Understanding Essential Requirements

As a provider of educational programs, the University of Waterloo is legally obligated to accommodate students with disabilities, as per the Ontario Human Rights Code. Recognizing that AccessAbility Services supports this work on campus, CTE nevertheless has a role to play in advising our community on matters of course design and assessment of learning. We also try to model and promote inclusive educational practices more generally (CTE Teaching Tip: Why is Inclusive Instruction Important?). This Teaching Tip, then, is part of our inclusive teaching and learning category aimed to support those who teach in all our various contexts. It is not legal advice, nor is it the last word on the definition of essential requirements, but should provide some pedagogical guidance for Waterloo faculty and staff.

In deciding how students can best show what they know and can do, instructors and curriculum committees often consider intended learning outcomes at both the course and program level, ensuring that these align with assessments and activities. How do faculty decide, though, what knowledge and procedures are absolute and which can be met flexibly? This is where essential requirements come into play.

What are Essential Requirements?

Simply put, essential requirements refer to the knowledge and skills“that all students must demonstrate with or without using accommodations”(Stanford University, 2019). The term “essential requirements” is used in Human Rights legislation to guide decisions about accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Identifying essential requirements also informs decisions about course design and assessment. We consider essential requirements at multiple levels: a specific assignment, skill, task, course outcome, or program outcome. At each level, faculty members individually or collectively set the requirements with, where relevant, input from accreditation boards, discipline-based associations, pedagogical research, and industry.

Understanding the Connection between Essential Requirements and Grades

More questions than answers may emerge from the relationship between our grading practices and essential requirements. In some sense, faculty identification of essential requirements seems to imply a set bar for a pass (in a course) or for the minimum grade to stay in a major (in a program).  Yet it is also a means of clarifying for instructors and for students how the whole range of available grades can be achieved by any qualified student, whether appropriately accommodated or unaccommodated. In the very rare case that certain accommodations cannot be made (see examples below), essential requirements help to clarify elements all students (accommodated or not) must master or how those elements must be mastered.

Understanding the Connection between Essential Requirements and Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

At UWaterloo, ILOs and essential requirements are not automatically synonymous (see Table 1). Essential requirements focus on “must-have” knowledge and skills representing key concepts or ways of working with content. They should be articulated to help inform the writing of ILOs (what students will be able to do with conceptual, procedural, and factual knowledge) and the development of assessments (how they will demonstrate their learning in some verifiable way for others). Furthermore, some ILOs will involve aspirational course or program goals, or less quantifiable elements (that is to say, the “nice-to-have” rather than the “need-to-have” in a disciplinary or theme area, or exploratory “expressive outcomes,” or flexible and creative goals). See Table 1, below, for a summary of the similarities and differences between Essential Requirements and Intended Learning Outcomes.

Table 1: Differences between Essential Requirements and Intended Learning Outcomes

Essential Requirements…

Intended Learning Outcomes…

are the bona fide (genuine) knowledge and skills associated with a task, course, or program.

define desired knowledge, skills, and values associated with a task, course, or program.

are “must-have” rather than “nice-to-have” elements of a task, course, or program include both “must-have” and “nice-to-have” elements of a task, course, or program.
must be fully met by all successful students in a course or program, unaccommodated or with appropriate accommodations. can be met to varying degrees and in various ways by students in a course or program.
are not themselves fundamentally altered by accommodations. might be achievable in a variety of ways and modified or altered equitably.
are concerned with achieving the non-negotiable content or skills of a goal or outcome, and in some cases with how a requirement must be met. Not meeting it, or meeting it in the wrong way, entails failure. (Note that the habitual way of doing something may not be the only acceptable way.)

might be concerned with the what, the how, or the why of a subject. Not meeting part of an ILO or some ILOs may still permit passing a course or program overall.

are directly measurable and observable.

are sometimes measurable directly, and sometimes indirectly; the assessment approach might or might not be included in the outcome statement.

An ILO might begin with words such as “describe” or “analyze”; however, the outcome does not necessarily articulate how students must “describe” or “analyze” or even how requisite material needs to be accessed in order to describe and analyze it.  For example, titrating a solution in chemistry requires observational skills to watch for colour change; could a blind or colourblind person manipulate equipment and observe colour changes with a partner in a lab? Instructors often have multiple options about how to assess the learning, which may include ways that address different kinds of accommodations. Instructors also have options for the learning activities they set to help prepare students for the assessments.

In some cases, ILOs include expectations that are not absolutely essential to the course, and may in fact be met in other parts of a program’s curriculum. For example, in the intended learning outcome “Collaboratively apply the best practices and protocols associated with therapeutic recreational practices,” the essential component might be to apply best practices and protocols. The non-essential component – depending on where collaborative skills are situated in the program overall – may be to collaborate while designing. If collaboration is non-essential, students with an accommodation involving working with others or being available to work with others would not need to work in this manner to demonstrate the essential component of the outcome.

For more information on writing ILOs, see CTE Teaching Tip: Writing Intended Learning Outcomes.

A Closer Look at Essential Requirements

As Table 1 illustrates, essential requirements are bona fide requirements; are the same for allstudents;and are not altered or compromisedby the use of accommodations. Instructors, ideally in consultation with colleagues from their programs, need to determine what is essential

Distinguishing between absolutely essential and non-essential is important because only the non-essential components can be altered without diminishing the integrity of the task or course.

Ecology course example: students go on field trips to identify plants in a forest.  A student in a wheelchair requests an accommodation because they are unable to negotiate rough terrain. 

  • What is Essential:Ability to identify plants that grow in a forest
  • What is Non-essential: Ability to traverse the physical environment of a forest
  • Accommodations:In this example, accommodating the disability is possible by making high quality photos and videos that are taken in the forest available online or at the lab. Specimens from the forest – and possible look-alike specimens – could be made available in the lab for differential identification with the photos and videos for context.

Some skills/abilities are preferred ordesirable, perhaps because they are qualities that students are likely to need in their professional life after graduation. The anticipation of skills needed in the future does not always justify considering those skills as essential requirements in a course, unless they are also absolutely necessary for the outcomes of the course or are accreditation requirements embedded in that course. Even then, keep in mind that in some professions it is a board exam that tests for qualifications. University curricula should adequately prepare those who wish to go on to that step, but not all graduates do choose to go on to that step in any given discipline, nor should university study (even in professional schools) be limited only to what professional exams certify in the moment. The distinction between what is necessary and what is preferred or desirable has significant implications for students, especially students with disabilities.

Engineering coure example: students need to analyze DC linear resistive circuits. This outcome is assessed by evaluating oral presentations.  Student A has a documented disability that restricts their ability to speak in front of others and requires an accommodation for the presentation.  Student B is unable to present in class because class presentations coincide with an episode of a chronic illness.

  • What is Essential:Analyze DC Linear resistive circuits
  • What is Non-essential:  Although presentation skills are desirable for professional engineers, presenting orally is not essential to the skill of analyzing DC linear resistive circuits. Presentation skills can be taught in a variety of ways across several courses, in order to meet program outcomes and accreditation criteria. So, unless this is the only course across the entire program in which communication skills are explicitly taught and assessed, there is no good reason not to accommodate.
  • Accommodations:
    • Student A can be accommodated by presenting to the instructor (not the entire class) or by submitting a video presentation.
    • Student B can be accommodated by presenting to the class or instructor at a later date or by submitting a video presentation.

Public speaking course example: students need to gain skills and experience in speaking in front of others. A student with severe performance anxiety requests an accommodation to submit a video presentation.

  • What is Essential:Speaking in front of others is essential in this course because one aspect of the skill involves relating to (and perhaps interacting with) an audience.
  • What is Non-essential:  A number of aspects of this skill can be altered without compromising the fundamental nature of the skill (e.g., size of the audience, position and placement of the speaker [e.g., standing on a stage], use of technology when speaking).
  • Accommodations: It is not possible to alter the requirement to speak in front of others because this skill is indispensable to the course.  However, it would be possible to allow students to sit rather than stand, use a voice output communication aid or other assistive technology while delivering a speech, and alter the size of the audience.

Essential Requirements are for all students

Even though the essential requirements are the same for all students, in most instances, there are many ways in which students can demonstrate their skills/abilities if they have a documented accommodation through AccessAbility Services.

English course example: students are required to “Appraise character development in 19th-century Russian literature.” A student with a learning disability requires two accommodations: use of speech-to-text technology and extra time.

  • What is Essential: The ability to appraise character development in literature
  • What is Non-essential: Hand-writing the test; completing the test in the classroom; completing the test in 50 minutes
  • Accommodations: Use of a computer to type rather than hand-write answers; use of the Exam Centre in AccessAbility Services; extra time for test completion

Essential Requirements are not altered or compromised by accommodations

Appropriate accommodations remove barriers that unfairly disadvantage qualified students with disabilities, but they do not alter or compromise the essential requirements or standards of a course. For more information about accommodations, see Removing Barriers: Accessibility and Accommodation.

For some requirements, it is the way in which the skill is performed that makes the requirement essential. If an accommodation enables a student to be able to perform the essential skill in the prescribed manner, then the accommodation is allowed. If, however, there are no accommodations that would enable the student to perform the skill in the prescribed manner, then the requirement cannot be met by that student and the student would not be able to pass the assessment of the skill in question.

Biology techniques lab example: the experiment requires students to work with a time sensitive reaction during which certain steps in the protocol must be performed at specific intervals or the results will be invalid.  A student requests extra time to complete tasks, to accommodate a disability.

  • What is Essential:The skill of recognizing when to perform specific experimental tests and ability to use lab equipment in a timely manner are essential to this task. Observations and results must be recorded in some way.
  • What is Non-essential:  Standing versus sitting while performing the experiment. The particular mode of recording results: orally or typed on a device, or written on paper.
  • Accommodations: Extra time to complete the task is not a possible accommodation.

Music course example: In a music course, students are required to play scales at a specific tempo. A violin student in the course has multiple physical disabilities including two missing fingers on her right hand that affect her ability to hold the bow.

  • What is Essential:performingscales fluently and in tune, atthe required tempo
  • What is Non-essential:  body position (e.g., standing vs sitting); violin size, bow  
  • Accommodations:  If modifying the bow enables the student to hold the bow and perform the scales at the required tempo without compromising the outcome, then accommodation is possible. If the modification to the bow affects the outcome, then no accommodation is possible and the student cannot pass the requirement.

Key questions to determine what is essential

In order to determine whether or not knowledge or a skill is essential, consider the following questions (compiled and adapted from Oakley, Parsons, & Wideman, 2012; Roberts, 2013; Roberts et al, 2014):

  • What is the purpose of the skill, task, course, or program?
  • What is being tested?
  • Does the task or skill need to be performed in only one specific way, or with specific equipment?
  • If yes, why?  What is the evidence or justification that the outcome must be demonstrated only one way? 
  • What is the evidence that the knowledge or skill is essential?
  • Is the requirement established in an honest and good faith belief in its necessity (i.e., not arbitrary)?
  • Is the requirement logically connected to the task or purpose it is intended for (as opposed to habit, tradition, ease, socially constructed practice)?


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