Published: Thu Jan 21, 2010“Our standard system of teaching shuts out some students for no reason, and at the university level we are obligated to remove the obstacles for a diverse population.”
Tennessee Tech University researcher Laura Graves says this is her research team’s motivation for conducting research so that the one-size-fits-all teaching approach in college classrooms can be replaced with a more effective design.
Graves, along with colleagues Chester Goad, Sally Pardue and a team of volunteer professors and technology experts, are conducting a study that pioneers a partnership between disability services and the academic community and opens communication regarding access through universal design, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
If you have ever watched closed-caption television in an airport terminal or participated in a conference call on speakerphone, you are familiar with the concept of universal design. Universal does not mean one solution, but multiple solutions for a variety of audiences in wide-ranging environments.
Universal design calls for curb cuts, automatic doors, video captioning, speakerphones and other features to accommodate a variety of users, including those with disabilities. In the end, everyone benefits from the accommodations.
TTU researchers are concentrating on improving the classroom experience for students with learning disabilities. Faculty members use tablet computers to archive classroom course content through web-based recordings. This benefits a variety of learning styles exhibited by students with learning disabilities and those without learning disabilities.
“Our message, supported by the study, is that we can help teachers find a great design for their classroom that addresses the needs of students with learning disabilities while also enhancing the learning experience for the rest of students,” said Goad, TTU’s Disability Services director.
In the experimental course sections, instructors use tablet computers to project and record their lessons. They can make handwritten notes on the tablet and save those notes so students have them for review. Recorded lessons are placed on the web so students can access them any time, and as many times, as needed. Both control and experimental groups in the STEM-related courses include students with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia.
“Our goal with this study is to enhance student and faculty understanding about supporting different learning styles and about how one good classroom design can work well for every learning style,” said Pardue, interim director of TTU’s Millard Oakley Center for Teaching and Learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Graves, a TTU curriculum and instruction professor who holds a special education degree and serves as project facilitator, says this technique is proving to serve students with multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles.
"Think about the concentration required to follow the steps of a math equation," Graves said. "For students with a writing disability, they may be concentrating so hard to write down the steps that they miss listening to the instruction.”
Use of the tablet computer and associated teaching techniques support the extra effort many students have to go through in order to learn.
"It's like driving along with kids in the car, the radio blaring, and suddenly running into a snow storm,” said Graves. “You turn the radio down and ask the kids to be quiet so you can concentrate. Students with learning disabilities need accommodations so that they can manage the 'noise' that inhibits them from doing their best.”
“Tablet PCs and web-based recordings replace several accommodations that students with learning challenges often need in the classroom,” said Goad. “Students who previously required note takers, preferential seating and recorded lectures can receive these same accommodations from the faculty member’s use of all the tablet features.”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the grant project also involved participation from Tennessee State University, Nashville State Community College and Roane State Community College. Kim Ochsenbein, TTU Disability Services assistant director, also contributed to the project.
Pardue says this research builds on TTU’s strength in STEM research and education.
“When the Oakley Center opens next year, we will have collaborative space to conduct more research about how students learn and how we can teach these subjects more effectively,” Pardue said.
As the lead institution, Tennessee Tech researchers say they expect to release final results of the study next fall and plan to build on the outcomes.
“We want to use the information to create workshops, training sessions and awareness on campus so that we can serve all students more effectively,” said Pardue.