Jump to Footer

Determining Essential Elements of a Course or Program

There may be times when a student requests an accommodation that you believe may potentially compromise the academic integrity or create a fundamental alteration to a course and/or program. To determine whether an accommodation fundamentally alters the nature of a course, instructional staff members should consider the following:

Bowling Green is one of the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) cases that maps out a process for determining essential elements of a course or program:

Bowling Green State University, OCR DOCKET NUMBER: 05982143

ISSUE DATE: AUGUST 31, 1999

"...A key issue is how OCR should review an institution's determination of whether a specific standard or requirement is an essential program requirement that cannot be modified. OCR cannot require an institution to waive or lessen essential requirements. OCR can require a modification of the requirement, if the requested modification does not lower academic standards, fundamentally alter the nature of the program or impose an undue burden on the College or University, and the modification meets the underlying reason for the requirement.

OCR reviews whether the determination by an institution that a requirement is an essential requirement is educationally rationally justifiable. The requirement should be essential to the educational purpose or objective of a program or class. For example, it may be an essential requirement for a teacher education program that a student complete student teaching to, in part, demonstrate the ability to maintain class discipline and develop lesson plans. In this example, there may not be an appropriate alternative to completing student teaching to demonstrate that the student can maintain classroom discipline. There may be an appropriate alternative for a student to demonstrate the ability to develop lesson plans, such as preparation of lesson plans based on different written factual situations..."

“...OCR may review the process that a postsecondary institution utilizes to determine whether an academic requirement is an essential requirement. Courts indicate that an appropriate process should have the following elements:

a.) The decision is made by a group of people, who are trained, knowledgeable and experienced in the area;

b.) the decision makers consider a series of alternatives as essential requirements; and,

c.) the decision should be a careful, thoughtful and rational review of the academic program and its requirements.

An example of this process in the context of a case involving a student teaching program would be that the Dean of Education and a group of experienced staff and professors meet over a period of time to consider a series of options or standards. After a careful, thoughtful review, they develop a group of essential requirements for graduation with a teaching degree that are rationally based on their knowledge of teaching and experience in the field.

OCR strongly recommends that the decision should be documented, including an explanation for the purposes or objectives of the academic program and how the essential requirement is necessary to achieve those objectives. It is very helpful for this to be clearly documented prior to a challenge. . ."

If it is a course requirement that is in question, the "knowledgeable" people are probably going to be the faculty who teach it, the department chair, etc. Faculty should probably get some guidance either from the SDS office, the ADA coordinator, or legal counsel--and review the request promptly.