Online Course Teaching Tip

Thank you to Katherine Merrill, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics & Statistics, for contributing this post.

As an avid learner, I have always been amazed at students who think that the instructor is solely responsible for their learning. And this is especially so for an online course.

In the past, I have used Discussion Boards to solicit and encourage communication between the students and with myself. However, I noticed that students do not want to bare their souls in a discussion board. And I as the instructor needed more sharing of their experience, rather than through frantic urgent emails. I decided to try the Journal tool in Blackboard because it provides a communication tool between each student and the instructor preserving privacy.

In Blackboard, I created a journal titled, “Your Private Journal.”  Here are the instructions for the journal assignment:

Hi. This is where we’re going to spend time together and build a successful strategy for completing this course. Here are the types of journal entries I want you to make:

    • Where are you located while taking this course?
    • What does your schedule look like for the next 6 weeks (other courses, work, plans to be offline)?
    • What is your major/area of study and why are you taking this course?
    • Tell me about your family, pets, etc.
    • What do you like to do for an avocation or any special interests that you have?
  2. After reading the chapter and watching the lecture videos:
    • Post a new concept/idea for you that is cool or post an idea that you need help.
  3. After tackling the practice problems
    • Post what problems you did (just list by number)
    • Post about the problem(s) that gave you the most difficulty to work out or that you still need to understand
  4. After taking the QUIZ and EXAM
    • Post a reflection about the problems that you got wrong and how to do them correctly (or ask for help)
  5. Weekly post a self-reflection about the material and what’s going on with you (really busy, or whatever)

Basically, I am looking for you to comment on the materials each week. For example in Week 1, comment on your work for Chapter 1, Sections 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 including YOUR WORK TO PREPARE FOR THE QUIZ (READING THE BOOK, THE RECITATION PROBLEMS, ANY EXTRA PROBLEMS), A REVIEW OF THE QUIZ, (WHAT YOU GOT WRONG AND HOW TO DO IT CORRECTLY, OR ASK FOR HELP), AND FINALLY A REVIEW OF THE EXAM.


As for grading, I created a spreadsheet with columns representing two possible points for each week’s entries. I just did a check mark for each item required for the week. If there was no entry, the student received a zero. If they did part of the work, the student received a one. If they did it correctly and completely, they earned two points.

Yes, it was a lot of work. I was committed to reviewing every detail of their writing, including correct use of vocabulary and content. I also showed interest in them as they struggled with time-management of coursework, internships, summer jobs, and family commitments. BUT IT HAD A HUGE PAYOFF. The students enjoyed the course and course evaluations were improved. Most importantly, I felt like they were getting the attention they deserved AND they were developing good learning habits by reviewing their work.

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Welcoming and Supporting Students During Office Hours

Some content for this article was adapted from a submission to the Teaching Tips Consortium of the POD Network by Judy Ableser, Director Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Oakland University.

For many years, a major part of my staff role was supporting first-generation college students. Often, when I’d suggest students visit faculty during office hours, I would be greeted with a blank stare or sometimes even the air of panic.

Office Hours Sign

Research shows that relationships with advisors and other staff and faculty on campus is integral to student retention and success. One critical way these relationships are built is through office hours, which allow for more informal interactions and where a significant amount of academic and professional mentoring occurs.

However, it’s valuable to remember that office hours are a new phenomenon to many students. Most high schools don’t have such a structured way for students to connect with teachers. And, students may feel more intimidated by their college professors, uncertain about how to engage during office hours or even why to go.

While the value of student/faculty relationships has been well-documented, it is imperative to remember that students success is driven when faculty are responsive, supportive and accessible (Kuh et. al., 2010; Tinto, 2012). Interactions during carefully advertised and facilitated office hours can be one bridge to help build these important connections and reduce the fear factor some students may experience regarding interactions with their professors.

Below, find some suggested practices to encourage students to attend office hours:

  1. When advertising office hours, use student-welcoming language. An example might include, “I am here to support your learning. I encourage you to meet with me when you feel that you need support or assistance.”
  2. Include both set office hours and “by appointment” to accommodate students who cannot attend during scheduled time.
  3. For online courses and for students who have difficulty meeting during set times, offer virtual office hours using Skype or Zoom.
  4. Hold your office hours at the Davis Center, Library, or in other central locations (students may feel intimated to come to your office).
  5. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 and assign them a time to come and visit you in your office. This can be a short (10 minute) introductory meeting. This may help “break the ice” so the students are more comfortable to come back when they need help.
  6. Reach out through a personal email/text, early in the semester, to students  who are struggling, and invite them to meet with you.
  7. When students do come, provide them prompts and questions so they can articulate their needs. Remind them of how much time you have for the meeting and give them reminders a few minutes before it is time to leave.
  8. Have candy, snacks, or coffee available if possible.

What other suggestions do you have for building productive relationships with your students?


Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., Whitt, E. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Tinto, V. (2012) Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

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Are effective group work assignments possible?

How often have you heard things like: “Oh no, not another group assignment!” from students? Or from faculty, “Why don’t group projects go the way I intend?”

We know that valuable transferable job skills are learned during group work and students can learn from each other and develop the skills they need to practice. Planning ahead and getting the groups functioning well over the span of a longer assignment is the key to success.

Here are 5 tips to help you get successful group work assignments going in your class so that students enjoy participating in them  and you enjoy giving them:

  1. Link your course learning outcomes to the group work assignment. This helps students understand the purpose of the group work. They know they aren’t doing group work just to do it.
  2. Provide very clear directions for each task of the assignment. And allow some choice, if possible, on topics or options for the presentation at the end.
  3. Ask each group to do a resume for the overall assignment.   (For an example, download this Resume Template from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center). After the group resume, have them define and assign roles for the tasks they need to accomplish during each meeting session. This can be either in-class or outside of class. (Download Group Work Roles [.doc] from the Eberly Center)
  4. Use self and group assessment/feedback throughout the assignment. This is key to knowing if the groups are functioning well or if they need an intervention. (Template downloads from the Eberly Center: Group Work Self Evaluation [.docx] and Sample Self Evaluation Form  [.docx]
  5. To ensure fair grading of all group members, give both a group grade and an individual grade and include this within the points structure for the assignment. Assign due dates and points for each increment of the assignment.

Group work assignments can be engaging and fun for students and for faculty. It’s great to see what the students come up with for results. So, be creative and clear with the assignment options, allow for assessments along the way toward the final product and enjoy the process.


Sample Group Project Tools” Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center
Using cooperative learning groups effectively” Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

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Blackboard Tip: Making Sense of Those Tiny Icons in the Grade Center

If you use the Blackboard Grade Center to record your students’ grades you have probably noticed small icons scattered throughout the page. There is an Icon Legend button in the lower right corner below the grade columns but here is what the icons mean:

image of Blackboard grade center icons

Blackboard Grade Center Icons

User Unavailable: the student has dropped the class or become inactive.

Column Not Visible to Users: students will not see their grade in MyGrades for this column.

Completed: A Survey or other activity has been completed by the student.

Needs Grading: Student work, for example an Assignment or an Essay Question in a Test, is waiting for you to grade it manually.

Override: You (or your TA) has overriden a previously given grade, either to make it lower or higher.

Attempt in Progress: Student is still working on it (example: they are in the middle of taking a Test).

External Grade: The Total column carries this designation by default. It is designed especially for K-12 where a teacher may want to share a grade with the student’s parent or guardian. We do not use that feature, but if you want to delete the Total column you must set another column to carry the “External Grade” designation before you can delete the column. Choose a different column to carry this designation by selecting “Set as External Grade” option in the drop-down menu for that other column. Once done, the Total column will be freed up and you will find “Delete Column” as an option in its drop-down menu.

Grade Exempted for this User: You or your TA has chosen to Exempt this grade, i.e. not include it in the calculations for that student, by clicking on the cell for that Grade and choosing “Exempt Grade” from the cell’s drop-down menu.

Does not contribute to user’s grade: Typically you see this icon when you have set an Assignment or Test to allow for multiple attempts. You must designate which single grade should be counted (ex: the last attempt, the highest grade attempt, the first attempt, the lowest grade). This icon tells you that the student made other attempts and received other grades for this specific activity.

Error: Means what error always means–an undefined problem has occurred!

Not participating: The student is not participating in , or has been exempted from, this activity. For example, the activity may have been created for a specific group but not for the entire class.

Anonymous Grading is enabled for this item: You may add a layer of impartiality to your grading so that you aren’t unduly influenced by a student’s previous performance, past participation, race, gender, or perceived student aptitude.

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Facilitating Classroom Discussions

UVM Students in Discussion-Based ClassroomThis summer, I revisited the excellent book Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. I’d like to share some key ideas from their text (and encourage you to check out the book from the Bailey/Howe collections).

I should note that the ideas and approaches shared in this book can be applied in classrooms with a range of size and content areas. Even in a large course, there are opportunities for students to simply pair with a neighbor and engage in a discussion. After all, according to the authors, discussion is “an alternatively serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 1, Section 2).

To unpack the definition a little further, there’s something lovely about being given the expectation of mutuality, when opposition and polarity seem to inundate the airwaves. To be clear, in a discussion, while opposing ideas may indeed emerge, perhaps with no consensus reached, by Brookfield and Preskill’s definition, the people engaged are doing so with the common intent of learning and growing by listening, thinking, and articulating.

Consider, then, these four purposes of discussion outlined in the book:

  1. to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration,
  2. to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique,
  3. to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and
  4. to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 1, Section 2).

What I appreciate about these purposes is the challenge they provide me, as a teacher, to create opportunities for my students where the discussion is elevated and potentially transformative. Please do recognize that I use the word “challenge” with all honesty. Facilitating discussions that meet these purposes is not always easy. Fortunately, Brookfield and Preskill provide more than a philosophical perspective. They also share numerous techniques and approaches, from setting expectations to navigating the complexities that social identities (race, class, gender) bring to participating in discussions.

I haven’t counted, but I think there are close to 100 tips in this book. I’m going to share three, and hope you comment with additional ideas (from the book or your own experiences):

Hatful of Quotes: The instructor/facilitator chooses 5 or 6 quotes from a reading, and puts multiple copies of each quote into a hat (enough so there is one slip of paper for each student). Students draw a quote out of the hat and are given time to read it silently and reflect on the content. Then, in no particular order (popcorn style), students read their quote out loud and share some reflection. If students are shy or wary of speaking, they may wait until the end and at least read their quote; perhaps they will feel confidence to agree with other interpretations or supplement with their own ideas. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 4, Section 8)

Buzz Groups: These small groups can be used during a lecture-heavy class (suggested to be facilitated once or twice per session). Three to four students join together for three minutes to discuss a topic raised in the lecture. Examples of question prompts the authors suggest include:

  • What’s the most contentious statement you’ve heard so far in the lecture today?
  • What’s the most important point that’s been made in the lecture so far?
  • What’s the most unsupported assertion you’ve heard in the lecture so far?
  • Of all the ideas and points you’ve heard so far today, which is most obscure or ambiguous to you? (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 3, Section 3)

Students are asked to keep track of points of consensus or disagreement. Then, the instructor asks (in the full group) for a representative sampling of comments.

Conversational Moves: Students are given, randomly, a slip of paper when they enter the room with an instruction (a “move”) for participating in that day’s discussion. The authors provide 12 examples including:

  • Ask a question or make a comment that shows you are interested in what another person has said.
  • Ask a cause-and-effect question – for example, “Can you explain why you think it’s true that if these things are in place, such and such a thing will occur?”
  • At an appropriate moment, ask the group for a minute’s silence to slow the pace of conversation and give you and others time to think. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 5, Section 5)

Instructors could come up with any moves they would like. It is recommended that time is saved for the end of class to hand out the full list of questions and debrief the experience.


Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

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Blackboard for Beginners

Woman working on a laptopI’ve only recently begun working at UVM, which means, like many folks out there, I’m learning Blackboard (Bb), made perhaps more challenging for me by having vigorously used Moodle for the past eight years!

So, for those of you who are brand new to a Learning Management System or are switching to Bb from a different product, I can relate to your growing pains. It can feel daunting to learn new terminology, weed through all the available tools, and design an organized course site.

In this post, my goal is to provide enough of a general overview that the software feels a little less overwhelming. And remember – the CTL offers a great deal of Bb support for faculty!

General Bb navigation

It is useful to understand some fundamental concepts of how faculty and students find their way through Bb. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you start to feel grounded. For more details, utilize the step-by-step CTL Teaching With Blackboard tutorials.

  • The left menu in a Bb course site is comprised of two general areas:
    1. The Course Menu (at the top) has links to all parts of the course that you want to be accessible to students.
    2. The Control Panel section (at the bottom) is for instructors and TAs only, and it has all the behind-the-scenes controls.
  • The default “Home” page in a UVM Blackboard site is the Announcements page.
  • Just as Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs to follow their way home, Bb leaves a trail of breadcrumbs at the top of the course site, so you can view how deep you are into the site and navigate back, step-by-step, all the way to the home page.Blackboard Breadcrumbs Sample
  • Editing must be turned on to make changes; the Student Preview button allows you to see what your students see.
  • The down-pointing gray chevron (always on the right side, sometimes only visEdit Chevronible when you hover) is the gateway to the editing menu for any previously created Bb item, file, link, tool, etc.

What can Bb do for you?

The bottom line is that you have quite a bit of control to align with your organizational and pedagogical needs. Ultimately, Bb should put essential information at the fingertips of your students, facilitate communication between you and your students, and enhance your teaching.

If you’re using Blackboard mostly as a resource repository, try creating separate content areas for readings, videos, and assignments. Or, if you’re relying on Bb heavily, build a content area for each week or topic of the class, and then create folders and subfolders within each week or topic to organize materials and assignments.

  • The Content Areas can be customized to reflect your needs. You can add, delete, or rename Content Areas and control the organization and structure of what’s inside each one.
  • The banner on the homepage can be changed to provide some visual interest or cues to the content and tone of the course. Create your own banner!
  • You can minimize printing (and shuffling) papers by having students submit assignments online. Students can also take tests and quizzes
  • Assignments, tests, and quizzes automatically generate a column in the Grade Center, where you can provide numerical or letter grades as well as qualitative feedback. Students can check their “My Grades” link for an overall grade as well as for in­­­­­dividual assignments.
  • Rubrics can be built to provide feedback.
  • Interactive Tools (Blogs, Discussion Forums, Wikis, etc.) are places you and your students can construct and share knowledge and meaning-making.

Commit to using 1 to 3 features

UVM students on laptops

It can (and probably should) take years to maximize the use of a Learning Management System. Bb is a robust product with hundreds of options and tools. I recommend making a commitment, each semester, to using 1 to 3 new features until your Bb course site works effectively for you and your students. Each semester, you can copy forward what you did the past semester and build from there.

Bb support

The UVM Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL) has Open Hours for teaching and teaching technology support. Additionally, we’ve created Bb Documentation pages and a general Instructor Help page. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with your questions! We are here to help.

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Managing Distracting Technology in the Classroom

Two people using electronic devices Do you frequently attend meetings where technology is banned? I don’t. In fact, technology plays an important role in most of the meetings of which I am a part. On laptops, each participant can view the agenda and related documents. On cell phones, we can text a committee member who’s running late without interrupting the whole group. Using shared documents, we can co-create outlines or projects. Using online project management tools, we can develop a detailed plan.

And yet, when I teach, I respectfully request that my students leave cell phones silent in their bags and request that laptops are generally closed (there are exceptions to these requests, but this is the general expectation).

Why such a dichotomy? First, I teach a seminar-style, discussion class. If I were teaching a project-based class, I might have a different opinion. Secondly, I’ve read a lot of studies that indicate how terrible humans are at multi-tasking, how distracting someone else’s technology can be to a fellow learner, and how notetaking by hand seems to have better outcomes than notetaking on a laptop. And third, I was a student once! I know how hard it can be to maintain focus on a new or difficult topic, and how easy it is to zone out; zoning out with engaging distractions would have been even worse for me!

However, technology certainly can play a role in the classroom, and, when put to good use, it enhances the learning.

Therefore, I have found it useful to frame my own thinking about technology as either distracting or enhancing the learning experience. For instance, as just one example of an enhancing technology, I have tremendously valued the addition of Poll Everywhere (think iClickers on steroids) to engage students (not only can they respond to multiple choice questions, but they can also write open-ended responses, create word bubbles, etc.). But I’ve also seen the downsides of distracting technology, usually in the form of incessant text messages to cell phones!

I want to focus the rest of this post on ways to address distracting technology in the classroom, and invite your ideas in the comments below.

I’ve typically talked with my students at the beginning of the semester, when we set classroom expectations and norms, about the research related to learning and technology. Most semesters, the students have appreciated flipping their thinking to consider the classroom as a refuge from the onslaught of digital notifications and nudges, and they are willing (sometimes even eager) to put their devices away. Students who are parents often have the legitimate worry about being unreachable if a child has an emergency; I’ve provided them with a number to phone the college (who will contact us in the classroom) in the case where immediate response is needed.

One approach I’ve read about is taking planned “Tech Check” breaks throughout a class period. These are brief pauses where students are given full permission to disengage from class and burrow into their electronic devices, then returning to class ready to focus.

Some faculty use humor or “novelty” approaches to challenge students to curb their cell phone use:

Excerpt from Faculty Focus Blog Post:
Cell Phone Policies: A Review of Where Faculty Stand

“If it rings, you sing. So be sure and pick out your favorite song and be ready to belt it out in front of the class.”

“If your cell phone interrupts class or you participate in any non-class related activity during class, you will be responsible for bringing cookies for the class to share during the next class period (or forfeit your highest homework score). Definition of “non-class related” is at the discretion of the instructor.”

“For every minute I use my cell phone during class, you may use yours for two minutes.” I teach economics. This sort of sassy approach opened a discussion about incentives (it provides an incentive for me to avoid using mine). My section are 20 to 30 students.

Questions about novelty policies: What does being novel add to the issue of cell phone use? Does something like humor put the problem in perspective or diminish its seriousness? What if a student refuses to comply with a policy that requires some action?

I’ve been intrigued by this instructor’s use of positive behavior modification (although I think this would only be manageable in smaller courses) to award tiny amounts of extra credit for students who “turn in” their deactivated phones at the beginning of class.

Is this a multi-sided issue of self-control and/or trust (I don’t check Twitter during meetings because I am invested in my job; do I trust that my students feel similarly in my class)? Is this an issue of appropriate time and place (transparency with students about the ways technology can enhance/distract can allow for strategic infusion of technology when pedagogically warranted)? What are your thoughts? Please share your ideas and strategies below in the comments.


Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay, or a Third Way?

Technology and Student Distraction


Barlow, R. (2017, November 14). Surviving class minus your cell phone: BU lecturer made students do that. Surprise: They liked it. BU Today. Retrieved from

Burkholder, P. (2017, September 11). Helping students make the right call on cell phones [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

King, B. J. (2017, October 19). Should college professors give ‘tech breaks’ in class? [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2018, March 6). Cell phone policies: A review of where faculty stand [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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Engaging Students on the First Day of Class

When I was an undergraduate, the first day of class was frequently predictable: syllabus, expectations, teacher’s introduction, a brief lesson, and early release. I tended to be more focused on who else was in the class (Do I know and like someone with whom to sit? If I don’t know anyone else, who do I want to befriend?) than on the information being imparted.

Students in a lecture hall at UVM

Now, when I teach, I try to remember my own experiences and create a more engaging first class. I have students complete a syllabus scavenger hunt for homework (to free up in-person time). We play a 20-minute name game where every person’s name gets repeated dozens of times. Students complete a gallery walk where they share their beginner perspective on concepts we’ll delve into further in the semester.

By asking students to engage on the first day, I recognize that I am asking them to take risks and trust strangers. I’m conscious that students may be thinking, “Why isn’t this professor just handing out the syllabus and telling me about this course? Do I have to interact with these classmates and professor I don’t know? What if I mess up or look stupid?” I work to defuse anxiety by acknowledging the discomfort, being vulnerable with them (I participate in the name game and stumble my way through, too), and inviting them to be equal participants in their learning.

I have found value from three articles that illustrate interesting approaches to the first day of class:

And, I’m sure that many of you have effective and clever ways to share your enthusiasm, introduce students to new topics, and begin to build community. Please comment on this post with anecdotes of what has worked well for you! If you’re considering trying something new, what shift might you make to your first class session for greater student engagement?



Buirs, B. A. (2018, August 2). First impressions: Activities for the first day of class [Blog Post]. Retrieved from;s=FF180802;utm_term=FF180802&utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Activities+for+the+First+Day+of+Class&utm_campaign=FF180802

Fink, D. B. (2014, Fall). Provocation in the halls of academe: Bringing Piaget and Vygotsky into the university classroom. Thought & Action, 63-74. Retrieved from

Smith. G. A. (2008, September). First-day questions for the learner-center classroom. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 17(5), 1-4. Retrieved from

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Creating Accessible Materials Reduces Stress Later

My mother’s words still ring in my ears: “Measure twice, cut once.” I did a lot of sewing growing up and have learned that one hasty snip of the shears can lead to frustration, loss of time, and cost of additional materials.

In preparing a course, when considering accessibility, a similar principle exists: Do it right the first time. Trust me, you will save yourself considerable stress if you keep accessibility in mind when creating materials instead of facing the daunting task of making changes under the pressure of time.

Focusing on accessibility is essential for accommodating students with disabilities and beneficial for all students, consistent with the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

The following content was submitted to the Teaching Tips Consortium of the POD Network by
Kevin S. Wilson, Instructional Design Consultant
Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University

In Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Steve Krug notes that making digital information accessible to everyone is “not just the right thing to do; it’s profoundly the right thing to do.”

Krug says, “the one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?”

Learning a few key principles will allow you to do your job just a little bit better. So, get started creating:

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3 Ways to Get Started Creating Accessible Documents

The following content was submitted to the Teaching Tips Consortium of the POD Network by
Kevin S. Wilson, Instructional Design Consultant
Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University

Use your software’s formatting tools—especially styles—to create headings and subheadings.
Text-editing programs such as Microsoft Office and Google Docs use styles to apply predetermined formatting to text, creating titles, subheads, bulleted lists, numbered lists, and more. When you use styles instead of manually formatting text, you make the text readable to text-to-speech software, including screen readers used by people who are blind and other students with disabilities.

Make sure that the document text is “live,” not an image.
Can you highlight text in your document, copy it, and paste it elsewhere? If so, it’s probably “live” text that can be read by text-to-speech software. If the text can’t be copied and pasted, it’s probably an image (of text).

Use high-contrast text, and use color sparingly.
People with low vision or color blindness have difficulty reading small or low-contrast text. Avoid opposite color combinations (e.g., red text on a green background). Such combinations may be difficult for users who are colorblind to perceive; they may trigger migraines in other readers.

Interested in learning more?
For more information utilize the excellent resources about Creating Accessible Documents created by the University of Washington.

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