Fostering Student Success: Accessibility or Accommodations?

– Jeanne M. Slattery


The author’s great-aunts (Bea, Florence, and Philla), and her grandfather

My great-aunt Philla went to graduate school in English at University of Chicago, but dropped out after her master’s because women were not allowed in the faculty lounge, where seminars met. She taught at a college in Iowa for years, returning home to St. Louis for summers. Her three sisters taught high school. They never married, as one couldn’t both teach and be married (if one were a  woman).

What barriers to learning did we experience? What barriers have we created for our students?

Those are very visible barriers to academic and professional success, yet others barriers are less visible. When my husband started college in engineering, his class was told, “Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won’t graduate.” Sometimes the attitude was that it is likely that no one will graduate.

I did an interview once for a position that I was well-qualified for. The man interviewing me seemed to assume that I wasn’t qualified. As a result, I babbled and did not get the position. In all fairness, I wouldn’t have hired me based on my interview. Would I have interviewed differently if he had approached me differently?

What are our beliefs about our students’ success? How will these beliefs either increase or decrease their success? How will we reflect our beliefs in what we do and what we say?

People who consciously codify such barriers to educational and professional success seem to believe that people fall into two categories – successful or not – and that the goal of teaching (or interviewing) is to remove those people who will not be successful. They seem to be defining success in such a way that actually creates failure. I suspect many of us create – or reinforce other such barriers. I believe we should create courses that promote success and student learning.

How can we help students think about themselves – and their thinking – so that they are more successful? How can we remove barriers to our students’ learning and their ability to show us what they’ve learned? How can we design our courses so they foster success?

Some students will succeed in almost any classroom. Some will fail regardless of what we do at least for now. Some of our students aren’t yet motivated to work in college; others have financial and mental health barriers. Some people (the Murky Middle) may either succeed or fail depending on the ways that class and its assignments are set up.

What can we do to create situations that foster success among the Murky Middle? What can we do to help our students succeed to a greater degree?

* * *

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Table 1. Comparisons among approaches to increasing student success.

Traditionally, faculty members have responded to those students who need help by providing accommodations (e.g., extra time to complete assignments, a notetaker or reader, an exam in a different format). There are some problems with this approach. See Table 1. This emphasis on accommodations requires students to self-disclose a problem, which some may find difficult (e.g., I never took an exam late in college, never missed a paper or assignment deadline, even when I was sick). Accessibility, on the other hand, means deliberately providing our students with a range of access points available to all students, with the awareness that different students may prefer to interact with course material differently and will be successful in different ways (Turner & Schomberg, 2016). Designing courses with greater accessibility does not mean dumbing down a course, but providing the resources needed to help all students succeed.

Students in the Murky Middle often haven’t learned the practices of metacognition, reflection, and inquiry. Their potential may well be very high, but their attitudes and behavior (unintentionally) deny them access. Additionally, students may come in with a fixed mindset that interferes with their ability to perform to the degree that they might otherwise (Dweck, 2006). Even in content-heavy courses we can briefly discuss such concepts, model strong learning and study skills, and design assignments that build such skills and attitudes. For example, we could show one of Stephen Chew’s excellent videos on study skills to get them thinking about how to approach studying more effectively. Alternatively, before a first exam we could ask students to indicate how they expect to perform, then following that exam, ask them to briefly write about factors that might explain any discrepancies they experienced from their predicted performance. Such a point might be an excellent place to discuss how they can build the skills and attitudes that might increase their success in the future.

While we can and should help our students think about what they can do to increase their engagement and success, there are also many things that we can do as we design our courses.

When I have guests to my home, I offer all guests food, drink, and a comfortable chair. I ask them what they would like, rather than waiting for them to ask.  Similarly, faculty who approach teaching with an emphasis on accessibility do so with an implicit philosophy that is welcoming and hospitable (Jones, 2016).

Accessibility and accommodation are usually discussed under the umbrella of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In addition to the strategies we’ve already discussed, UDL means:

  • Using technologies that make materials available to all learners (e.g., providing transcripts or closed captions for videos, using more readable font styles, avoiding formatting that is difficult for reading software).
  • Designing courses and assignments that provide multiple access points to course material and multiple strategies for demonstrating learning (e.g., providing both a hard copy of assignments and PDFs in course shells).
  • Adopting a tone that is warm rather than off-putting. Does your tone engage your students and help them do their best work?
  • Using examples that are inclusive rather than exclusive. Do you use examples and assignments that have personal relevance to your students, which included people like them being successful in the field?

“To meet the needs of some, UDL is committed to giving the tools to everyone” (Edyburn, 2010, p. 39). Neither my husband nor I is hard of hearing, but we enjoy watching TV with the captions on. We find this particularly useful when we watch British TV, but also when we view movies and TV with a lot of background noise or where speakers talk with their backs to the audience. Closed captions are useful both for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people like us. In fact, some studies suggest that 80% of people using closed captions have no auditory barriers.

* * *

Psychologists increasingly make a distinction between remedial ethics and positive ethics (Knapp & VandeCreek, 2012). The former only meets the letter of the law, while the latter attempts to meet higher aspirational goals (e.g., building trust and communicating respect, empowering clients). I think the same ideas apply as we consider UDL. We shouldn’t only consider what we are required to do to support our students (accommodation), but also what we can do to help our students learn most effectively (accessibility). As we design our courses, we might ask:

  1. What barriers do I anticipate my students will face in this course?
  2. How does my course design help all my students meet our learning goals more effectively in this particular situation?
  3. How does my course design meet the needs of a range of learners, not just those students who are “just like me”?
  4. How does my course design help my students see themselves as effective and capable learners?


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Edyburn, D. L. (2010). Would you recognize Universal Design for Learning if you saw it? Ten propositions for new directions for the second decade of UDL. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33, 33-41.

Jones, J. B. (2016). Plain language and inclusive document design. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Turner, J., & Schomberg, J. (2016). Inclusivity, Gestalt principles, and plain language in document design. In the Library with the Leadpipe. Retrieved from


I don’t thank Melissa K. Downes often enough for her thoughtful editing. This piece is stronger as a result of her careful reading and thoughtful comments. Thank you.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill. A new book will be published this fall: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

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