Access and Opportunity to Learn: Essentials for Academic Engagement

  • Clarence Ng
  • Brendan Bartlett
  • Stephen N. Elliott


Accessibility—defined as the extent to which a product, environment, or system eliminates barriers and permits equal use of components and services for a diverse population of individuals—is necessary for effective instruction and fair testing. To the extent that instruction, instructional materials, and tests are not accessible, engagement is undermined, learning is likely to be incomplete, and inferences made from observations and test results are likely to be underestimated of a student’s actual knowledge and skills. In this chapter, we focus on access to meaningful learning opportunities that optimize students’ engagement in instruction and classroom assessments and conceptualize accessibility to instructional materials and classroom tests as important enablers of meaningful and active participation. The engagement-enhancing strategies featured are considered by many to focus primarily on cognitive aspects of students’ learning; however, with more robust cognitive engagement often comes more successful learning experiences, which, in turn, can improve students’ learning behaviors, collaboration with others, and attitudes toward learning, hence reducing educational exclusion in important ways. Thus, the goals of this chapter are first to understand the evolving concepts of access, accessibility, and opportunity in relation to learning; then to examine strategies based on these concepts for increasing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral (social and agentic) engagement for all students; and finally, to translate theory and research-based findings on accessibility into actionable guidelines for teachers.


Accessibility Opportunity to learn Universal design for learning Cognitive load theory Instructional adjustments Testing accommodations 


  1. American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), & National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME). (2014). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington DC: American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  2. Baddeley, A. (1994). The magical number seven: Still magic after all these years? Psychological Review, 101(2), 353–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baddeley, A. (2003). Working memory: Looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(10), 829–839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beddow, P. A. (2018). Attending to cognitive load in the design of accessible tests. In S. N. Elliott, R. J. Kettler, P. A. Beddow, & A. Kurz (Eds.), Handbook of accessible testing and instructional practices. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Beddow, P. A., Elliott, S. N., & Kettler, R. J. (2009). TAMI accessibility rating matrix. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.Google Scholar
  6. Beddow, P. A., Kettler, R. J., & Elliott, S. N. (2008). Test accessibility and modification inventory. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.Google Scholar
  7. Carroll, J. B. (1963). A model of school learning. Teachers College Record, 64(8), 723–733.Google Scholar
  8. Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8(4), 293–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark, R. C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  10. Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Davies, M.D., Elliott, S.N., & Cumming, J. (2016). Documenting support needs and adjustment gaps for students with disabilities: Teacher practices in Australian classrooms and on national tests. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(12), 1252–1269 doi:10.1080/13603116.2016.1159256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Debue, N., & Van De Leemput, C. (2014). What does germane load mean? An empirical contribution to the cognitive load theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elliott, S. N., & Kettler, R. J. (2015). Item and test design considerations for students with special needs. In S. Lane, T. M. Haladyna, & M. Raymond (Eds.), Handbook of test development (2nd ed., pp. 374–391). New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  14. Elliott, S. N., Kettler, R. J., Beddow, P. A., & Kurz, A. (2018). Handbook of accessible instruction and testing practices. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Elliott, S. N., Kratochwill, T. R., & Gilbertson-Schulte, A. (1999). Assessment accommodations checklist/guide. Monterey, CA: CTB/McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  16. Elliott, S. N., Kurz, A., & Schulte, A. (2015). Maximizing access to instruction and testing for students with disabilities: What we know and can do to improve achievement. In Smarter balanced assessment consortium spotlight series for teachers supporting students with disabilities. Los Angeles: UCLA.Google Scholar
  17. Feldman, E., Kim, J., & Elliott, S. N. (2011). The effects of accommodations on adolescents’ self-efficacy and test performance. Journal of Special Education, 45(2), 77–88. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gamoran, A., Porter, A. C., Smithson, J., & White, P. A. (1997). Upgrading high school mathematics instruction: Improving learning opportunities for low-achieving, low-income youth. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(4), 325–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Herman, J. L., Klein, D. C., & Abedi, J. (2000). Assessing students’ opportunity to learn: Teacher and student perspectives. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 19(4), 16–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hollenbeck, K. (2002). Determining when test alterations are valid accommodations or modifications for large-scale assessment. In G. Tindal & T. Haladyna (Eds.), Large scale assessment programs for all students (pp. 109–148). Mahwah, NJ: LEA.Google Scholar
  21. Kettler, R. J., & Elliott, S. N. (2010). Assessment accommodations for children with special needs. In E. Baker, P. Peterson, & B. McGaw (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Elsevier Limited.Google Scholar
  22. Kettler, R. J., Elliott, S. N., Beddow, P. A., & Kurz, A. (2018). Accessible instruction and testing today. In S. N. Elliott, R. J. Kettler, P. A. Beddow, & A. Kurz (Eds.), The handbook of accessible instruction and testing practices. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  23. Kurz, A. (2011). Access to what should be taught and will be tested: Students’ opportunity to learn the intended curriculum. In S. N. Elliott, R. J. Kettler, P. A. Beddow, & A. Kurz (Eds.), Handbook of accessible achievement tests for all students: Bridging the gaps between research, practice, and policy (pp. 99–129). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kurz, A. (2018). Confronting the known unknown: How the concept of opportunity to learn can advance tier 1 instruction. In S. N. Elliott, R. J. Kettler, P. A. Beddow, & A. Kurz (Eds.), The handbook of accessible instruction and testing practices. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  25. Kurz, A., Elliott, S. N., & Schulte, A. (2015). Opportunity to learn for all students: Enhancing access to what should be taught and will be tested. In Smarter balanced assessment series for teachers supporting students with disabilities. Los Angeles: UCLA.Google Scholar
  26. Labella, M. H., *Narayan, A. J., *McCormick, C. M., Desjardins, C., & Masten, A. S. (2017, in press). Risk and adversity, parenting quality, and children’s social-emotional adjustment in families experiencing homelessness. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12894 (Press release).Google Scholar
  27. Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for information processing. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pianta, R. C., Belsky, J., Houts, R., Morrison, F., & The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2007). Teaching: Opportunities to learn in America’s elementary classrooms. Science, 315, 1795–1796.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Porter, A. C. (1995). The uses and misuses of opportunity-to-learn standards. Educational Researcher, 24(1), 21–27.Google Scholar
  31. Porter, A. C. (2006). Curriculum assessment. In J. L. Green, G. Camilli, & P. B. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods in education research (pp. 141–159). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  32. Rodriguez, M. C. (2005). Three options are optimal for multiple-choice items: A meta-analysis of 80 years of research. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 24(2), 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Available online at
  34. Rowan, B., & Correnti, R. (2009). Studying reading instruction with teacher logs: Lessons from the study of instructional improvement. Educational Researcher, 38(2), 120–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Russell, M. (2018). Recent advances in the accessibility of digitally delivered educational assessments. In S. N. Elliott, R. J. Kettler, P. A. Beddow, & A. Kurz (Eds.), The handbook of accessible instruction and testing practices. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  36. Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Simon, H. A., & Gilmartin, K. (1973). A simulation of memory for chess positions. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 29–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sireci, S. G., Scarpati, S. E., & Li, S. (2005). Test accommodations for students with disabilities: An analysis of the interaction hypothesis. Review of Educational Research, 75(4), 457–490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sweller, J. (2010a). Cognitive load theory: Recent theoretical advances. In J. L. Plass, R. Moreno, & R. Brunken (Eds.), Cognitive load theory (pp. 29–47). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sweller, J. (2010b). Element interactivity and intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load. Educational Psychology Review, 22(2), 123–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Thurlow, M. L., Ysseldyke, J. E., Graden, J., & Algozzine, B. (1984). Opportunity to learn for LD students receiving different levels of special education services. Learning Disability Quarterly, 7(1), 55–67. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Vannest, K. J., & Hagan-Burke, S. (2010). Teacher time use in special education. Remedial and Special Education, 31(2), 126–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clarence Ng
    • 1
  • Brendan Bartlett
    • 2
  • Stephen N. Elliott
    • 3
  1. 1.Institute for Learning Sciences & Teacher EducationAustralian Catholic UniversityBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of Education & ArtsAustralian Catholic UniversityVirginiaAustralia
  3. 3.Sanford School of Social and Family DynamicsArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Personalised recommendations