Over 400 people attended the University of Waterloo’s 11th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference, for a full day of presentations, workshops, posters and panel discussions focused on the theme of “teaching and designing for diverse learners.” Conference co-chairs, Kyle Scholz and Kristin Brown, explain: “We use the term ‘diverse learners’ to represent the very real context of any teaching environment at the University of Waterloo: Learners come to our courses with varying backgrounds, experiences, and abilities, so we need to acknowledge that in the design and implementation of our teaching practices, activities, and assessments.”
The following descriptions are ideas that emerged from some sessions, and are not intended to be comprehensive. View the conference program for other topics presented, including gamification, problem-based and kinaesthetic learning, engaging international students, and an Indigenous learning circle.
Inclusive teaching and Universal Design
In her keynote address, Allison Lombardi (Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Connecticut) outlined the advantages of Universal Design, which aims to maximize usability for as many people as possible regardless of ability. Universal Design for Instruction is “the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional strategies that benefit a broad range of learners”. View Allison Lombardi’s keynote address.
The interactive sessions that followed provided some inspiring examples of research projects and teaching approaches—at UWaterloo and beyond—geared toward incorporating inclusive strategies in teaching, course design and learning spaces.
Igniting Our Practice
An annual favourite of many conference attendees, this year Carol Hulls (Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering) and Markus Moos (School of Planning) treated attendees to a snippet of what it’s like to be a student in their class. Both Carol and Markus showcased how good lesson design can outline clear expectations for students, in addition to discussing how they create an inclusive teaching environment.
Supporting students regardless of ability
Inclusive instructional practices benefit all students. While instructional strategies targeted to the “average” learner may work for some students, they may pose a challenge to many more. Nevertheless, students with disabilities cite common challenges, according to Ness Lamont (Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo). In semi-structured interviews, students said that they struggle with understanding professors’ expectations, time management, deadlines and falling behind without being noticed—all of which further inhibits engagement. It is also common to struggle with stigma associated with having a disability and, alternatively, the stress of masking difficulties.
Teaching teamwork and collaboration
Creating a safe teaching space is an important part of structuring inclusive instruction, and a number of presenters explored strategies for reinforcing a collaborative atmosphere, including collaboration with students in course design and delivery (Lindi Wahl and others, Western University) and a team-building exercise that includes the use of portable “escape room” boxes (John Kelly, Western University. Kathryn Plaisance (Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo) shared the details of a new course designed to teach collaboration skills, including key concepts like epistemic humility and psychological safety.
Getting started with inclusive instruction
A panel discussion comprising students, faculty and staff from four faculties made the following suggestions for those interested in making changes to support inclusive instruction:
- Begin with something small and sustainable.
- Remember that students have diverse backgrounds, unique lived experiences and varying abilities.
- Universal Design requires an attitude shift toward learning as collaboration.
For more practical suggestions, check out the tips for inclusive teaching offered by the Centre for Teaching Excellence.