How Course Design for Neurodiverse Learners Promotes Success

Written by: Gabe Fink

Designing for neurodivergence is likely to be an important part of teaching and learning in higher education as the increasing number of children diagnosed with the neurodivergent conditions graduate from high school.

Those conditions include autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. The influences of neurodivergence on academic success can include differences in speech, word finding, goal-directed behavior, concentration, and sensitivity to sensory stimuli. A global literature review found that the experiences of neurodivergent students in higher education also include emotional reactions such as feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, and personal and social reactions leading to isolation.

As this is an emerging issue in higher education, it’s difficult to find authoritative data on the percentage of college students who are neurodivergent, but estimates are generally in the teens. A report by the University of California system faculty senate found that the graduation rate for neurodivergent students was 58 percent compared to 79 percent for neurotypical students, and that they reported less friendliness, safety, and respect on campus.

Seeing and understanding neurodivergence in the classroom

Megan Kohler is a Learning Designer with the Dutton Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Pennsylvania State University who has developed workshops and other services to help faculty and programs design teaching and learning for neurodivergent students.

“The biggest question that I get from faculty is, ‘How do I know if a student is neurodivergent?’” says Kohler. “I love their thinking, because they want to be able to provide targeted support. But the reality is that neurodivergence is referred to as ‘the invisible disability’ because we can’t see the variations that are occurring in someone else’s brain as they process information.”

Apart from neurodivergence being invisible, it also encompasses a number of very different conditions and diagnoses. Kohler refers to the Cleveland Clinic definition of neurodivergent as a “nonmedical term that describes people whose brains develop or work differently for some reason.”

"Some of the most common ones people think of are autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, or Down Syndrome,” Kohler says, “but the conditions that are being identified as impacting our cognitive process are constantly evolving.”

Principles and strategies of neurodivergent course design

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has become an important framework guideline for many faculty looking to create more inclusive learning design for all students, including those who are neurodivergent. The UDL framework recommends:

  • Providing multiple means of engagement
  • Providing multiple means of representation
  • Providing multiple means of action and expression

However, Kohler says UDL is just the beginning when designing for neurodiversity: “People have taken UDL as a one-stop-shop approach, but that’s not the reality. UDL removes potential challenges so students can access information. We need to also bring in inclusive design that is supportive.” That involves rethinking presentations, practice activities, and assessment strategies to accommodate neurodivergent learners.

Kohler also suggests faculty need to look critically at their criteria for assessment: “If you’re asked to give a presentation in a class, one de facto assessment component is eye contact. For an individual with autism, eye contact can be very uncomfortable. Does eye contact really need to be a component that’s assessed? We need to reevaluate what we’re looking for in order to accommodate the broader continuum of neurodivergence.”

Kohler and her research team have identified 15 strategies that support neurodivergent (and neurotypical) learners, which she is preparing to present in a neuro-inclusive design workshop as part of the 2023 EDUCAUSE annual conference.

One strategy is reviewing the language in classroom materials to ensure it’s supportive for neurodivergent learners, such as those with rejection-sensitive dysphoria, which is associated with ADHD. For example, a grading rubric with a category labeled “poor” can create a discouraging and limiting belief, and it may be better to use a term like “novice” that suggests the start of a journey and the ability to improve.

Another strategy is to review how executive functioning skills may or may not be supported, since many neurodivergent students have challenges with working memory. Every student will benefit when activities include a reference guide—in a slide or other document—with clear steps and no guesswork about how to successfully complete the steps.

Technology and designing for neurodivergence

Kohler, who is also a member of the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board, says technology can be useful for neurodivergent students when applied thoughtfully. A new favorite tool of hers is Yellowdig, which is used to organize social learning within a course, but many different tools can be used in conjunction with an LMS or courseware to benefit both neurodivergent and neurotypical students.

For example, the typical LMS has a calendar feature where faculty communicate due dates, “but for learners who struggle with time management or task management, that’s not going to help,” Kohler says. She finds that the visual maps of project management or Gantt chart tools like Asana can be more effective for many students.

She also finds that many institutions have tools available that can make a difference for neurodivergent students, but that communication is the bottleneck: “One of the things we need to do from an institutional perspective is to make students more aware that these options are available to help them.”

Flexibility is an important aspect for neurodivergent learners, especially when it comes to technology. Multimodal composition can create a more engaging and productive learning experience for these students by allowing them self-regulation and different forms of expression.

“We know standardized testing is not a great option for neurodivergent learners,” Kohler explains. “So maybe alongside a midterm or final exam, include an essay or writing option. I know that’s more work for faculty, but the students are why we’re here. It’s about making sure that they have an opportunity to excel and demonstrate what they know and learn.”

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