Inclusive and Accessible Pedagogy: An Expectation Rather Than an Exception in Higher Education

24 Sep 2018 10:00 AM | Anonymous

By Ryan C. Thompson, Ph.D. Student in Clinical Psychology, Palo Alto University

This past summer, I attended the 2nd Annual Evidence-Based Teaching Conference at Palo Alto University (PAU) sponsored by the Office of Faculty Learning and Instructional Development. Directed by Dr. Kristel Nazzal and under the guidance of President Maureen O'Connor, educators, researchers, leaders, and interested students from across the country attended the conference with aims of collaborating and integrating innovative knowledge, skills, and attitudes in the field of pedagogy. The conference included a series of interactive workshops that focused on various ways to make course curricula more accessible for learners. Presenters focused on teaching as it relates to intersectionality, transparent counseling pedagogy, challenges of first generation college students, online teaching, and creating courses using universal design for learning (UDL).

The conference began with a keynote address by Dr. Kim Case detailing her research into the importance and necessity of an intersectional approach towards higher education. Dr. Case discussed how the unique and complex experiences of privilege and oppression become salient in the classroom, using examples of her own missteps in conceptualizing race and gender separately rather than intersectionally. Her passion for diversity and openness about her growth as an educator was humbling, and by engaging with the crowd, she kept the audience focused on the importance of examining privilege, power, invisible identities, social location, self-reflection, and marginalization. I had not fully conceptualized the impact of social justice and advocacy in my role as an educator; however, Dr. Case's presentation offered a relevant perspective into how transformative inclusive pedagogy can be for educators as well as students. The central themes of social responsibility and equitability discussed throughout the keynote address encouraged audience members to think critically about the messages and dynamics that they co-create with their students that have the potential to be facilitative or barrier-inducing. Dr. Case continued her presentation by expanding on specific strategies and techniques for developing an inclusive pedagogy. As a novice educator and graduate student, seeing a leader and innovator in the field with such a strong commitment to changing higher education inspired me and many of my peers. All the presenters at the conference shared Dr. Case’s passion for transformative pedagogy, and each workshop organically built upon the others. 

Dr. Kelly Coker and I offered a workshop on the importance of critically engaging graduate students in interactive and collaborative role-play exercises to consolidate and expand upon the material learned during graduate school using the transparent counseling pedagogy model. Finding a balance between engaging students with significant experience without overwhelming new student therapists is tough for many educators. As a co-instructor for a Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy course, I felt privileged to share the experience of using this applied framework, having recently been in the same shoes as the students I was helping to teach. Overall, transparent counseling pedagogy combines a psychotherapy role-play facilitated by co-instructors along with an in-vivo discussion of the role-play. The co-instructors use frequent pauses to allow students to discuss their reactions and guide the course of the role-play based on their knowledge of the chosen theory or technique. This approach reduces the anxiety commonly felt by counseling and psychology graduate students learning about these theories and techniques for the first time while allowing space for students of all skill levels to actively participate in the exercise. The experience of teaching as a PhD student afforded me a unique perspective when collaborating with Dr. Coker on how to best implement this approach in the classroom—one that I believe is invaluable for all PhD students looking to enter academia. Furthermore, by presenting this material in a professional setting, we reflected on the model's strengths and areas for growth with the audience, further refining the approach for future classes. The experience of developing, implementing, and then presenting on this material challenged my preconceptions of teaching and expanded my understanding of the diligence and adaptability required to be an educator. Finally, our presentation, surprisingly, aligned closely with the other presentations in that other presenters used examples and reflected on topics discussed in our presentation.

In the morning, Dr. Kimberly Balsam facilitated a faculty panel discussion with President Maureen O'Connor and Drs. Stacie Warren, Chris Weaver, and Predair Robinson addressing the experience of being first-generation undergraduate and graduate students. The panelists stated that a lack of knowledge around the unspoken rules of getting into graduate school, the necessity of mentorship fit, the impact of hidden identities, as well as not sharing a common experience with their fellow classmates and instructors were some of the biggest obstacles that they faced when entering into higher education. President O'Connor stated that not until she saw an academic poster presentation on "The Experience of a Rural New Hampshire First-Generation College Student" did she come to understand her own identity as a first-generation college student. Each of the panelists’ journeys of self-exploration, resilience, and determination highlighted how exclusive the world of academia continues to be. The road to graduate school is long and twisted for many; however, the shared experience described by these faculty members showed just how important inclusive pedagogy is in today's changing educational landscape. Future educators like myself must appreciate the rich backgrounds of our students and make higher education more accessible to diverse students.

In the afternoon, workshops demonstrated the challenges and benefits of online teaching as well as strategies for making education flexible and engaging for diverse learners through UDL. In the growing landscape of online teaching, educators must learn ways to engage students in meaningful ways without being in the same physical space. Drs. Darlene Chen, Cristen Wathen, Kelly Coker, and Donna Sheperis highlighted fundamentals of transitioning from a traditional classroom to a virtual one. Furthermore, Dr. Eduardo Bunge and Taylor Stephens shed light on the importance of intentionality and preparation when using video conferencing platforms like Zoom to create an online learning experience, especially for diverse students. Dr. Jill Grose-Fifer described ways to make education more accessible and relevant to students using the principles of UDL, which aim to support diverse learners through flexible, engaging, and accessible courses and assignments. By listening to these workshops, I gained a deeper understanding of ways to deconstruct barriers maintained by traditional pedagogical approaches to increase student motivation and critical thinking in the academic setting. Whether online or in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, as educators, we can no longer expect all students to fit into the same mold and learn in the same way. We must expand our techniques and engage with students in new ways that honor their experience by embracing both technology and flexible curricula designed to support and empower student development.


The 2nd Annual Evidence-Based Teaching Conference at PAU highlighted several examples of how innovation and collaboration in pedagogy are informing higher education for diverse student populations. I am honored to have learned from so many leaders in the field of pedagogy, expanding my novice view of what the role of an educator can and should be. The opportunity to participate as a presenter was powerful, and I look forward to my next opportunity to add to the collective resources of my colleagues. Inclusivity and accessibility are quickly becoming the expectation rather than the exception in higher education, and I am now armed with several tools to meet that challenge because of the information that I learned and connections that I made through this conference. I encourage all my fellow graduate students and early career educators to engage openly with the changing world of higher education in the United States by attending conferences on evidence-based pedagogy and commit to gaining professional development in teaching and learning.

Ryan C. Thompson is a 2nd-year PhD student in clinical psychology at Palo Alto University interested in evidenced-based, inclusive pedagogy along with clinical research in neuropsychology.  He is a teaching assistant in the Department of Psychology and the Office of Faculty Learning and Instructional Development.  He is a member of Dr. Rayna Hirst's Behavioral Research and Assessment in Neuropsychology Lab and affiliated with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center through the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

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