OI2 Professor Spotlight Series: Dr. Stephanie Cawthon

By: Kristen Mosley

Our latest chat with College of Education professors who are demonstrating instructional innovations was with Dr. Stephanie Cawthon.  Dr. Cawthon is a professor and area chair in Human Development, Culture and Learning Sciences as well as the founding director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. Her research is focused on the myriad factors that impact how deaf and disabled individuals succeed in a variety of settings across the lifespan. Dr. Cawthon is also passionate about her teaching opportunities in higher education. In recent years, she developed a hybrid course designed for both undergraduate and graduate students – Culture of Disability in Education – an aspect of which is the topic of today’s post.

Tell us about an element of your instruction that you’re proud of and/or you feel makes the biggest difference.

Photo of Stephanie Cawthon
Dr. Stephanie Cawthon

In recent years I have prioritized an individualized approach for students in my course, and I’ve found this approach to deepen the impact of the material. At the beginning of the semester, students are asked which population they want to focus their learning on (K-12 or post-secondary) and pushed to ask themselves, “What am I interested in, and what makes sense for my journey?” Disability looks different for different populations and has vastly different implications, so the course is accordingly structured for which population they choose. They can take the K-12 learning track or the post-secondary learning track, but the foundational course concepts are embedded throughout both tracks, so all students get the same foundational learning regardless of their population choice. Then, at the end of each semester, students are tasked with an end-of-semester paper which they independently write and for which they choose their unique course content and population to address. In this way, the major assignments in the course aren’t cookie cutter. Instead, students are immediately tasked with choosing their own learning pathway and continuously provided opportunities to individualize their learning and submit assignments that are uniquely tailored to their learning. I think students get more out of the course this way, as it lessens the stress without lessening the impact of the learning.

How do you incorporate this practice into your course(s)?

Barring the minor differences that come from teaching synchronously online versus in-person, the process for incorporating an individualized approach for student learning is roughly the same regardless of instructional format. As I mentioned, all students receive the same instruction on the same foundational concepts. This provides a common language and understanding, regardless of which population they have chosen for their learning. Students are then asked to apply these concepts to their population of choice in all of their assignments throughout the course.

I use a rubric for every assignment to be sure everyone is on the same page about expectations. For example, for their final project they know they need to be able to define the concept(s), show how they’re using the underlying theory, describe the demographics of their population of choice, and then show how the disability in their chosen population is represented in the media. I intentionally use a broad category, like “media”, so that students are able to find quality artifacts for this aspect of their assignment. I tend to see a lot of Instagram and TikTok artifacts, which is fine with me, as I want the struggle to be related to classroom content as opposed to struggling to find an applicable, external resource.

Prior to students independently conducting their individualized projects, they have taken part in online discussion threads and in-class discussions throughout the course that have been intentionally designed to scaffold the skills I expect of them in their independent work. This way, they have experienced lower stakes opportunities to conduct similar work in, for example, small group assignments, so that when it gets to the high stakes end-of-semester paper they feel prepared. Because I embed scaffolded learning opportunities throughout the course, I do not provide full example papers. I provide example excerpts, which still serves the purpose of helping students understand what I expect while also preserving the often-sensitive content embedded in prior students’ papers. Since the course is about disability, there tends to be a lot of disclosure, so students’ privacy is of utmost concern.

What resources, experiences, or sources of inspiration helped you create and implement this aspect of your course?

I have a somewhat unique situation with this course in that both undergraduates and graduates can enroll in the course. This means the groups of students I’m working with each semester are very broad with different needs and career goals. The course topics are also typically new to a lot of students, and my course also qualifies for a Cultural Diversity in the United States flag, so students from across the university participate in the course each semester. For all of these reasons and more, the implementation of the final paper as a highly individualized assignment just made sense. It supports students in their unique learning journeys and enables them to think critically about how the content applies to their life and potential next steps.

What impact have you noticed that this instructional practice has had on you and/or your students?

I started this practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s difficult to isolate the impact of this assignment given all of the instructional changes that have occurred in recent years. I think one thing I’ve noticed is that previously when I gave students the instructions for the final project, I needed to explain a lot more to students and provide a rationale for the assignment. However, now that students have made a concerted effort to choose their own learning track throughout the course, they get to the final project and think “of course, this makes complete sense.” Put differently, students are asked to identify the purpose for their learning at the beginning of the semester, so once they get to the individualized project, they already have a specific demographic in mind for their paper.

What advice do you have for others considering implementing this practice in their own course or adopting a similar practice? 

I think it’s important to keep the assignment short. I find we put too much value on the 10-15 or 20-30 page paper, and I don’t think such page requirements really help in this type of course. I keep the individualized assignment to four pages, which has been helpful for students in focusing on the most important content and helpful for me in providing detailed feedback to all students.

I also think using the same rubric and/or assignment structure more than once in a semester makes a big difference for students. So, for example, students have the opportunity to complete a similar assignment with a similar rubric prior to the final paper. This helps them get a grasp on the expectations and how they can best show their learning.

Consistency in due dates throughout the semester has also been helpful for students. Regardless of their chosen course pathway (K-12 or post-secondary), they know that all assignments are due by the last Sunday of each unit. Having this consistent structure seems to help students who may be navigating multiple or unique responsibilities outside of the classroom; they know what to expect during each unit and when they will be responsible for submitting their work. 

What do you think is the biggest takeaway of incorporating this practice into course design? Why does it work? Why should others consider it? What does it offer students? How does it shape the classroom culture and space?

I think the biggest takeaway is that by intentionally designing course assignments to be individualized and moderate in length, I am able to give meaningful feedback to all students. To me, I think this is the value of being at UT Austin; otherwise, you could just be enrolled in an online course with an instructor who doesn’t engage with you or other students.

While I’ve mainly discussed the end-of-semester project, I also think the way that students choose their individualized track at the beginning of the course and are immediately tasked with reflecting on why they chose this track and how they want their learning to be focused for the semester sets them up for a lot of success. Because the course carries a flag, there tends to be a checkbox mentality at the start of the semester. However, after students have had an opportunity to engage in the reflection papers and take on the smaller individualized assignments along the way, there are a lot of “Aha!” moments that occur mid-semester. And so to the extent to which individualized assignments are happening, the chance to do them early and not just at the end, I think, really facilitates that sense of connection with the material.