Title: Improving Accessibility in Computer Science for Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on research to make CS more accessible for students with specific learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

This post builds on the first post in this series, where I highlighted how many school-age students in the U.S. have a specific learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder, and what our interdisciplinary team is doing to explore ways to make CS (and the new CSP course) more accessible for students with these learning differences.

Improving Accessibility by Adjusting Lessons

Broadly speaking, our project employs two ways to improve accessibility of CSP lessons: First, through whole-class lesson adjustments (we refer to these as “adaptations”) and second, through individual, student-based adjustments (“accommodations”). We define adaptations as adjustments a teacher makes to a lesson that have the potential to benefit all learners in the class, and particularly those with specific learning differences. Teachers already familiar with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) will notice that this “whole-class” lesson adaptation approach is similar to elements of UDL, as many of our adjustments are focused on similar principles (i.e., UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that addresses how information is presented, how students demonstrate what they know, and how students interact and engage with the material). Different, however, is our particular focus on students’ needs specific to their learning-based disorders. Lesson accommodations, on the other hand, are explicit approaches teachers can offer students at various points in the lessons likely to benefit particular individuals or groups of learners in the class; these are offered on an individual basis (i.e., they are offered, but not required for any students) according to the particular learning needs of students beyond what the whole-class adaptations may provide.

Adjustments of either type can be made to various aspects of a lesson including the mode of presentation of information, options for student responses, time allotted for student work, physical settings for lesson activities/work, and modes of social interaction. The graphic below provides a few instructional practices for each of these categories.

Strategies to Address Potential Barriers in CS Lessons: Learning Specialist Suggestions

After our exploratory phase one project work, our team learning specialists compiled a list of the general strategies we use in activities that are common across CSP as well as other CS classes. For example, many CS classrooms include a mix of activities (such as whole class discussions, partner or small group work, or reading and writing in general activities and assessments) that can pose challenges for students with learning differences (and particularly those with challenges related to language, reading, attention, and written expression). Our preliminary research is finding that when some of our alternate instructional approaches are used during these activities, students who learn differently because of a learning or attention disorder are more able to access the CS curriculum and participate in lesson activities. Here are a few sample instructional strategies.

In the next post, I’ll provide recommendations and advice for CS teachers that come directly from our team’s student research partners, so be sure to check back next week for more great recommendations!

This study is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number CNS- 1542963

Sarah Wille is a Principal Education Research Scientist at Outlier Research & Evaluation at UChicago STEM Education | University of Chicago, where she leads Outlier’s CS education research efforts. She is the Principal Investigator of the CSP and Students with Learning Differences study (NSF Award # 1542963) and the BASICS Study (found on the CS for All Teachers community site here: https://csforallteachers.org/group/basics). Amy Cassata is another Principal Education Research Scientist on the CSP and Students with Learning Differences study. You can contact Sarah and Amy at swille@uchicago.edu and acassata@uchicago.edu and learn more about the computer science education work at Outlier here: http://outlier.uchicago.edu/.​