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Determining What is Essential in a Course or Program

Whether a requested accommodation would fundamentally alter an essential requirement of a course will generally need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, in light of the specifics of the course and the requested accommodation.  Faculty are not required to determine this on their own but as part of the interactive process.  

Essential Requirements Defined: What are the learning outcomes for the course?

Essential requirements are the outcomes (including skills, knowledge, and attitudes) all students must demonstrate with or without using accommodations.

Some students might use accommodations and some might not, but all students should achieve the same learning outcomes. The process is important, of course, but not necessarily essential. Focusing on course outcomes will help instructors to define the course’s essential requirements.

Essential vs. Non-essential Requirements

The difference between essential and non-essential requirements is similar to the difference between “essential” and “preferred” skills listed in job descriptions. An employer may want to see both sets of skills, but only the essential skills are an absolute requirement of employment.

Similarly, in courses instructors can articulate essential outcomes that all students must demonstrate in order to successfully complete the course, as well as preferred outcomes they hope students will be able to demonstrate.  It is encouraged that faculty list what is essential in their courses as part of their syllabus and why that is the case.  

Determining Essential Requirements of Courses

To determine the essential requirements of a course, consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of the course? 
  • Are there pre-existing skills all participating students must possess?  Identify what needs to be mastered and demonstrated. 
  • What other knowledge, the background is assumed?
  • What outcomes are absolutely required of all students in the course, with or without accommodations?
  • What teaching strategies most effectively address the essential outcomes?
  • What methods of instruction are non-negotiable. (e.g., making a face to face class online). 

Once instructors have determined the essential course requirements they should be able to:

  • Identify what skills, knowledge, principles and concepts in a course must be mastered and demonstrated by all students.
  • Treat all students fairly in this process. 
  • Determine reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities in achieving what is essential and if there are alternative ways that may meet the same objectives. Sometimes, an objective has to be met in one way (performance-based courses). 

Consider Flexibility in Instructional Methods or Assessment

Methods of instruction and assessment can be examined to determine how information is taught and what alternative opportunities are available for teaching/ learning the information. 

Flexibility or alternatives to achieving outcomes may or may not be appropriate depending on the nature of the course and its requirements. 


Determining what accommodations are appropriate is most effectively accomplished through collaboration.

  • Faculty bring knowledge of the course content, methods, and essential requirements;
  • Disability Resources understand what accommodations are possible;
  • Students understand their own limitations and how their disability impacts learning in a classroom.

Portions of this information have been modified, with permission from the Office of Accessible Education, Stanford University