Essential Course Requirements

Instructors can prevent unnecessary course-related stress for students by clearly articulating expectations for assignments and assessments [1]. Essential requirements can serve as a basis to uphold academic rigor while supporting student wellbeing.

Essential requirements are the core competencies and fundamental skills students must demonstrate to earn a passing grade or complete your course. Conceptually, these requirements often overlap with student learning outcomes, course objectives, and technical standards. However, essential requirements refer specifically to the foundational knowledge or baseline level of proficiency expected of all students. 

The information below provides a brief overview of practices for determining and communicating course-based essential requirements, particularly regarding inclusive teaching and accommodations. 

Determining essential requirements

Here are some questions to consider when establishing essential requirements: [2]

  • What is the overall purpose of the course? Is the purpose clearly articulated in your syllabus?
  • What knowledge, principles, skills, and concepts must students demonstrate in the course?
  • Does the learning you are trying to assess need to be demonstrated in only one specific way or with specific equipment? If yes, what evidence or justification have you articulated that the outcome must be demonstrated only one way? 
  • Is the requirement established deliberately through consultation (i.e., not arbitrary)?
  • Is the learning you are trying to assess connected to larger course requirements? Are the course requirements connected to larger program requirements (as opposed to habit, tradition, ease)? 

Communicating requirements and expectations

Clearly defining course-based essential requirements helps ensure students clearly understand learning expectations. Communicating these expectations also helps students to understand how assignments, assessments, and other course requirements align with the overall purpose and design of the course. At the programmatic level, essential requirements can support students to understand how specific coursework fits into their academic program. They also provide transparency about the professional standards and expectations in their discipline. 

You may consider including information about essential requirements in your syllabus, on your Canvas site, and in other course materials. Explain any essential requirement embedded within your course policies and practices; be as clear and concise as possible. In addition to outlining the requirements themselves, describe how students can meet expectations through engaging in the course content, activities, and assessments. Consider offering information in both verbal and written formats. To minimize confusion and miscommunication, consider providing opportunities for students to ask questions and seek clarity. 

Share and discuss essential course requirements with others in your department. This practice may lead to further consistency across course sections and in scaffolding expectations and outcomes within the department and degree program. Coordinating essential requirements at the departmental level can also support students as they matriculate through the program. 

Essential requirements and inclusive teaching

Articulating essential requirements is a grounding principle of teaching with access and inclusion

Articulating essential requirements can allow for a more accurate assessment of student learning. You may think about essential requirements as “the what” that students need to demonstrate they are learning. Flexibility or variation with “the how,” or the way that students demonstrate their competencies, can support more equitable assessments. This flexibility allows instructors to maintain the integrity of essential course requirements and allows students to show competency, knowledge, and skill rather than being assessed on their ability to demonstrate knowledge in a singular way.

Essential requirements and accommodations

Clearly defined essential requirements can also help determine the reasonableness of accommodation requests. Students may request an accommodation or a modification to course requirements for disability-related reasons and other life circumstances. When considering a student’s request, use the essential requirements to determine a plan of action. For example, with this accommodation or modification, is the student still able to demonstrate the essential requirements of the assignment, course, or program? If so, the accommodation is likely reasonable. If not, an alternative means of providing access may be necessary.

If you are concerned about whether or not a DRC accommodation will compromise essential course requirements, please contact the access consultant who signed the accommodation letter. The access consultant can discuss the accommodation with you and work with you and the student to explore accommodations that will provide equitable access while maintaining the essential requirements.

Further Resources

[1] Executive Summary Faculty and Instructor Committee of the Provost’s Council on Student Mental Health (PCSMHFI) and Provost's Advisory Committee on Teaching, Learning, and Technology (PACTLT), UMN updated 16 April 2020.
[2] Questions adapted from the University of Waterloo and Stanford University.