Incorporating Academic Strategy Instruction in Assignment Design to Remove Barriers to Writing Assignments in Philosophy

Incorporating Academic Strategy Instruction in Assignment Design to Remove Barriers to Writing Assignments in Philosophy

Deanna Fidelak, Kristin Rodier
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7106-4.ch005
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In early 2020, there was a faculty development workshop at MacEwan University on how to design philosophy writing assignments with fewer barriers commonly experienced by students with disabilities. This chapter streamlines the workshop and surveys barriers common to philosophy assignment guidelines: length, jargon, single-format, and a “don'ts” section. The authors contextualize these characteristics within the values, norms, and practices of academic philosophy. They present a case study of transforming Rodier's introductory philosophy guidelines before and after a UDL consult with Fidelak. They demonstrate the reasoning behind the transformation, including specific UDL applications and incorporating techniques from academic strategy instruction that address the hidden curriculum. In addition, they outline changes to in-class teaching that support students in completing assignments.
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In early 2020, Rodier, an Instructor of Philosophy at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and Fidelak, a Professional Resource Faculty member with MacEwan’s Access and Disability Resource Department (ADR) teamed up to facilitate a faculty development workshop at MacEwan University’s day of Celebration of Teaching and Learning. Many Faculty members at MacEwan University have been prioritizing accessibility for students, specifically, through service changes, policy initiatives, internal research, and teaching and learning workshops. Our case study specifically addresses both assignment design and in-class teaching as sites of implementation for Universal Design Principles. We applied these principles specifically to writing assignments in the discipline of philosophy. We focused on designing learning and assessment activities that provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression for students studying philosophy.

The purpose of the workshop was to improve the accessibility of philosophy writing assignments through the sharing of professional practice with colleagues. We lead participants through the Rodier’s journey to increase the use of UDL principles in both her teaching practice and assignment design. MacEwan University is a mid-sized undergraduate university located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with a population of around 18,000 full and part-time students. MacEwan University has smaller class sizes, a focus on teaching and learning, and offers opportunities for faculty to increase their awareness and knowledge on topics related to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility. Once a year, MacEwan’s Office of Teaching and Learning Services hosts a day of Celebration of Teaching and Learning for faculty to learn, share, and grow together by participating in a variety of workshops and sessions on pedagogy. This paper is a reflection on the workshop and the consultation process that led to it. We believe it is valuable for readers to understand this journey and to reflect on our process. While we reflect on our consultation, we offer our own background and insights into the process, and thus the voice in this chapter will be shifting between us, both individually and together. This chapter uses both the first person singular (I) and first-person plural (we) at different points of describing our work. The language we use to describe our collaboration matches the duality of our individual and collaborative work—Fidelak from her work as an inclusive educator, and Rodier as a philosopher, and our collaboration together. We write in the first person to preserve each of our experiential expertise, and explain our experiences as directly as possible using our own words (Noon 2018).

The workshop focused on how to design philosophy writing assignments with fewer of the barriers commonly experienced by students with disabilities. With an interdisciplinary audience, we distributed Rodier’s introductory philosophy essay guidelines - a before and after version showing the impact of a UDL consultation with Fidelak. We also presented research on the kinds of writing challenges all students face, and how adhering to principles of UDL when designing writing assignments is beneficial for all. Following consultation, the key shift was to incorporate strategies from, and student experiences in, academic strategy instruction into assignment design. While these are not the only kinds of UDL changes that could be made, we chose to emphasize how information is presented, the amount of choice, and supportive in-class instruction. These must be considered when supporting all students, but especially when removing barriers for students with disabilities.

During the session, we had participants comment on Rodier’s before and after guidelines. These changes were well-received, and participants were riffing on how they could make similar changes in their own writing assignments. After the presentation, a philosophy colleague pulled Rodier aside to half-jokingly confess to preferring Rodier’s non-UDL “before” guidelines. A colleague from Classics then joined the conversation to admit the same thing. While the before and after was well received by the interdisciplinary audience (primarily sociology, biology, nursing), this side conversation tipped us off to a potential distinct resistance from at least these two Humanities instructors in the audience. What might underlie these confessions? Is there something about writing in the Humanities, particularly philosophy, that might make instructors reticent to UDL changes? This chapter unpacks not only our collaboration, but that side conversation after our workshop.

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