Creating accessible seminars and tutorials disabled students

Group assignments

There is great variation in the extent to which group assignments are directed by either the tutor or by academic departmental or discipline protocols. Bouhuijs, Schmidt and Berkel (Problem Based Learning as an Educational Strategy, Network Publications, Maastricht, 1987) outline a structured, seven-stage model of problem based learning. A medical or dental scenario describes the problem. Thereafter, the student group is expected, at the first meeting, to clarify terms and concepts, define the problem, analyse the problem, identify and record explanations, and formulate learning questions for follow-up. Prior to the next group meeting, students would collect information in an attempt to find answers to the group's agreed learning questions. And finally, the information would be synthesised and findings discussed.

At each stage, the task in hand may generate the need for some disabled students to contribute in ways which might be regarded as alternative. However, in a setting where the quality of the group product is likely to be enhanced when the strengths of the group's individual members are maximised, 'alternative' ways of contributing can emerge as positive assets to the group, and, paradoxically, as the norm.

A student might find interaction within a group to be difficult, painful or impossible, and this may (or may not) be for reasons associated with their impairment. But it need not follow that the same student would find it impossible to make a valuable contribution to a group assignment, or that they would experience comparable difficulties in every group, regardless of its student composition. In the medical Problem Based Learning model described above, a student unable to interact with other group members might nevertheless be able to undertake research which could take the group to new heights of understanding or achievement. A student who is unable to be physically present for discussion (for whatever reason) might be able to e-mail significant contributions to the other students.

So what can teaching staff do in order to ensure equal accessibility of the learning opportunity for disabled students, where a group assignment is the focus of the group's collaboration?

A preliminary discussion with disabled students, where there is some likelihood that their impairment might impact on some aspect of the group's work, is likely to be helpful. On the assumption that the tutor has overall responsibility for student learning in this context, at the very least there is a need to ensure that he or she is available for any student to raise issues where learning is adversely affected.

The tutor should also discuss with the disabled student how any approach will be made to the group where there is a need for advice or information, about, for example, the use of equipment such as radio aids, or communication workers, such as interpreters, or essential features of the group's working environment, such as the necessity for it to be smoke free, or quiet. The objective could be summed up as the preparation of the group to minimise the risk of any student, including disabled students, being excluded from the activity. But this is against a background in which students may be less aware than trained teaching staff of the techniques of cooperative working practices generally.

"Today I tried to tell one of them [teaching staff] that when talking to me he should use my name, otherwise I won't know if he is speaking to me. He interpreted this as I also have a hearing impairment... So whilst he announced to the class that any handouts that people produced be put into a large print format, he also told people to speak loudly and clearly to me. I did correct him (politely, of course), but it looks as if I am going to have some very NOISY conversations over the next few months." Sara's diary.

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