Inclusive Approaches to Support Student Assignments During Times of Disruption

Fortunately, for much of the time, Brown instructors and students are able to teach and learn as planned in the syllabus. However, whether due to weather, travel, or illnesses like COVID-19, there are times when these plans need to be adjusted. This resource offers approaches to making these adjustments, through both lower and higher-tech means. Recommendations from Brown's Office of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) are also offered to address accessibility.

In times of significant disruption, the key goal is to help students get the support they need to meet your most essential course objectives. Teaching in times of disruption may involve thinking creatively about how to build up students’ knowledge and skills in different formats to complete the same assignment. An example of this adjustment includes delivering a recorded lecture and then having students complete the original exam using the Quizzes tool in Canvas. Brown’s Office of Digital Learning and Design (Sheridan Center) has compiled guides for Digital Teaching that offer ideas and modifications for Online and Remote Accessible teaching and learning practices.

However, instructors may also wish to think creatively about the assignment itself, through an approach that may not be intensively digital. For the purposes of inclusion, it is important to be mindful that some students have limited access to laptops and data plans. An assessment that relies on face-to-face interaction (e.g., discussion, presentations, debates) might be completed in Zoom, or it could be substituted with an assignment in a different format that meets the same course objectives. One example of a "low tech" adjustment includes asking students to write a pro/con issue comparison memo, in lieu of participating in a classroom debate.

Below, we describe the most frequently used assessments in Brown courses and offer low- and higher-tech options for helping students to complete them.  If you are using an assignment type that is not detailed below, please contact [email protected] to talk through options specific to your teaching context.

Creative Approaches to Help Students Complete Key Assignments

Digital Learning and Design’s (Sheridan Center) Teaching Continuity Guide offers a resource for using the Canvas discussion tool. Other possibilities for creatively maintaining discussions include:

  • Conducting discussions through a Google course group or through an email thread. In the case of larger classes, an instructor can assign small groups and ask those teams to communicate in their preferred modality, then email the instructor some outcomes of the discussion. Instructors who use email threads should note that sensitive student data can be shared easily and will wish to adjust prompts accordingly.
  • Holding discussions or office hours via conference call. Instructors can use a Zoom conference call number to procure a new number if they do not wish to share their personal one.
  • If discussions are held online (such as through Zoom), record the session  to the cloud. The audio will automatically be transcribed with machine-based captions (more information about Zoom transcription is here.) You may edit the transcription after the meeting to correct errors. Having lecture capture or video captioned as soon as possible after production is important for students with hearing concerns. If you have students who require human-based captioning for accessibility reasons, please contact [email protected] for assistance from Media Services.

In many ways, papers are the ideal assignment during times of disruption because they require fewer adjustments compared to other types of assignments. However, because of the lack of peer or instructor contact to go over drafts or discuss expectations, ideas to creatively support student writing include:

  • For peer feedback, instructors can set up pairs or triads for students to email drafts to each other. Just as with any peer feedback process, it is most helpful to structure these discussions by sharing a rubric in advance, or asking students to annotate their draft with questions that ask for specific feedback from their reader. Instructors also can ask peer readers to answer specific, descriptive questions like, “What is the biggest unresolved question in this draft? What do you want to read more about in this essay? What are the draft’s biggest strengths?“ (Gooblar, 2019, p. 93).
  • Students can use Google Docs or an emailed Word version to share drafts with instructors. The wonderful aspect of this option is that it also allows students to use the comment feature to dialogue with the instructor, e.g., “Here’s where I think my thesis statement is” or “Here is a section that I am struggling with” (LaVaque-Manty & Evans, 2013).
  • To offer guidance to students about helpful writing conventions, online tools such as Purdue OWL offer resources about topics such as writing a thesis statement and discipline-specific writing expectations.
  • Research papers may be tricky for students to complete, especially if the assignment was originally designed to involve a lot of on-campus interaction, use of the library’s physical collections, or data collection. Consider what the key goals for the research paper are. Bean (2011) lists seven, including how to ask discipline-appropriate research questions, how and why to find sources, how to take good notes, and how to write for audience, genre, and purpose. If your most important goal is source-related, an annotated bibliography might also function well as a substitute assignment. If asking and answering questions is most critical, consider if a research proposal -- laying out the key intended aims and approaches of the project -- might meet similar objectives. 

The Writing Center (Sheridan Center) offers face-to-face appointments to students who need additional support and, in times of disruption, will offer virtual appointments. In both cases, writers can schedule appointments using the Writing Center’s scheduling system

To help students complete labs and lab reports, consider:

  • Whether the key objective of the lab is (or could be) data analysis, rather than data collection. If the latter, instructors can share pre-existing/”dummy” data with students then ask them to analyze and submit via Canvas or email.
  • Can some aspects of the lab be accomplished if students watch them, rather than do them? For example, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (to which the Brown library subscribes) offers over 9,500 videos demonstrating experiments, mapped to key concepts and student protocols. MERLOT also serves as a repository housing 90+ virtual labs.​

For examples of some of the ways that Brown instructors pivoted their labs to emergency remote instruction, please see this overview.

Language Courses
The Center for Language Studies offers the following recommendations:

  • Use Zoom Breakout Rooms to facilitate small group tasks such as practicing grammatical or lexical structures, completing collaborative worksheets or exercises, or preparing / performing a short role play. For more suggestions, view our guide on "Supporting Language Learning in Zoom Breakout Rooms"
  • Ask students to record interviews, conversations, and other speaking assignments using GoReact (external tool in Canvas), which allows for both instructor and peer feedback through time stamped audio, video, and written comments.
  • Use Canvas Discussions to encourage formal and informal written or multimodal interaction between students around course topics, reflection, and prompt questions. For more suggestions, view our guide on “Supporting Language Learning in Canvas Discussions”.
  • Using Ed Discussion, a question and answer tool, to facilitate student problem-solving and review sessions.​
  • Provide audio, video, and written feedback on student submissions through the SpeedGrader in Canvas Assignments
  • Take full advantage of Google Docs and Google Jamboard to facilitate collaborative writing assignments and presentations during class in breakout rooms and as homework.

For planned in-class student presentations, other options are below:

  • Ask students to record their presentation using simple technology (such as a cell phone or their computer) and send it to the instructor or full class.
  • A lower tech option is to ask students to submit a written script of their presentation to assess content knowledge and other skills like persuasive thinking. This substitution is most appropriate if oral communication is less of a core objective for the course.

Group Projects and Design Projects
Projects may be broken down into components -- such as data collection, writing, presentations -- that can be addressed by some of the ideas outlined above. However, other options include:

  • PhET offers a number of online simulations where students work through core concepts in physics, mathematics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. Students can work through the simulations and design a class activity, physical lab, or homework assignment that incorporates that concept.
  • For design projects, students can create prototypes at home using objects around the house. The prototypes can then be shared as a photo or video file through email or Canvas.
  • Students may still have access to computer software off campus to complete group projects. Check the Brown software catalog or contact your IT department to determine what is needed to give students access to specific programming.

Brown’s Office of Digital Learning and Design (Sheridan Center) has compiled guides for Digital Teaching that offer ideas and modifications for Online and Remote Accessible teaching and learning practices. However, other possibilities for creatively measuring student understanding of concepts include substitution of an in-class exam with:

  • A timed or untimed take-home exam. In the case of a timed exam, an instructor might distribute problems or prompts to students by email, then give students a certain amount of time to return their responses. If collecting responses by Google Drive or by email, it is logistically helpful to ask students to use a standard file naming format, such as Lastname_FirstInitial_Exam2.docx.
  • A final portfolio with revisions and annotations. For classes with significant writing (weekly responses, multiple papers, etc.), students could have the opportunity to revise a certain number of assignments and compile them into a final portfolio. The portfolio should then be annotated, where students explain their writing and revision process for each piece and include a brief introductory statement about the work as a whole--which elements of their growth in the class does the portfolio highlight?
  • A series of smaller assignments that can be completed remotely in lieu of comprehensive exam.

According to SAS, if faculty will be doing timed examinations online, such as through Canvas, two or more versions of the exam must be made available for students requiring documented accommodations. One version would be established for the standard exam time. Instructors can then create copies available to specific students to allow 50% and 100% additional time accommodations.

General Considerations for Assignment Re-Design

In making any significant adjustment during times of disruption, it is also helpful to consider four overarching questions:

  1. Key Objectives: What are my most important course objectives, or the knowledge, skills, and capacities a student in my class should achieve? This resource offers support for identifying course learning goals.
  2. Accessibility: How can learning materials provided to students be accessible? SAS recommends that materials be distributed in an accessible format such as Word or a tagged PDF. Styles such as headers should be used so that students who use screen reading technology can navigate the structure of a document. Generally, accessible documents are first produced in Word, converted to PDF and then checked for accessibility. (SAS notes that, in many classes, TAs can collaborate with faculty to help with this task.) Additionally, faculty should be willing to provide accessible lecture notes to all students, especially for those courses where a SAS note provider has not been implemented. Please see this link to accessibility guidelines for more specifics on accessibility standards.
  3. Transparency: How can I support students in understanding new assignments or expectations? The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) framework offers three core areas that instructors should intentionally communicate to students in any assignment (Winkelmes et al., 2016): 
    1. Purpose, or goals of the assignment
    2. Task, or what you expect students to do and how they should complete the task
    3. Criteria, or models of how students can be successful at the assignment, such as a rubric or examples of past student work (which students have given you permission to share) 

A template for designing transparent assignments can be found here.

4. Student autonomy: In rethinking key assessments that align with those objectives, what are ways to give students a sense of control to mitigate anxiety about unforeseen disruptive events? This newsletter offers several ideas for heightening students’ sense of flexibility and choice, but other options include allowing students to choose formats (e.g., a cell phone-recorded video or a written script of a presentation) or grading proportions (e.g., drop your lowest grade).


Please contact the Sheridan Center ([email protected]) to talk more about these or other options specific to your teaching context.

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Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gooblar, D. (2019). The missing course: Everything they never taught you about college teaching. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

LaVaque-Manty, M., & Evans, E. M. (2013). Implementing metacognitive interventions in disciplinary writing classes. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (122-146). Stylus Publishing. 

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1-2). Available:

Updated 3/18/20