The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

What struck me most about this week’s readings was the language used to describe universally designed assessment. Of course, Rose & Meyer make a very clear argument: “It is true that standardized tests can yield valuable information, especially if one is evaluating trends and information about groups, but as accurate assessments of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and learning, these assessment tools are severely flawed.” And while the other authors don’t seem to argue against accessible assessment practices, they are more cautious, making points about “reasonable accommodation” (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone 165), an awareness of “high-tech cheating” (Salend 49), and “fairness.”

Fair Selection cartoon

"Fair Selection" & the Importance of UD Assessment

In “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education,” Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone make an argument for applying principles of UD to assessment in order to minimize accommodations (thus reducing stigmas and barriers to learning). Before they make that argument, though, they have to lay down some rules.

  1. First, ADA only extends to “reasonable accommodations”—those for classroom practices or environments that “do not place an undue administrative burden or cost on the institution” (165). But what counts as reasonable? And why don’t all accommodations count as reasonable?
  2. Second, the student’s disability must “interfere with at least one major life activity” (165). Yet, even if the student has documentation, reasonable accommodations are not guaranteed. Students must first perform (in fairness, they say “demonstrate”) their disability.
  3. Third, there is an issue of fairness. Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone note that if students are incorrectly diagnosed, “the fairness of the system is jeopardized because of the inappropriate advantage that accommodations might provide” (165). If all students benefit from an accommodation, then the accommodation provides “an unfair advantage” to those students (165).

Now, Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone are simply the messengers of accommodation legalese, so I’m not faulting them, but these policies raise a number of questions: What are the implications for students and teachers? What does it mean that students must perform their disabilities in order to receive “reasonable” accommodations? Again, how and why is “reasonable” defined? What do these policies convey in terms of fairness?

My questions continued as I read Salend’s article, “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Here, Salend makes the argument for using technology to provide multiple ways for instructors to present test materials and for students to engage with and respond to the test material (41). Generally, I agree with Salend’s argument. I think technology can greatly impact the test-taking experience for all students—in fact, I would argue that digital projects can often stand in for traditional tests (but I’m coming from a non-standardized, non high-stakes perspective).

However, I was thrown off by Salend’s uncited claim of increased accounts of high-tech cheating, defined as “accessing unauthorized information such as notes, Web sites, e-mail, handheld devices, and cell phones” (49). There are two problems I see with this point. First of all, it’s fallacious—just because students have access to technology during tests does not necessitate that they will cheat. Second, if this is a persistent issue, why—instead of creating software and programs that monitor student cheating—aren’t instructors talking with their students about cheating? This comes up so often in writing classes when students plagiarize papers. They don’t take responsibility for plagiarizing because they are accustomed to their instructors taking responsibility by tracking their cheating (often by uploading their papers to Turn It In). Like any new “tool,” instructors should talk openly with students about the ethical uses of new technologies. Without having this discussion, is it “fair” for instructors to discredit technology-based assessment?

While reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think ahead to Cathy Davidson’s approach to assessment. Recently, she has written some great articles that have developed from her book, including “Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?” in The Washington Post and “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in The New York Times. Davidson sides with Rose & Meyer, claiming that traditional assessment practices are dated, inaccessible, and unfair. We will certainly see this argument developed more in a few weeks, but for now, I think it’s important to think about what constitutes “fair” assessment and remember Rose & Meyer’s final thoughts: “Assessments in our digital age should be dynamic and universally designed.”



Ketterlin-Geller, Leanne R., and Christopher Johnstone. “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education.”  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19.2 (2006): 163-171.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 7: Using UDL to Accurately Assess Student Progress.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002.

Salend, Spencer.  “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Teaching Exceptional Children 41.3 (2009): 40-51.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression via

Following up on last week’s focus on Principle I, this week’s readings addressed Principle II: Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Like the first principle, Principle II has three separate guidelines: 4) Provide options for physical action; 5) Provide options for expression and communication; and 6) Provide options for executive functions. Whereas Principle I coincides with recognition networks, or the “what” of learning, Principle II matches up with our brain’s strategic networks and the “how” of learning. (CAST)

Though Guidelines 4 and 6 make important points about optimizing physical access and helping students make choices that support their long-term goals, Guideline 5 seemed to receive the most emphasis, and it is the one that resonates most strongly for me within the context of writing classes. Providing students with options for communicating is broken down in different components: composing in multiple media, using social media and interactive web tools, and using multiple tools for composition (CAST). I think about these suggestions often while trying to implement a multimodal pedagogy.

In her book, Pippa Stein argues that “multimodal pedagogies acknowledge learners as agentive, resourceful and creative meaning-makers” (122). In this regard, multimodal pedagogies stand in opposition to the “standard” teacher conception that Bain discusses—the idea that “teaching is something that instructors do to students, usually by delivering truths about the discipline” (48). By promoting the use of different modes to create texts, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to take learning into their own hands. In writing classrooms, this could mean having students choose their own inquiries, delving into multiple media to do research, and encouraging the use of multiple modes—essays, videos, photographs, websites, blogs, music—to find the best mode of expression for a particular student (and context).

David Rose and Anne Meyer, while also working within UDL’s major principles, frame strategic networks slightly differently. They claim that in order to support diverse strategic networks, we must provide students with 1) flexible models of skills performance; 2) opportunities to practice with supports; 3) ongoing, relevant feedback; and 4) flexible opportunities for demonstrating skill. I found these ideas really useful for thinking about how I teach, too.

First, it’s important when assigning multimodal projects (or any project, really) that students have a variety of models to gain knowledge about what their options are and how different media affect their arguments. If students are used to writing traditional term papers, assigning a multimedia essay would be overwhelming without strong models. Second, if we expect them to learn to communicate with new media, students need to know that they can experiment without failing. Many comp courses (and others, I’m sure) require a reflection accompanying any major projects so that students have the opportunity to explain their learning. Third, students need feedback at multiple stages of the composing process. Particularly with peer review, I like to try out different forms of feedback—sometimes students handwrite feedback; sometimes they type out comments through Word’s track changes/comment functions; sometimes they provide oral feedback and the writer jots down what the reviewer is saying; sometimes I join the peer review etc. Finally, it’s important for students to have multiple opportunities to showcase their work! If they spend six weeks working on an exciting, audience-based, multimodal project, and I’m the only one that sees it, I’m not creating the natural and critical environment that Bain promotes. Final presentations (in whatever mode students choose) are a must in my classrooms, and these are often preceded by informal research updates, online class discussions, or blog posts.

This is an example of a comp student’s multimodal presentation that I found on YouTube. How does this video use multiple media to create an argument that is different that a written, text-bound argument? What do students gain from this mode of expression?


Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

CAST. “UDL Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.” National Center on Universal Design for Learning. CAST. 2011.Web.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 6: Using UDL to Support Every Student’s Learning.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002. Web.

Stein, Pippa. Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representation, Rights, and Resources. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Multiple Means of Representation

Recognition Networks and Multiple Means of Representation

Recognition Networks and Multiple Means of Representation via

Universal Design for Learning has three major principles (Provide multiple means of 1) representation, 2)  action and expression, and 3) engagement). This week, we focused on Principle 1, which has three separate guidelines: 1) Provide options for perception, 2) Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols, and 3) Provide options for comprehension. (CAST)

In many ways, the classes I teach—undergraduate composition & rhetoric—are designed with these guidelines in mind. Since Paul Briand wrote about using multimedia tools to teach composition in 1970, comp instructors have been engaging with multiple media within their writing classrooms. This becomes the norm as technology advances: many comp instructors teach in tech classrooms, use web resources, and prepare lessons that involve technology (e.g. creating PowerPoints to introduce new material, playing video clips from YouTube for students to analyze, and using resources like wikis, Google sites, and BlackBoard platforms to organize class materials and assignments).

In “Why We Need Flexible Instructional Media,” David Rose and Anne Meyer write, “New classroom media, liked digital text, sound, images, and the World Wide Web, can be adjusted for different individuals and can open doors to learning.” The idea behind this, of course, is the flexibility of new media, which moves beyond the barriers of individual modalities. New media can affect our recognition networks, those neural networks that allow us to comprehend new ideas and concepts.

According to Rose & Meyer, the benefit of presenting a new concept using speech helps us to emphasize significant points, to sharpen impact, and to interact with our audiences. However, speech requires a great deal of memory, which can bog down listeners as we present new and complex concepts. This leads to text, which helps to support memory and comprehension by presenting a physical artifact that students can revisit. Again, text has its downfalls, particularly when individuals must decode meaning from dense text. Images (or iconic representations) present ideas immediately and can connect with viewers on more personal levels. But as Rose & Meyer note, images fall short of conveying conceptual and abstract information.  Using any one, and only one, of these modalities is limiting. For example, relying on images to convey information places students with low vision at a disadvantage, while a dependence on text could limit students with LD or students with different larding styles.

Rose & Meyer present the advantages and disadvantages of these three modalities as a way to build up to their recommended communicative modality: digital media. Implementing digital media within the classroom allows for flexibility and versatility. This can be seen in a typical PowerPoint presentation. Presenting information via PowerPoint automatically combines multiple means of representation—text, visuals, occasionally video and audio. Presenting a PowerPoint also combines speech (someone certainly has to present the information!) and sometimes text (it’s super easy to print the slides or notes from your PowerPoint to pass out as handouts). The flexibility of this medium combines all of the modalities that Rose & Meyer discussed (speech, visual, text, digital media) to try to reach the widest audience possible.

Though I don’t use PowerPoints (mainly because of their lack of interactivity), I can appreciate the medium and the combination of different media to communicate and try to aid student comprehension. What we can see from PowerPoint’s critics (e.g. it’s teacher-centered vs. student centered, passive vs. active) is the importance of combining all principles of UDL, not just choosing one (multiple means of representation) and dismissing the others.



Briand, Paul. “Turned on: Multi-Media and Advanced Composition.” College Composition and Communication 21.3 (1970): 267-269.

CAST. “UDL Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation.” National Center on Universal Design for Learning. CAST. 2011.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 3: Why We Need Flexible Instructional Media.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2002.

Flexible Curricula

“How can we rethink and remake educational systems that will provide more flexibility and educate more students effectively?” (Young & Minitz 501)

This is the most important question that we can ask if we want to create accessible curricula and classroom environments where all students feels comfortable sharing and learning. Young & Minitz argue that instructors should take responsibility for making classrooms, curricula, and teaching practices as accessible as possible (502). The question, then, is how we do that.

Ginsberg & Schulte note that ~10% of U.S. college students have a disability, yet college instructors have the least support and knowledge about how to educate students with disabilities (84).  Through their qualitative survey—which admittedly feels a bit shallow (i.e. They only interviewed faculty from one school, and it’s not entirely clear why they chose that school.)—we see faculty responses that range from “I’m treating the students [with disabilities] differently” to “I do for them ‘what I do for all students’” (88). It seems like the most negative comments come from instructors who support the deficit-model of disability, positioning students with disabilities as “defective” and in need of being fixed (85). So a shift in attitude may be the first step to creating more flexible curricula. Instructors who view students with disabilities from clinical and othering perspectives can’t begin to create accessible classroom environments. Post-secondary instructors need to adopt the social model of disability that locates the problems within our interactions, relationships, and environments.

Adopting a social constructivist model is certainly important, but it doesn’t answer the original question: How do we physically enact accessible practices?

The second step is definitely implementing accessible classroom practices. The answers from Ginsberg & Schulte’s survey give us some ideas:

  • asking students to paraphrase materials to gauge understanding,
  • breaking down content (which Sousa tells us is necessary for comprehension, anyway),
  • giving exams in different formats,
  • meeting with students one on one, and
  • encouraging student collaboration (89).

These options are all fairly interactive, advocate student-centered learning (which makes learning more relevant and comprehensible), and encourage delivering information in multiple modes of communication. If a student has trouble listening to a lecture, try delivering that information visually or as a written supplement. Even better, if I’m trying to explain a complex concept, I have students work together to learn the material and then present it to me. This repositioning gets students involved, positions them as valuable knowledge-makers, and emphasizes their abilities. As Harwood & and Humphry may argue, it highlights what students “can do” rather than highlighting what is “done for them” (379).

For me, the best way to create accessible practices is to focus on multiplicity and flexibility, which are often interrelated. I teach Composition & Rhetoric to undergrads, which always involves a final research project. In terms of multiplicity, I try enacting as many different classroom practices as possible—we brainstorm ideas visually and verbally, do research in the library and in online databases, draft outlines in traditional formats and in mental maps, and share drafts with each other throughout the process. In terms of flexibility, there are always set curricular goals, but I always allow a wide range of media for the final product—e.g. traditional term papers, websites, scrapbooks, formal reports, collections of brief essays, multimedia presentations, etc. Students need the flexibility to learn and compose in whichever ways make them the most comfortable, which will ultimately allow them to do the best work they can.

So, what practices work in your classrooms?



Ginsberg, Sarah M., and Karen Schulte. “Instructional Accommodations: Impact of Conventional vs. Social Constructivist View of Disability.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 8.2 (2008): 84-91.

Harwood, Valerie, and Nici Humphry. “Taking Exception: Discourses of Exceptionality and the Invocation of the ‘Ideal.’” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 372-83.

Young, Kathryn, and Emily Mintz. “A Comparison: Difference, Dependency, and Stigmatization in Special Education and Disability Studies.” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader. Eds. Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 499-511. Print.