In this post I’m returning to an important topic: accessibility. In a previous blog my colleague Susan Fein explained how everyone benefits from more accessible materials and that a large number of our students have some degree of disability.
Word documents are ubiquitous in our courses, as well as for other work-related activities. If a Word document is designed for digital consumption – such as posting in the Learning Management System or on a website – it needs to comply with accessibility standards. Fortunately, Word includes excellent tools for making your file accessible! I will first go over the main accessibility features, and then show you how to implement them in the video below.
Accessibility checker: Word includes a tool that helps you check your work. It is useful but it doesn’t catch all the errors.
Structure: headings, spacing, lists: Marking these properly will let screen reader users skim the content and understand its organization easily. Structure a document in a hierarchical manner: the title should be Heading 1 (NOT the “Title” style – that one just gets read as simple text). The next major sections should be Heading 2, subsections of a Heading 2 are Heading 3, and so on. Do not skip levels. You can change the appearance of all these styles to match your aesthetic. If you wish, you can also save style sets to have them ready to use.
Images: There are two main things to take care of here: adding alt text (so screen reader users can listen to the description) and making sure that the image is in line with the text (to keep the reading order clear).
Colors: If you use colors, make sure there is enough contrast between text and background. Even people with good eyesight can struggle to read something if the contrast is not strong. In addition, remember that many people are color blind, so do not rely on color to convey essential information. For example, avoid something like “The readings in blue are very important, make sure you read them carefully! The optional resources are in green”. Use other means of signaling instead, such as bold or italics.
Links: Links need to include meaningful text rather than the URL. A screen reader will read the URL one letter at a time, which is not very helpful. In addition, descriptive links help both screen reader users and sighted users skim the document to get an idea of the content or find specific information.
Tables: Tables can cause trouble to screen reader users – do not use them for layout! Only use them for actual tabulated information. When you use tables, the main rule is to keep them simple and avoid split cells, merged cells and nested tables. Then, make sure you have a designated header row, which helps screen reader users navigate the data.
Document properties: The document needs to have a title set in its properties. This title is helpful for blind users because the screen reader announces it as the document is loaded in the program.
Save to PDF – yay or nay? Avoid turning your document into a PDF file, if the document is meant for online reading. PDFs are hard to make accessible. If you must make a PDF, start with a fully accessible Word file. It is recommended to use PDFs only when the design includes complex or unusual elements (for example special/technical fonts, musical notes etc.). If you are using a PDF because you have a complex layout, consider posting both the PDF and a simplified Word file, in case someone needs the fully accessible version.
Watch this 10-minute video that walks you through an example of making a document accessible. I’m using Microsoft 365 on Windows – if you’re using another version of Word or platform, things may look slightly different. Timestamps:
Accessibility checker – 00:38
Headings – 01:46
Lists – 04:56
Spacing – 05:27
Images – 06:16
Colors – 07:29
Links – 08:09
Tables – 08:49
Title Property – 09:33
As you can see, the process of creating accessible Word documents is straightforward. Turning this into a standard practice will greatly help people who access information electronically, with or without assistive devices. Let’s make it happen!
Copyright, Creative Commons, Public Domain, Fair Use… what are they and how to use them correctly? You might be a course creator in need of images to use in your materials. Or you could be an author wondering how best to share your work. This post features a brief interactive lesson on these concepts, along with recommended resources that you can explore to learn more.
You can navigate the lesson by answering the prompts or by using the menu. Click on the image below to get started!
Do you have any other resources that you found particularly helpful? Share them with us!
Instructors and course designers often use quizzes or forms for assessment, retrieval practice, self-checks, or collecting information from students. Did you know that Qualtrics surveys can take your interaction game to an even higher level of sophistication?
Qualtrics surveys can easily be linked to or embedded in a page in your Learning Management System. They can also be added as an assignment through the LTI integration.
The LTI integration has recently become an available feature for Oregon State University Canvas users. The integration links the survey to the student’s LMS account and is useful for awarding points automatically for completing the survey. In addition, several types of questions can be scored; thus, a survey can be used as a quiz and the integration tool will send the points to the gradebook.
If your LMS doesn’t have a Qualtrics LTI integration, or you don’t want to go through all the steps of setting it up, you can still use Qualtrics activities, but you will have to add any points manually in your gradebook.
Ideas for Qualtrics activities
Here are a few ways to use a Qualtrics survey:
Self-check activity / formative assessment / quiz: design a survey to increase active learning or assess content. Qualtrics can be your tool of choice because:
It’s more versatile than a quiz or Google form (e.g. more types of questions, complex branching possible based on answer).
It can be customized with different colors, fonts, and backgrounds.
The instructor can access student answers and use this information to provide individualized support or improve course materials.
Class pulse: Send a survey during the term to ask students how they are doing.
Suggestion box: Have a permanent page in your course where students can submit suggestions.
Voting ballot / poll: Create a survey to allow students to vote on a topic, favorite presentation, meeting time, etc. or to answer a poll.
Topic selection tool: Provide an easy way for students to claim their topic through a survey that eliminates an option once it’s chosen.
Muddiest point survey: Gather students’ input on the week’s materials: which concepts were unclear? Which information was particularly compelling?
Team member evaluation: In group work, it can be a good idea to have students evaluate their team members, to increase accountability and make sure that everyone is pulling their weight. You can create a survey asking students to rate their peers on specific criteria and provide comments on performance.
How to create a survey
Creating a survey in Qualtrics is very straightforward. Log into your account and create a new project. You can choose from a variety of question types, including multiple choice, ranking, slider, matrix, etc. Make sure to check which questions are accessible to screen-reading programs. If you’d like to track or manage the time a student spends on a page, you can use a timing question.
For Oregon State University users, the default look is the OSU theme. Through the Look and Feel menu section, you can choose a different theme or customize the layout, style, background, colors and text size to fit your needs and your course aesthetic.
How to link a survey
Linking to a survey is the easiest way to include it in your course. In your survey, go to Distributions and choose the Anonymous link. If you need the student’s identification information, make sure to add a question asking for their name or email.
How to embed a survey
Embedding a survey instead of linking it can make for a smoother learning experience by integrating the questions with other learning material on that page. To embed a survey on a page, use a simple iframe like this: <iframe src=”insert survey link here” width=”1000px” height=”500px”></iframe> and adjust the dimensions or style it as desired.
How to integrate a survey via LTI
Integrating via LTI is a bit more complex and will depend on your LMS and your organization’s settings. For Oregon State University users, instructions are provided in this article: Use Qualtrics in Canvas.
Qualtrics is a useful tool for adding more interactivity into your course. Setting up the surveys can be very simple or more involved depending on the task. Watch out for future posts in which we will give examples and details on how to design and create some of the more complex types of Qualtrics activities.
This post was written in collaboration by Deborah Mundorff and Dana Simionescu.
Memory plays the central role in learning – it is “the mechanism by which our teaching literally changes students’ minds and brains” (Miller, 2014, p. 88). Thus, understanding how memory works is important for both instructional designers and instructors. According to modern theories, memory involves three major processes: encoding (transforming information into memory representations), storage (the maintenance of these representations for a long time), and retrieval (the process of accessing the stored representations when we need them for some goal or task) (Miller, 2014). Let’s briefly review these processes and see how they may inform our course design and instruction.
Encoding – What Is the Role of Attention and Working Memory?
How does encoding happen? We receive information from our senses (visual, auditory, etc.), and then we perform a preconscious analysis to check whether it is important to survival and if it is related to our current goals. If it is, this information is retained and will be further processed and turned into mental representations. Thus, attention is the major process through which information enters our consciousness (MacKay, 1987). Attention is limited, and it is to some extent under voluntary control, but it can be easily disrupted by strong stimuli. Attention is crucial for memory, and without attention we cannot remember much (Miller, 2014).
How attention is directed depends on the way the content is presented and on the nature of the content itself (Richey et al., 2011). If the content is intrinsically motivating for the student, it will catch their attention more readily. But beyond that, the manner we design our instructional materials can influence how learners focus their attention to select and process the information, and in turn on what and how much gets stored in their memory. For example, we can ensure that students are guided to the most relevant content first by making that content more visually salient. Or we can tell an engaging story to focus their attention to the concepts that come next.
Working memory is a concept introduced in the 1970s by Alan Baddeley. This model describes immediate memory as a system of subcomponents, each of them processing specialized information such as sounds and visual-spatial information. This system also performs operations on this information and are managed by a mechanism called the central executive. The central executive combines the information from the various subcomponents, draws on information stored in long-term memory, and integrates new information with the old one (Baddeley, 1986).
Some researchers consider attention and working memory to be the same thing; while not everyone agrees, it is clear that they are highly interconnected and overlapping processes (Cowan, 2011; Engle, 2002). Attention is the process that decides what information stays in working memory and keeps it available for the current task. It is also involved in coordinating the working memory components and allocating resources based on needs and goals (Miller, 2014).
The capacity of each of the working memory components is limited. However, these components are mostly independent: visual information will interfere with other visual information, but not much with another type such as verbal information (Baddeley, 1986). Therefore, the most effective instructional materials will include a combination of media, such as images and text (or better yet, audio narration), rather than just images or just text. Graphic by Cheese360 at English Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Storage – How Fast Do We Forget?
In the late 1800s, Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted his famous series of experiments on the shape of forgetting. The result was the forgetting curve (also called the retention curve), which is a function showing that the majority of forgetting takes place soon after learning, after which less information will be lost (Ebbinghaus, 1885). A recent review of studies on the retention curve concluded that the rate of forgetting may increase up to seven days, and slows down afterwards (Fisher & Radvansky, 2018). This interval is useful to consider when planning instruction. A well-designed course will include sufficient opportunities for practice and retrieval during this time, so as to minimize the forgetting that naturally occurs.
Graphic from MIT OpenCourseWare is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Retrieval – How Do We Get It Out of Our Heads and Use It?
While long-term memory is considered unlimited, retrieval (or recall) can be challenging. Its success depends on a few factors. To retrieve memory representations, we use cues—information that serves as a starting point. Since a memory can include different sensory aspects, information with rich sensory associations is usually remembered more easily (Miller, 2014). Visual and spatial cues are particularly powerful: memory athletes perform some mind-blowing feats by using a special technique called “the memory palace”—imagining a familiar building or town and placing all content inside it in visual form (to learn more about this technique, check out this TED talk by science writer Joshua Foer).
Recall is also influenced by how the information was first processed: deep processing (focusing on meaning) will yield superior retrieval performance compared to shallow processing (focusing on superficial features like some key words or the layout of the information). However, equally important is a match between the type of processing that happens during encoding and the one that happens during retrieval (Miller, 2014). For instance, if the final exam contains multiple-choice questions, learners will perform better if they also practiced with multiple-choice questions when they learn the content. Finally, emotions have been shown to boost memory (Kensinger, 2009), and even negative emotions (such as fear or anger) can have a strong effect on recall (Porter & Peace, 2007).
Conclusion – Implications for Instruction
What can we do to maximize our students’ memory potential? Based on these memory characteristics, here are a few strategies that can help:
Make use of graphic design and multimedia learning principles to create attention-grabbing, well-organized instructional materials that include a combination of media.
Include plenty of retrieval practice activities, such as polling during lectures, quizzes, or flashcards. The website Retrieval Practice is a fantastic resource for quick tips, detailed guides, and research. Top things to keep in mind:
Boost retrieval practice through spacing (spreading sessions over time) and interleaving (mixing up related topics during a practice session).
Make sure you plan some sessions for the critical seven-day period after introducing the material.
Consider teaching students the memory palace technique for content that requires heavy memorization.
Support every type of content visually where possible.
Encourage deep processing of the material, for example through reflections, problem-solving, or creative activities.
Ensure that students have opportunities to engage with the material during learning in the same way as they will during the exam.
Try to stimulate emotions in relation to the content. While negative affect can help (for example, recounting a sad story to illustrate a concept), it is probably best to focus on positive emotions through exciting news, inspiring anecdotes, and even more “extrinsic” factors such as humor, uplifting music, or attractive visual design.
Using these strategies will help you create learning experiences where students encode, store, and retrieve information efficiently, allowing them to use it effectively in their lives, studies, and work. Do you have any related experience or tips? If so, share in a comment!
Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. Oxford University Press.
Cowan, N. (2011). The focus of attention as observed in visual working memory tasks: Making sense of competing claims. Neuropsychologia, 49(6), 1401–1406. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.01.035
Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology.
Engle, R. W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(1), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00160
Fisher, J. S., & Radvansky, G. A. (2018). Patterns of forgetting. Journal of Memory and Language, 102, 130–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2018.05.008
Kensinger, E. A. (2009). How emotion affects older adults’ memories for event details. Memory, 17(2), 208–219. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210802221425
MacKay, D. G. (1987). The organization of perception and action: A theory for language and other cognitive skills. Springer New York. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4612-4754-8
Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
Porter, S., & Peace, K. A. (2007). The scars of memory. Psychological Science, 18(5), 435–441. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01918.x
Richey, R., Klein, J. D., & Tracey, M. W. (2011). The instructional design knowledge base: Theory, research, and practice. Routledge.