours and what topics and questions are welcome in office hours.

Offer communication channels around course requirements that require advance arrangements. For example, before an exam date approaches, send a quick online survey for students to confirm whether they have scheduling conflicts or accommodation needs around the exam. Opening a communication channel in advance preempts the frustration of receiving last-minute emails.

Support students in using their time strategically through your course design practices and policies. These practices and policies might look different depending on your course and context. 

  • Student-managed extension policy. Instead of considering requests for paper extensions on a case-by-case basis or docking points per day late, one might offer a student-managed extension policy. This might look like offering an automatic extension of a predetermined time duration for one paper per semester if the student takes responsibility for notifying the instructor about the new due date they are opting for and subsequently fulfills their commitment to submitting by that new due date. 
  • Scaffolding assignments and using grading criteria in class. Scaffolded assignments—larger assignments broken up into a sequence of activities—operate as a form of accommodation. So does sharing transparent grading criteria and having students work through a sample graded assignment or peer review activity to help them apply the grading criteria to their own work.
  • UW-Madison’s Writing Across the Curriculum Program offers resources and sample assignments for scaffolding writing assignments and conducting peer review, among many other strategies in this vein: Locally Sourced: Writing Across the Curriculum Sourcebook (opens in Pressbooks).
  • Working ahead. Allow students to work ahead by releasing assignments and readings ahead of time. This can empower students to take ownership of their time management.
  • Trial runs with high-stakes technology tools. If using online proctoring for your exams, offer one or more practice quizzes with the proctor to troubleshoot issues and prepare students for what to expect on the day of the exam.

Offering flexibility around how students access and engage course material or communicate what they have learned. Compared to the above areas for potential accommodations, this is likely much more labor-intensive on your part. Depending on your context, course learning outcomes, and your students’ learning environments (e.g., students with low internet bandwidth, noisy children or siblings at home), options for accessibility like being able to either view a lecture video or read a text-based transcript or outline can make a substantial difference.

  • An L&S resource on flexible lecture engagement and other flexible learning strategies offers up template language for some of these options. 
  • Note that some strategies in this resource are low-prep, such as offering note-taking and study tips. Others place the onus on students to take charge, such as a course with a “flexible assignment path” option, which invites enterprising students to design and propose their own assignments and assignment criteria.

Additional Resources

  • Professor Morton Gernsbacher (Psychology) is a source for many of the approaches detailed above. She shares how she draws upon Universal Design principles in her courses for more student learning and less work teaching in this 2017 session with the Active Teaching Lab.
  • The Universal Design for Learning framework “offer(s) a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.”
  • Tulane’s Accessible Syllabus site offers sample policies by instructors in different disciplines aimed at balancing student agency with instructors’ workloads, including student-managed extension policies and other types of flexibility.
  • Exploring alternative assessment strategies is another area to consider course design for inclusive learning.

Background Information

What is this?

Accommodations broadly describe changes or additions to content or interactions for one person in order to lower or address barriers to full participation.

Why is this important?

Accommodations are an essential component of equity and inclusivity in instruction. In addition, building in a measure of flexibility in how students can fulfill the learning outcomes of the course benefits learning for all students (including and beyond students with individual accommodations for disabilities) by activating their sense of agency as learners.

Where is this?

Accommodations are typically discussed in a syllabus statement regarding formal accommodation plans registered with the McBurney Disability Resource Center. But broader discussion of this topic can appear throughout the course, especially if you understand it to encompass equity-minded policies and practices designed to help all students learn.

Success Factor 1: Course Planning

The amount of time a student spends learning reflects the university’s guidelines for credit hours (including lectures, discussion, reading, assignments, studying, etc.). The definition of a credit hour is based on federal rules and ensures students receive the enriching and engaging education they deserve without demanding more effort than is required.