By: Jeff Carette

Inclusive education refers to a method of teaching that advocates equal opportunity learning for all students, regardless of background or learning disabilities. Through the application of inclusive practices, we can avoid the kind of “ability labeling” that has been shown to stifle a learner’s capacity to achieve academically [1]. With an increasing level of diversity amongst student populations at Canadian educational institutions, the need for instructors to exercise inclusive teaching practices is paramount. However, when developing inclusive practices, it is important for an educator to distinguish between inclusion and integration; fairness is not equivalent to parity, and subjecting students to a homogenous teaching approach is not necessarily inclusive. Offering students choice through both diverse teaching methods and varied evaluation techniques allows learners of all types to excel.

As teaching assistants (TAs), our roles have the propensity to be exceptionally varied; from marking and running laboratory sessions to proctoring and lecturing, no two positions are identical. However, the ability to offer students a degree of flexibility in their learning path, through choice, is an option we all have access to and one which promises an overall elevated level of student success through increased inclusivity. By choice, I mean the choice of means by which information is absorbed and understanding is exhibited. Prior to the implementation of choice as a framework for teaching and learning, however, it is important for TAs to discuss the following teaching practices with a course instructor.

No two students learn the same way; while one student may best grasp concepts through reading papers, another’s comprehension may be optimized through discussion accompanied by visuals. One of the most achievable ways TAs can address this notion inclusively is through consideration and application of the VARK teaching model. VARK is an acronym which stands for Visual, Aural/Auditory, Read/Write and Kinesthetic, the four primary modes of learning [2]. While the majority of students learn best through a combination of these strategies (multimodal), some show a strong preference for learning through a single strategy (unimodal) [3]. Hence, it is crucial that educators aspire to teach using each of the four strategies. Conventional teaching applies heavy focus to aural/auditory and read/write instruction, while often neglecting visual and kinesthetic strategies. VARK teaching strives to educate while playing to the strengths of each type of learner. Although it is impractical for a TA to reinforce all taught concepts with all four types of learning aids, by structuring a lesson to incorporate elements of each strategy, they are sure to strike a chord with a greater percentage of the audience, leading to a greater overall engagement and comprehension. Table 1 describes a selection of applicable teaching aids and techniques geared towards each type of VARK learner.

Table 1. Examples of teaching aids best suited for each of the four VARK learners [4]

Visual Aural/Auditory
·       Graphs, Pictures, Charts, Videos

·       Gestures

·       Pictorial Language

·       Symbols, Underlining, Highlighting

·       Instructor Lecturing

·       Instructor Discussion

·       Peer/Class Discussion

·       Aural Description of Visual, Written and Kinesthetic Aids

Read/Write Kinesthetic
·       Textbooks, Papers, Articles, Handouts

·       Lists, Headings, Definitions

·       Use of Text in Presentation Slides and Blackboards / Whiteboards Notes

·       Laboratories, Trips, Tours

·       Real-life Examples, Case Studies

·       Models, Demonstrations

Similarly, students have varying strengths and weakness when it comes to how they exhibit comprehension and retention of course material through formal evaluation. While a student may excel at demonstrating understanding of the taught material when asked to write a test, s/he may struggle when asked to convey the same information in a presentation format. Hence, an inclusive approach to evaluation, for TAs, is to allow students to choose a preferred means of communication, whether it is a written essay, live presentation, recorded presentation, test, or assignment. In this way, students can concentrate their efforts on demonstrating the required knowledge in a way which is comfortable to them, rather than focusing their time on the method of delivery.

If an evaluation method is selected to evaluate a specific competency, however, allowing students choice of their evaluation method is not suggested. While choice may be used to help students achieve, it is imperative that its application does not impact the students’ ability to achieve what is expected of them (i.e., learning objectives). For example, if it is intended that students report their laboratory findings through a lab report in order to evaluate their ability to write a formal lab report, allowing a student to report lab findings through other means would be unsuitable as it would not be possible to evaluate their ability to meet the learning objective. Instead, in such cases where the means of evaluation is nonnegotiable, TAs can apply the principles of the VARK teaching model to educate students how to approach presenting their understanding through the required method.

Offering students choice of knowledge input and output helps promote student engagement by allowing them to take information in and exhibit understanding of content in a way which is best suited to their strengths. As TAs, our control of what our students learn is fairly limited; however, offering students alternative methods for disseminating information may be one of the strongest tools at our disposal to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to achieve academic success.

References

[1]          S. Hart, A. Dixon, M. J. Drummond, and D. McIntyre, Learning without Limits. Open University Press, 2004.

[2]          N. D. Fleming and C. Mills, “Not another inventory, rather a catalyst for reflection,” To Improv. Acad., vol. 11, no. 1, p. 137, 1992.

[3]          I. Prithishkumar and S. Michael, “Understanding your student: Using the VARK model,” J. Postgrad. Med., vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 183–183, 2014.

[4]          VARK Learning Limited, “VARK Strategies.” [Online]. Available: http://vark-learn.com/strategies/. [Accessed: 03-Jan-2017].

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