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From “Making Accommodations” to Accommodating All Students with Paula Cocce

Welcome to Episode 26 of the ThinkUDL podcast! Today Host Lillian Nave talks with Paula Cocce from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Paula came to a CollegeSTAR Student Support Summit where she discussed how she supports a variety of students with learning differences. Paula Cocce M.Ed. is a Senior Lecturer in the Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) at Curry College. PAL offers metacognitive support for college students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD. In addition to her work in PAL, she teaches classes in First Year Transitions. As Outreach Coordinator, she facilitates workshops on LD Awareness, Study Skills Strategies, Student Motivation and the College Search Process. The discussion goes behind the scenes to see how specialists on college campuses help students with disclosed and undisclosed learning differences and disabilities to navigate their own learning in their college courses.

Lillian and Paula also discuss how a professor who is accessible, accommodating, and organized can make a world of difference for every one of their students. In addition, they discuss “flipping the script” a bit about the negative labels and stigma that oftentimes accompany Student Support Centers at colleges and universities and how one could make assistive tech “cool” rather than negatively stigmatized. Join Lillian and Paula as they discuss changing the idea around what 21st century students need and not just “making accommodations,” but rather “accommodating all students.”


Curry College on Twitter: @CurryEdu

Curry College’s Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) website

Educational Tools and Apps for PAL  PDF 

Curry College’s PAL App Wheel


Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind


I’m your host Lillian Nave and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating; but how you design and implement it and why it even matters.


Welcome to episode 26 of the think UDL podcast. I’m your host Lillian Nave and I talk with Paula Cocce from Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Paula came to a College Star students support summit where I had the chance to talk to her about what she is doing to support a variety of students with learning differences. She works in the program for the Advancement of learning at Curry College. Our discussion allows us to go a little behind the scenes to see how specialists on college campuses help students with disclosed and undisclosed learning differences and disabilities to navigate their own learning in their college courses.

We also talk about how a professor who is accessible, accommodating, and organized can make a world of difference for every one of their students. In addition, we discuss flipping the script a bit about the negative labels and stigma that oftentimes accompany student support centers at colleges and universities. And how one could make assistive tech cool rather than negatively stigmatized.

Join us as we discuss changing the idea around what 21st century students need and not just making accommodations but rather accommodating all students.


Welcome Paula Cocce, can you tell me and our listeners where you are and what you do?


Sure! I am from Curry College, which is in Milton, Massachusetts – about seven miles outside of Boston. I work in the PAL program and that stands for The Program for Advancement of Learning. I’m a senior lecturer and I’ve been there for about 20 years and I work to support students who have learning differences at the college level.


Oh great! Do you also teach? Are you an instructor at the college as well?


I taught first year transitions for ten years at the college so I have the advantage of teaching both inside the classroom and one-on-one and in small groups with students with learning disabilities

[Lillian] Oh fantastic that’s you know I’m also a senior lecturer that’s my position and I teach only first-year seminar. so we’re coming from the same same place

[Lillian] That’s great

[Lillian] So my first question for you Paulo is what makes you a different kind of learner

[Paula] I would say that we’re all different kinds of learners although I’ve never been diagnosed with a learning disability per se I feel as if I’m the type of learner who needs material presented in a linear fashion I like to be organized I’m a visual learner and that I need to see material in front of me I like to read without the audio input I know a lot of students enjoy that audio input but I just happen to concentrate better without it. I can need things in their place up front and I need to see the whole picture and go back to the details later

[Lillian] so if you are presented with some discombobulated information is do you need to organize it right away

[Paula] I do oh yes I have to put it in order and terms of what I’m going to do first I need to know what the end product is going to look like and then I’d start from the beginning

[Lillian] yeah oh great thank you very much for answering my first question I want to get into the kinds of things you see I really like your unique perspective as somebody who we might call on the back end of this student learning in higher ed, you’re helping those students after that say they’ve gotten an assignment from their professor or they’re working on their classwork. So do you have you noticed what it looks like if a student has a professor who incorporates Universal Design for Learning versus an instructor who maybe doesn’t organize around those Universal Design for Learning principles and what does that look like to you and your colleagues there at the Program for Advancement of Learning.

[Paula] So a professor who reaches all kinds of learners in classroom actually does a service to students who have not been diagnosed with learning disabilities in addition to helping those who have learning difference they utilize different methods of teaching they approach teaching in a way that’s accessible to students, their syllabi is detailed and organized they’re approachable that’s so important to be approachable to allow the students to feel comfortable in asking for support and coming to your office and asking questions. If a student is comfortable asking questions in a classroom they’re actually helping all the other students in the class because many of those students will have the same question. So I would say you know the professors who are approachable, accessible, and organized are the ones that I direct my students to.

[Lillian] What would be one of those things if you were had a group of instructors in front of you what would you tell them about how to be more approachable.

[Paula] I think they need to be accommodating and listen to the students and by the time my students get to the college level they are very familiar with how they learn and what works for them and what doesn’t. So if the professor would listen to what their needs are and how they can access the material easily and allow the accommodations in a manner that doesn’t create any anxiety for the students that would be the best.

[Lillian] Yeah and when you mention those other parts about being the accessible accommodating and organized, those well-organized instructors make it possible to answer the questions because they are so organized. Meaning, students don’t have as many questions if they know when all the due dates are what all the steps to this projects are, then it just makes it so much easier whether you have a learning disability or a learning difference than for everybody.

[Paula] That’s right the students always know what’s on the horizon they always can look ahead to see what’s coming up next and plan ahead for that.

[Lillian] Yeah that’s great and so do you have a particular instructors in mind at Curry College that if you could point students in their direction who would you point them to and why maybe you have some UDL teaching Superstars on your campus you want to tell us about or why they stick out to you.

[Paula] The professors that I would choose for my students they’re very well versed in how to accommodate the students how to allow that extended time that they need on exams or how to allow technology in the classroom not only do they allow the students to use it but they use it themselves. It’s really great when a professor provides PowerPoint slides and post them before lectures so the students can download them and take them to class and take notes on the PowerPoint so they have the main ideas they just add the details as they’re going. I also like to choose professors who have had a lot of experience working with students who have a learning difference and they’re familiar with their needs and they are accessible and allow the students to come into their office for additional tutoring if needed and the students would like to enjoy going to the office.

[Lillian] So that that relationship is very important.

[Paula] Sure, it’s very important it’s probably one of the most important so I said if this professor is approachable you can talk to him or her about anything just go ask and I’m sure they’ll be accommodating whatever needs you have at the particular time.

[Lillian] And it sounds like as you are describing these superstar professors that that really help your learner’s to actually learn not just sit there that they actually learn. They seem to have experience and skills and skills we often don’t think about teaching as a skill we just expect experts to be able to easily explain and tell other people what they know and you know that’s how they get a job in higher education is they have to be an expert. They have to know you know in infinite detail right about a particular subject matter and they’re an expert in the field but that doesn’t always translate into being an excellent teacher.

[Paula] That’s right, we find that a lot with the new professors they don’t have the teaching experience yet although they’re experts in their field and they’ve studied in that field at great length they don’t have a background in learning disabilities and of course they’re scholars they probably haven’t struggled with learning because they’ve always enjoyed school and that’s why they’re scholars and academics. So there is a learning curve for the first year or so for new professors and it’s great when they attend workshops that we provide to explain you know learning differences and how to accommodate the students in the classroom, how to use Universal Design in the classroom, and to be a little innovative and attend some of these programs. We offer to kind of assist them with the population of students with learning differences in their classroom. About a quarter of the students at Curry participate in PAL, so that’s one out of four students in your classroom.

[Lillian] Yeah, That’s a big percentage.

[Paula] It’s a huge percentage. And that doesn’t even account for some of the students who haven’t disclosed that they require accommodations…

[Lillian] Right.

[Paula] …that they have been diagnosed with the learning difference. So when you’re providing Universal Design in your classroom you are actually helping so many students that you may not even be aware have a learning difference who do not want to disclose.

[Lillian] yeah and about how many students are there at Curry College?

[Paula] There are about 2,000 undergrad.

[Lillian] Wow, and so that means about at least 500 students there have a diagnosed and acknowledged learning difference and we know that many, many students who have a diagnosed difference or disability will not they’ll willfully not disclose it they want to try to do it on their own or they want to branch out and see what they can do.

[Paula] Right, they want to lose that label that they had before college many of them find though that once they get to college and they realize well maybe I do need a little assistance, maybe I do need that extended time or assistance with note-taking that they will disclose and at a school with a program of support such as Curry, the students become very comfortable in disclosing that information. They’re no longer afraid to carry that label as they call it. Some of them actually become proud that they have this learning difference and that they understand how they learn and they can explain how they learn to other people to help them get the information that they need to learn in the classroom.

[Lillian] And one of those things that I see student centers like what you’re doing at Curry College and others – is trying to break that stigma. Those labels have accrued a negative stigma it might mean more work for a teacher it might mean ridicule from other students I mean going through the k-12 system and also this American idea of I have to do everything myself and if I ask for help I’m somehow weak. So a lot of that big work that’s being done on college campuses by student support centers is breaking down that stigma and saying hey we’re all different and we’re not valuing one way of learning over the other. Everybody needs support in some way. And that that’s such amazing work you and your colleagues are doing to say this is all about learning we don’t care about the labels and stigma or anything but we we’re here to help and it’s not a problem. We can we can all help each other.

[Paula] Right. I like to tell the story of one student who is part of the PAL program and she was talking to her roommate about it and the roommate said, “hey, how do I get into that program?” She wanted the assistance too. Some of the ways that we you know help the students lose that stigma is to make them own their own learning. We involve the students in activities such as peer mentoring programs and we appear mobile tutors who are students who work in the assistive technology Center who are excellent with utilizing and accessing the technology. And they tutor the other students who come in and may need some additional assistance with accessing some of that technology. So they really find a place to at this school.

[Lillian] That’s great. It makes me think about how can we flip that script right instead of saying I’m going to this place on campus that is – it has a negative connotation to it, what if we made it into like a fraternity or sorority. Like you get to join! And instead of the PAL it could be you know PI Alpha Lambda. Make some shirts, “oh, yeah! I’m in Pi Alpha Lambda”. “No way! You got into PI Alpha Lambda”.


[Paula] That would be great! Maybe some day, it’s coming yeah it’s coming. There’s a lot going on so I’m some students do like coming over just to see what’s going on in the building and how our students are kind of becoming owners of their own destiny. You see that they develop confidence that way. They really come into their own which is why I love what I do I can watch that over the four years.

[Lillian] Yeah, it’s quite empowering it’s empowering to see those students be empowered.

[Paula] That’s right, it really is.

[Lillian] So, I have one more question for you I really appreciate this this conversation. And that is, how does your program how does the program for advancement of learning the PAL incorporate Universal Design for Learning principles in what you do to help students?

[Paula] Okay, well most recently the PAL program received a grant and it’s an iPad grant so every student who comes into PAL receives an iPad and every PAL professor also receives the iPad. And we have an assistive technology coordinator who works with the PAL iPad peer tutors and their students and they walk through all the apps that they use on the iPads and they actually came up with what they call an app wheel. Which, if I could show you, you’d see it’s a it’s a diagram with skills in the middle of the diagram reading note-taking organization time management and beyond those pie shape are apps that they are able to embed in the wheel and you can click on one note or a Kindle reader and if you touch the app on this app wheel it’ll take you right to those additional apps so you can try them out and check them out and that’s all student lead. These are all apps that the students prefer to use and they got together and develop this with the AT coordinator. Then they use their iPads within the classroom to take notes to you to you know use accessible books so they can listen to their audiobooks right on their iPads. And they don’t look different from the other students because you know technology is so mainstream now. If you’re listening to a book it’s very common for a lot of people to do that not just the students with learning disabilities. I mean, I’m old enough to remember books on tape with the big clunky you know record or anything they carried around and it was embarrassing for them. And now they just use their iPads or even their phones and they yeah like everyone else and it’s cool people who don’t have a learning difference use these things too so it’s really cool the way it’s developed and become mainstream.

[Lillian] Yeah, and accessible to everybody – helping people you didn’t know you were helping.

[Paula] Right, right exactly.

[Lillian] It helps the student who maybe is dyslexic it also helps the student who may have a 50 minute commute and also helps the student who has to work nights and you know listen to it while he or she is earning tuition money.

[Paula] Sure, yeah and they can take it anywhere. Sure, they’re not taking a whole backpack of books with them they’re taking an iPad or their phone and plugging their headphones in so…

[Lillian] Yeah, yeah.

[Paula] …it’s perfect for them.

[Lillian] It’s really thinking about today’s 21st century student because we just have such a wider range of students now in Higher Ed than we ever have before and making, it’s not really making accommodations, but really just accommodating all of those students. Making sure we realize who we have in Higher Ed.

[Paula] Right, right.  Know who’s in your classroom and how do they learn and how can you help them access what they need to get the material that you want them to learn.

[Lillian] So, I guess my last question it’s sort of a follow-up from what we were talking about just before this about new teachers and the skills they need to know. If you had a room full of new faculty and were doing a new faculty orientation what is what are the big ideas one big idea that you think they should know as they go into teaching the 21st century student? What should these scholars know about the teaching part of Higher Ed?

[Paula] We do provide workshops for new professors I wish we could make them mandatory because they want to you know they find out pretty quickly in the classroom that they do need assistance and learning how to reach all types of learners. So if I were to tell them one or two things I would say be open-minded. Because the students allowed to take notes on a laptop or to write an essay on their computer, it’s not cheating. It’s that the way they need to access information that’s the way they need to express what they know. The extended time – it’s also a way to allow them to give the students who have processing issues a little more time to think about things. It’s not that they don’t know the material, it’s that they need a little time to be able to put it together in their heads and process it and express it. They have what they need and that we need to be able to allow them to let us know that they know the material that’s taught in the classroom. If it’s too fast they just don’t have the opportunity to grow and allow you to know what they have learned from you and you want them you want them to be successful. So, you want them to learn what your content is so you want them to be allowed to access that.

[Lillian] Yes, and that is really an attitude reversal of sorts. There has long been some idea about Higher Ed being a gateway or courses meant to weed out students or some sort of barrier to get over. And that’s not helping anybody. So changing into that…

[Paula] Some of the greatest minds learn differently!

[Lillian] Yeah! Exactly, so how can we help those students, all students, to learn.

[Paula] Right, right. And reach their potential…

[Lillian] Yes.

[Paula] You know, that’s the point we want everyone to reach their highest potential whatever that may be. And you want to help them access that you want to allow that in your classroom.

[Lillian] Yeah. Well, thank you so much Paula! This has been fantastic to talk to you about what you’re doing to support students at Curry College with your Program for Advancement of Learning or maybe soon-to-be the PI Alpha Lambda sorority or fraternity.


[Paula] We  hope so, we hope so. Thank you for having me, I enjoyed it!

[Lillian] Yeah, me too. Thanks for talking.


[Lillian] You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.


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