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  8.  » Inclusive Teaching: Principle 4

Principle 4:

Design all course elements for accessibility.

This page provides a concise version of Principle 4 from the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia. Explore the highlighted strategies below to design course elements for accessibility. 

On this page:


“How do I accommodate a student with a learning disability?”
“How do I accommodate a student with a physical disability?”
“How can I make sure the technologies I’m using in class are accessible for students with disabilities?”
“I think one of my students needs a different kind of accommodation than they have requested.”
“A student requested an alternative assignment for field work/field trip component of my course because of disabilities.”


The following text is abridged from the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia.

How does the diversity of students’ abilities affect their experience in a course? How can instructors provide students multiple ways to engage and express their learning?

  • Instructors can help ensure their learning experiences are physically and cognitively accessible to everyone by using Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a pedagogical approach grounded in learning sciences.
  • UDL invites instructors to think objectively—making no assumptions about learners’ abilities or experiences, and eliminating biases in methods of expression—about what engagement with and mastery of their course material looks like.
  • United States law requires instructors to provide accommodations for learners with physical or learning disabilities (for more information, see the Department of Education website. It is important to remember that the legally mandated accommodations—for example, having double the time to take a written exam—almost always set a minimum standard for instructors to meet.
  • Prioritizing the accessibility of all aspects of a course, from instructional materials to assignments to classroom activities, allows instructors to envision a course from multiple perspectives and create a learning experience with fuller engagement from a diverse field of learners.


Teaching Strategies

The following strategies follow the structure of UDL’s framing principles.1 2

To recognize the diversity of students’ abilities and to create accessible learning experiences, instructors should:

Provide multiple means of representation.

  • Ask the question “How might this information present barriers to learners?” to help improve accessibility in the broadest possible context. This approach equips you to address the needs of learners new to a discipline, nonnative speakers who find the vocabulary of learning materials inaccessible, and students with physical or cognitive disabilities.
  • Ease barriers for learners by providing supporting materials (e.g., glossaries, illustrations), background information, and multiple types of examples to facilitate knowledge transfer. Provide information in multiple modalities (e.g., including transcripts for multimedia materials) and in a format that learners can adjust (e.g., by increasing text size or altering brightness).
  • Adopt guidelines for accessible presentations and discussions created by the Digital Library Federation, which include making it a practice to choose dyslexia-friendly fonts and avoid using color difference to convey concepts.3

Provide multiple means of action and expression.

  • Consider all of the possibilities for participation and assessment in a course. Clearly articulating what it means for a student to master the course content might allow you to provide a range of ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge. Remember, engaging in activities outside of the classroom may not be possible for some learners; clearly articulated goals can help you devise alternative assignments that capture the same concepts and skills developed by the field experience.
  • Allow students to interact with course materials in a way that allows them to advance their learning (for example, consider illustrating text-dense syllabi and assignments with graphic organizational aids such as a calendar with milestones).
  • Meaningfully consider the use of technology in your courses. For learners with some types of physical disabilities, technology can be both a help and a hindrance; while assistive technologies such as screen readers can open up inaccessible resources, digital tools used to promote active learning may require actions such as dragging, dropping, and clicking that are not compliant with accessibility standards. Learning management systems (such as CourseWorks) meet accessibility standards.4
  • Provide scaffolding. Help students build executive functioning skills (such as setting long-term goals, planning strategies to meet those goals, monitoring progress toward goals, and modifying strategies in response to feedback) by articulating the necessary steps between the granular mechanics and the big picture goals in a learning experience.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for informal assessment and feedback on progress, and build into this process places where learners should stop and reflect before acting. (See Principle 2).

Provide multiple means of engagement.

  • Create a supportive class climate (see Principle 1). Remember that cultural messages (for example, “Girls can’t do computer science”) and internal anxieties (for example, “I’m just not a good writer”) can limit learners’ ability to engage. Combat messages and behaviors that can de-motivate students by encouraging collaboration rather than competition among peers, and emphasizing process as much as final answers in assessment.
  • Provide multiple options for engagement that encourage learner autonomy. Invite students to do investigations or research on self-selected topics to draw on personal interests/relevance. Increase options for assignment form to allow students increased choice (such as oral presentation, research paper, design project, etc.).  
  • Invite students to co-design elements of classroom activities or assignments (for example, contribute questions for exam study guides or lead class discussions). This practice builds purposeful engagement by asking learners to reflect on their learning and its relevance.


University Resources

Canvas Workshop: Introduction to Accessibility, Universal Design, and Assistive Technology (CU/CUMC)


Authored by Teachers College, the goal of this online Canvas workshop is to provide a basic understanding of the principles of Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, accessible web design, and assistive technology. This foundational knowledge provides educators with strategies for making learning content more perceptible to the diverse spectrum of learners.


  1. Center for Applied Technology page, accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.cast.org/.
  2. National Center on Universal Design for Learning page, accessed July 19, 2017, http://www.udlcenter.org/.
  3. “Guide to Creating Accessible Presentations,” The Digital Library Federation, accessed July 19, 2017, https://www.diglib.org/forums/2016forum/guide-to-creating-accessible-presentations/.
  4. “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” Web Accessibility Initiative, accessed July 19, 2017, https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag.