Best Practices for Teachers with Students with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

I started my college journey six months after brain surgery and my subsequent release from the hospital and retirement from the military.  I was apprehensive and nervous going back to school as I realized I was not able to function at the same level I performed at even six short months before.  It took me four times longer to read a passage or text, my recall wasn’t nearly as immediate or robust as it was previously, I had difficulty sustaining focus on a single task, I was constantly searching for words and my speech was slowed, and I had to relearn how to learn.  The remnants of the incident had since healed, but the mental scars still lingered and manifested themselves on a near daily basis.  Unfortunately, my story is a fairly common tale.  As a student veteran who suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I know first-hand the struggles many individuals, especially veterans, face when entering a higher education setting after an injury.  However, as we are each unique in our own way, the specific manifestation of a TBI or PTSD is also unique to each individual.  As my exact condition might not be identical to another’s, the basic tenets of what I learned as both a student, and since then as an educator, have given me an invaluable perspective which I hope to share in this post.

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Definition of a TBI

For background, a TBI is a specific type of brain injury resultant of an external force via a bump, blow, jolt, or barometric wave of energy to the head causing either an open or closed injury that disrupts the function of the brain (Faul, 2010).  A TBI can occur when a head hits a windshield during a car accident, shrapnel enters the brain after a blast, or even from the pressure of a nearby explosive event.  Conversely, not all head injuries result in a TBI, and the severity can range from mild (brief loss of consciousness) to severe (extended period of unconsciousness and memory loss) (CDC, 2011).

The recent rise in instances of TBI over the past decade can be attributed to the growth of knowledge in the subject and the attention it is receiving from the media and sports industry.  Although TBIs are often undiagnosed and not reported, it is more prevalent than multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and HIV combined (Leibson et al., 2011).  Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy in perception with TBI.  It is becoming more apparent and stressed upon by the medical community that TBIs need be to seen and treated as a disability, but the majority of the population still do not see the critical nature of having these injuries examined.  This creates the larger problem of individuals going undiagnosed, which is especially difficult in higher education as the most common age range for a TBI is 15-26, and these individuals are less likely to seek medical attention on their own (Novak & Bushnik, 2008).

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Collaborating in the Classroom

This is the final installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on PrivilegesKnowing Your StudentsQuestioning Your Assumptions, and Challenging the Status Quo. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

An inclusive classroom must be built on the foundations of collaboration.  When faculty members collaborate with students, they demonstrate their respect for the student experience by giving them a proverbial seat at the table.  In theory, many educators would agree that collaborative classrooms are ideal learning spaces.

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In practice, however, faculty members (and some students) find relinquishing even some control over the course to be at best uncomfortable and at worst unfathomable.  For these faculty members, collaboration might mean starting small:

  • polling students on what is / isn’t working in the classroom
  • giving students a choice on the format or medium for an assignment
  • asking students to be the discussion leader
  • providing different options for questions types on an exam

Such gestures demonstrate that the faculty member explicitly respects the students’ learning experiences and understands their unique needs.  By establishing this conduit for communication, the faculty member works to bridge the divide between themselves and the students in the traditional classroom hierarchy.

For collaboration to work, it must be woven into the fabric of the course.  Collaboration and inclusivity cannot be merely an afterthought or an attempt at ‘good will’ between faculty and students.  Instead, it should be communicated to the students as an integral part of the course on par with the learning objectives.  There are many ways to communicate this commitment to inclusion:

  • include a collaboration statement in your syllabus and assignment prompts
  • create an weekly collaboration learning objective
  • link assessments to the collaboration learning objective
  • build in reflective moments or assignments that ask student to critique their own collaboration

While there are many methods to forefront collaboration in the classroom, I am particularly fond of the co-authoring model wherein the students and faculty member write the course’s foundational documents together.  I have found that such methods not only produce a shared learning environment that promotes inclusivity, but also increases student buy-in and accountability in ways that the top-down teaching method does not. Some examples of co-authoring include:

  • course policies and course schedule
  • classroom ‘bill of rights’ and ‘bill of responsibilities’
  • rubrics (or grading criteria) for major projects or exams
  • assignment prompts, including requirements

Collaboration in the classroom puts into practice many of the aims of inclusivity: establishing mutual respect, including multiple perspectives, demonstrating awareness of differences, and questioning inherited structures.  When we value collaboration, we model inclusivity for our students, and perhaps more importantly, they model it for us.


About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Measuring Time: Course Workload in the Online Domain

At the turn of the century, prognosticators and provocateurs alike were quick to point to perceived shortcomings of offering credit-bearing college courses in the online domain. “Sage on the stage” had long been supplanted by “guide on the side,” but the concept of asynchronous teaching, or providing and facilitating instruction without static meeting times and locations, seemed difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Three hours of classroom time each week, coupled with outside reading/homework requirements, has often given way to some generic conflation of the two that is difficult to assess in a meaningful, holistic fashion. Additionally, students can end up with radically different “classroom” experiences not just across disciplines and departments, but within them as well. This gives legitimacy to student gripes about rigor, frustrating their (and our) expectations of college-level work.

Our faculty have begun investigating solutions to the problems that often result from inconsistent course workload expectations. Rigor—mentioned above—is somewhat of an elusive concept, as the subjectivity inherent in each of the various disciplines engender multiple definitions. Fortunately, there are technological tools that can help us evaluate rigor (specifically, how it is divided between classwork and outside work) in our courses. A particularly useful one is the Rice University Workload Estimator. This tool allows an instructor to set the parameters of a course (semester length, number of exams/reading assignments/writing assignments, etc.) in order to produce an estimate of the number of hours of outside work students are being asked to complete. Read More

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Challenging the Status Quo

This is the fifth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on PrivilegesKnowing Your Students, and Questioning Your Assumptions. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

The history of admissions processes and policies in higher education is a study of economic, social, and cultural gatekeeping with all the trappings of racism, classism, and misogyny you would expect to find in such a milieu. Even as higher education strives for inclusivity, the gatekeepers and the gatekeeping inherent in higher education continue to uphold this status quo.  Against this backdrop, inclusivity in the classroom represents a paradigm shift from the exclusionary gatekeeping devices of the teacher-centric model (sage on the stage) towards a learning-centric model (guide on the side).

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

This is the fourth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on Privileges, and Knowing Your Students.

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.


In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Knowing Your Students

This is the third installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place and Reflecting on Privileges.

Let’s talk about Maria.  If you talk to Maria’s professor, he will tell you that she is an excellent student: she comes to class early, turns in her homework, and participates in class discussion.  He’ll talk about her essay where she compared different models of masculinity in Gilgamesh and her oral presentation on “bad boys” in Greek mythology.  He might also say that he encouraged Maria to take his class on reading poetry in the spring.   Hi!  My name in Melissa, and I once spent a semester during my undergraduate career as Maria.  I’m not sure why this professor called me Maria (despite initial attempts to correct him): did he misread my name on the roster, did I not pronounce it clearly on the first day, or did I just “look” like a Maria?  I’ll never know.

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I bring up this minor (and now humorous) interlude of my undergraduate career because it illustrates a few important point about “knowing” your students.  First, the professor was not really interested in knowing me as a student or a person, since the first way you demonstrate that interest is by knowing and using someone’s correct name.  Second, the professor did not listen to me when I tried to correct him further demonstrating that our relationship was merely about my course output.  And finally, this moment clarified for me that he didn’t really know any of his students.  At all.  We were all “Maria” in that course.   If “Maria” had been a student who needed additional support and relationship-building in the classroom, she probably wouldn’t have succeed in this course.  If “Maria” was an easily embarrassed student, an introverted student, or an at-risk student, she probably would have dropped the course or stopped coming entirely after a few weeks of being called the wrong name.

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Creating Syllabus Policies

By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The syllabus functions as a contract between the students and the faculty member regarding the academic experience in the classroom and the standards for that experience.  Often, when writing our syllabi, we get lost in the legalities of our policies, trying to out-maneuver that loop-hole driven student just waiting on our rosters. (The old adage that faculty “can write a student’s name next to every syllabus policy” comes to mind.)   While it’s important that we are clear and concrete in our policies, it is equally as important that we use this document as a space to demarcate the learning environment: what are your standards for student work and engagement? how do you see your role in the classroom? what standards do you have for participation? how should students conduct themselves in discussion?  Focusing on these questions help us to build an engaging learning experience not simply avoid a disastrous one.

When creating policies for your syllabus, keep in mind some best practices:

Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bullet lists.

Read for tone.  The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance.  Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters. 

Consider the course.  Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it.  For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy.  Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.

Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations.  For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.

Avoid distractions.  It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you.  Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.

By keeping these best practices in mind, you will help students to not just to understand your standards for academic work, dialogue, and engagement, but to see themselves reflected in the learning experience you are building.


About the Author

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

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