MU course helps faculty understand differences in how people learn

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
From left, Jesse Broce, Christina Thebeau and Gina Ceylan speak in Ceylan's inclusive design class. Ceylan is a blind graduate student who started the inclusive design course to explore strategies with educators on how to make learning more accessible to students with disabilities. Ceylan first taught the course in the spring of 2013.

COLUMBIA — It might be the stairs and the railings bolted to the auditorium floor. Or it could be a formula written on the board in the front of the classroom but never said aloud.

Tangible or intangible, barriers to education for students with disabilities abound and are often invisible to professors on a university campus.


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But for Gina Ceylan, a graduate student at MU, the barriers are apparent. Ceylan has a progressive retinal condition and had almost completely lost her vision by early 2009. She came to MU with an interest in improving inclusion in classrooms and a determination to help educators change how they work with students of diverse abilities.

She's witnessed the effects of a lack of accessibility throughout her education. Once she saw several students register with disability services for a geology class and then drop the class within the first two weeks, already discouraged that they wouldn't be able to do the coursework.

"In my experience, inaccessible materials and physical spaces are concrete barriers, but I emphasize the underlying for a reason," she said. "And that is because it's the source of these other problems, and it's what we need to focus on changing the most."

Classroom teaching

In the fall semester of 2012, Ceylan designed the inclusive design for learning class, funded by the graduate school, which she has taught for the past year. The class helps faculty and graduate students recognize the variety of abilities of their students and how to best teach everyone. Her students learn teaching methodology and how to design classrooms that are inclusive for all students, whether they have hearing loss, visual impairment, neurological differences, psychological differences or mobility impairments.

"We don't design students' brains," Ceylan said. "We design our instruction. That's where we have the power to make a difference."

Ceylan teaches her students how to recognize unnecessary restraints in learning environments, such as the stairs in the auditorium or even a video without captions. She also provides them with a set of guidelines for designing instruction and helps them to develop an awareness and appreciation for students with diverse abilities.

The students also work on projects using the tools and technologies learned in Ceylan's class to create something they believe will help improve learning in their particular field. 

For her project, graduate student Christina Thebeau built a 3-D molecular modeling kit. Usually these kits have objects that are all the same size, leaving someone with a visual impairment unable to discern one molecule from the next. Thebeau re-created the kit for the visually impaired, shaping the molecules in various ways so a student could feel the differences. The element carbon became a cube with four holes in it, representing its ability to make four bonds, while oxygen became a sphere with two holes.

Thebeau plans to teach science education in the future and hopes to use tools such as her kit to make science accessible to all of her students.

But she's not waiting to implement the skills she picked up in Ceylan's class. As a teaching assistant, she's found herself tweaking her teaching to be more inclusive by representing material in multiple ways.

"We all have different learning styles," Thebeau said. "When you teach on the fringes of the continuum of ability, you end up benefiting everyone, regardless of their ability or any type of impairment they have."

A larger network

The course is MU's contribution to the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, a network that connects 22 U.S. universities to promote the teaching of STEM disciplines, which MU joined in fall 2012. The network promotes learning through diversity, and though many universities focus on racial, ethnic and gender diversity, Ceylan said no one was thinking about students' diverse abilities.

Angela Speck, MU's coordinator for the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning and director of astronomy, sat in on Ceylan's class in spring 2013 and ended up taking away some valuable ideas for her own classroom.

Speck realized that teachers shouldn't assume that everyone communicates or learns as they do, she said. For example, she was taught not to read everything on the PowerPoint presentation, but for some students, it's critical that the information be read aloud. She also learned to make sure all the documents she posts online for her own course can be understood by the reading software that people with visual impairments use.

"I shouldn't assume that every student is like me. I shouldn't assume that everyone is comfortable with everything I'm comfortable with," Speck said.

While Speck's classes are among those influenced by Ceylan's teaching of inclusive learning, Ceylan is reaching a much larger audience through an online video series for the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning based on her course.

Every month, Ceylan and a guest record a lecture related to inclusive design. Each lecture is followed by a discussion panel on the same topic, where audience members are invited to join the conversation on the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning's website.

A broader impact

Besides having a new online presence, Ceylan has also begun to raise awareness of inclusive design on campus, said Barbara Hammer, director of the Office of Disability Services.

Hammer said the office recently conducted a survey of faculty on campus and discovered interest in learning about inclusive design, which the office had not seen in past years. People are realizing the benefits of the class, Hammer said.

For Ceylan, the benefits were always clear. She wants people to understand the big picture and use inclusive design to combine their different teaching perspectives to work toward the goal of education: learning.

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