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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning


A discussion with Abi Smith

Photo of Abigail Smith

Abigail Smith is a third-year undergraduate reading Geography at Queens' College. A winner of the 2020 Outstanding Student Contribution to Education Awards, Abi is her College's current JCR Disabilities Officer and has worked closely with College and University staff to develop more inclusive practices and systems that are accessible to all students, and which enhance the educational experience in Departments and Colleges. We spoke with Abi about what she had learnt through her role as Disabilities Officer, her own experiences, and working with staff and students across the University.


What have you learnt about how teaching and learning processes can be developed to be more inclusive?

"It is really helpful to create opportunities for students to give feedback and share ideas about what works for them. When requesting feedback there is often a tendency to seek only ideas about what might work better, or how issues can be addressed, but it is also important to ask about what is working well. I've seen some really positive outcomes from staff seeking feedback from students and colleagues, and being receptive to suggestions or adaptations. For instance, my Department (and College) have been particularly proactive in addressing any accessibility barriers and have taken some really positive steps forward."

"Often it is not easy to see how principles such as the Equality Act's 'anticipatory duty' might play out in teaching and learning contexts (such as supervisions or lectures), or when developing course materials. Therefore, it can be helpful to consider and discuss any features that could be designed into the presentations, activities or reading lists at an early stage, to ensure that resources are accessible to all students, regardless of any reasonable adjustments. This can be as simple as a quick email to students stating the proposed room or online platform for teaching, and listing the key activities and resources that might be used."

"Taking these steps as early as possible leaves time to adapt or change things in advance, saving time in the lecture or supervision to focus on content and teaching."


What can be helpful for staff to consider in preparing for and delivering lectures?

"Considering accessibility not just as an 'add-on' or obligation but as a way to enhance the quality of the lecture can help to develop the educational experience for everyone. Being aware of the different ways that students may need to access the content, and remaining open to accessibility feedback throughout the course, not only helps inclusivity to become fundamental to teaching practices, but can save a lot of time later - for everyone involved."

"When delivering lectures specifically, a particular example is that it can be helpful to signal when you change slides, or regularly refer to slide numbers, so that all students can easily follow where you are, and note slide numbers for later reference. Similarly, being specific about descriptions can be very useful: for example, referring to 'the diagram showing peristalsis on slide 43', rather than 'this image here'."


What do students find helpful for staff to consider in preparing for supervisions?

"Whilst it is hard to generalise, one key thing that can be really beneficial is when supervisors initiate a dialogue about the practicalities of a supervision. For instance, double-checking the format for handing in essays / problem sheets and being open and flexible about options can really help students to focus their time on the quality of their work, rather than addressing accessibility issues."

"Equally, if you are aware that a student uses certain software or technology to access materials or communication platforms, it can be useful to check with them - individually and in advance - that any resources are accessible. Similarly, it is important to check that students can access any feedback given. For example, some text-to-speech and screen-reading software can struggle with the comment feature on MS Word. A quick email saying 'I'm thinking of using xyz in the supervision' helps to make sure the supervision is as accessible as possible for everyone, while taking the pressure away from individual students to initiate this dialogue within a supervision."


Looking forward, what do you think Cambridge could be doing to be more inclusive and accessible?

"There are lots of great things happening in Colleges and Department across the University already. However, it would be great if there were more opportunities for inclusive practices to be shared more broadly, especially relating to what works well in different teaching contexts, and the many ways that students may need to access materials. I think one key part of this is also user-testing. This is important as, even if something is labelled as accessible, it is stil incredibly useful to test programmes and resources out within your specific context, to ensure everybody has access to the information they need. There have been some really positive examples of this kind of approach with the University Library."

"Teaching online is new to everyone, meaning that now is a great opportunity to check in with students about what works, and gather ideas for the year ahead. It is also, though, a good time to reflect on the many steps forward that have been made with regard to accessibility and inclusive teaching throughout this period - it has been great to see!"


Cambridge Teaching & Learning Newsletter vol. 2 (issue 1) December 2020

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