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Designing courses for students with diverse needs

In the age of standardized testing, it’s all too common for educators to rely on the same teaching and testing methods for every student. Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for different learning needs and abilities. Even when diverse needs are addressed, it can be difficult for educators to actually design new materials that effectively educate and assess these students.

Here are some strategies to consider in order to educate and test students with diverse needs.

Assess students’ needs

It’s not always easy to tell when an instruction or testing method isn’t working for particular students. Poor performance on classwork and tests could stem from any number of elements which then vary from student to student.

Of course, as a teacher, it can be difficult to pick up on specific issues a student might be having. This is only muddied further as students themselves may not be aware of what they need from their education in order to be successful.

One way of assessing learning needs is to create brief anonymous assignments. These should include assignments that test students’ intellectual progress so far with a given topic, self-assessments about students’ learning skills and preparedness to move forward, and an open-ended survey allowing students to provide feedback about different teaching methods, materials, assignments, and exams within the course.

Covering these three areas can be an effective way to make connections between your teaching and the quality of student learning. Because there isn’t a grade or a name attached to these assignments, students may be more willing to be open in their responses.

Although you won’t be able to identify any specific student’s learning needs, you can use this feedback to identify any trends within student responses. This can allow you to adjust your teaching methods to better meet your students’ needs.

This is also an opportunity to help students create a process for reflecting on their own learning. For many, education can seem one-sided, with the teacher presenting strict course materials and the students either getting it or not getting it. When students can reflect on how they best learn and perform academically, they can adjust their own habits as well as communicate their needs to an instructor.

Utilize available technologies

With the widespread availability of digital technologies and the internet, students and teachers both stand to appreciate the many benefits of e-learning options. One of the greatest advantages of online learning components is the fact that students can work through information at their own pace, accessing and reviewing course materials at any time and as often as they need to.

When creating online lessons, teachers can utilize a number of different formats for conveying information, including video, slideshows, and audio recordings. This can be especially helpful for students who are visual or aural learners and may not be able to process and retain information presented in traditional in-class lectures.

Read more: 3 Tips for rocking your classroom with video learning

There is also space for alternative mediums within the classroom. For example, incorporating relevant movies and television programs within your lessons can help some students to stay focused and engaged with the material. This could include educational videos specifically designed to cover something within or related to your lesson. Following up with a discussion about how the video relates to the topic can allow students to explore what they’ve learned together and find real-life connections to the material.

When you choose to use these digital elements within your classroom and beyond, the role of the instructor shifts somewhat from the sole purveyor of information to a facilitator. This is especially true when the resources are available at home, which creates opportunities for flipped learning. When students have full access to the lessons, videos, and other resources, they may feel empowered and take more initiative in their own learning, using the limited class time for discussion, clarification, and practice problem solving.

Create alternative testing options

Aside from adjusting your teaching methods to meet various learning needs, you also need to consider offering a variety of testing structures when possible. When following a student’s progress through discussions and homework, it can be confounding when a student who seems to be doing well, in fact, does poorly when it comes time for formal assessment.

A student may be able to demonstrate their knowledge in other ways, yet the testing method used doesn’t allow them to apply their knowledge effectively. For example, a student may be able to give a thorough presentation on a given subject and even demonstrate problem-solving skills. However, because they may have poor writing skills or the wording of questions confuses them, they aren’t able to show the same understanding of the material on traditional tests.

The fact that a student has trouble writing clearly or comprehending test questions is certainly an issue to work toward improving. However, in something like a physics course, these aspects aren’t necessarily key to the content taught in class. When these disparities occur between a student’s apparent progress and test scores, it’s important to explore alternative pathways for students to demonstrate their learning.

Depending on the topic being covered and the student’s needs, this could include a variety of alternative assessment formats. For example, students might prepare a portfolio of many class assignments that provide a more accurate representation of a student’s overall progress than a single test could.

As mentioned above, a presentation or performance that demonstrates an understanding of the material as well as problem-solving skills may be a viable method for assessment. However, this can be difficult to grade effectively, and it’s important to have a scoring guide with clear criteria for each portion of the demonstration.

During multiple choice exams, students will sometimes discover multiple interpretations to a question or answer. In the face of a bubble sheet, there is no way to explain this dilemma, and they may have to make an arbitrary guess between two answers. Offering a supplemental comment section where students can explain their decisions in these situations can prove clear understanding of a concept, despite a confusing test element.

To cut down on grading time, it’s reasonable to encourage students to use this comment section only when they are truly conflicted, rather than with each question. However, in some cases, having students write out their thinking for each stage of solving a problem can help students to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. If a student makes a mistake, an instructor would be able to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong.

Keep in mind, these testing alternatives shouldn’t completely replace traditional testing methods. They might be used after an unsuccessful attempt at the standard test. Allowing students to retake the test in a different format or using supplementary explanations will inevitably create a greater workload for the instructor. This is definitely something to consider when your time and efforts are already stretched thin. However, this may be the only way some students will be able to prove themselves academically and identify ways to move forward in their education.

Read more: 3 Teachers that are crushing assessments with ed-tech

It’s also worth noting that some standardized tests may be a requirement passed down from a higher administrative or governmental level and are likely out of an individual instructor’s control. However, these alternative methods can supplement strict academic requirements in demonstrating a student’s progress.

Closing thoughts

As you probably know, any course is a journey for students and instructors alike. For each subject and each group of people in the room or online, educators need to pay attention to which methods are most effective. By assessing your students’ needs, looking for patterns and exceptions within a group, shifting and expanding your teaching methods, and seeking alternative opportunities for testing will allow you to facilitate a course that is designed for students of many learning needs.