Active Teaching Lab Recap: Flexible and fair course design

Wed April 28, 2021


The April 28, 2021 Active Teaching Lab focused on ways to design a rigorous, high-expectations course for uncertain times and changing circumstances. Setting other factors aside, College is stressful. Add to this the understanding that, as with all humans, students’ lives are full of complexity. Also factor in that students are often trying to figure out how to navigate those complexities alone, often for the first time, and often without adequate support. This amounts to tremendous stress levels that they’re trying to manage. How can we create a supportive learning environment that is both flexible and fair?


  1. Work: “The Georgetown report found that 70 percent of full-time college students are working. … low-income working students are more likely to work full-time than those who are high income …The majority of students across income brackets are working 15 to 35 hours per week.” (from Most college students work, and that’s both good and bad)
  2. Family: Transitioning to adulthood, and the associated challenges of negotiating familial, social, and financial shifts from dependence to independence can lead students to try a variety of strategies. For example: Professors Are Talking About Students’ Dead Grandparents Again 
  3. Access to Disability Services: In the name of “being fair”, instructors and campus administrations often require documentation of disabilities without recognizing that stigma, cost, and inequities associated with that demand.
    • Stigma: Many students with less visible disabilities, such as anxiety, depression, chronic health conditions (e.g., Crohn’s disease, lupus), dyslexia, and other learning disabilities forego obtaining instructional accommodations because of stigma (Barnard-Brak, Lectenberger, & Lan, 2010; Cole & Cawthon, 2015; Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Denhart, 2008; Ebo, 2016; Grimes, Southgate, Scevak, & Buchanan, 2019; Jaine & Meeks, 2017; Kendall, 2016; Kranke, Jackson, Taylor, Anderson-Fye, & Floersch, 2013; Lightner, Kipps-Vaughan, Schulte, & Trice, 2012; Lyman et al., 2016; Marshak, Van Wieren, Ferrell, Swiss, & Dugan, 2010; Mortimore & Crozier, 2006; Salzer, Wick, & Rogers, 2008; Stanley & Manthorpe, 2001; Stein, 2013). The stigma of disability is particularly acute for military veterans (Kranke, Weiss, & Constanine Brown, 2017), immigrants (Nadeem et al., 2007), first-generation students (Stebleton, Soria, & Huesman, 2014), and members of cultural minority groups (e.g., Blacks: Ward, Wiltshire, Detry, & Brown, 2013; Asian Americans: Saetermoe, Scattone, & Kim, 2001; Latino men: McDonald, Keys, & Balcazar, 2007).
    • Cost: Some students with disabilities also forego obtaining instructional accommodations because of the exorbitant expense of obtaining the required documentation (Grimes et al., 2019; Lightner et al., 2012). As the United States Government Accountability Office (2012) reports, the expense of securing the professional evaluations necessary for disability documentation can amount to several thousand dollars. These costs are almost always borne by the student (or their family) rather than the university (Denhart, 2008; Shipp, 2008), leading to substantial economic barriers for low- and middle-income students and creating disturbing inequities in who receives instructional accommodations (Colker, 2019; Gormley, Hughes, Block, & Lendmann, 2005; Ragosta, 1987; Ragosta & Wendler, 1992; Wolanin & Steele, 2004).
    • Inequity: As the 2019 college entrance scandal vividly illustrates, students from affluent families are considerably more likely to obtain accommodations. For example, students from affluent public high schools (where only a slim minority of students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches) are nearly three times more likely to receive extended-time on college entrance exams than students from low- income public schools (where the majority qualify for free or reduced cost lunches; Belkin, Levitz, & Korn, 2019). Across the nation, students whose families can afford more expensive private college tuition are more likely to have extended-time accommodations (Vickers, 2010). Even at lower cost state universities, students whose families can afford more expensive out-of-state tuition are more likely to have extended-time accommodations (McGregor et al., 2016; see also California State Auditor, 2000; Griggins, 2005; Lerner, 2004).

To learn more and discover new resources, visit the session’s activity sheet.


Find out more about Active Teaching Labs here.