Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational hot topic. Teachers are told to “universally design” their classes so they are more “accessible.” Every educator I know is fully aware that their classes are supposed to be accessible, supposed to respect the diversity of students in their classroom, and supposed to engage their learners.
Typically, though, teachers’ main question is not what, but how!
CAST, the lead experts on UDL, share that the key aspects include offering “multiple means of representation, engagement, action and expression.” In a nutshell, representation is how you share information with your students, engagement is how you motivate or inspire them to want to learn it, and action and expression are the ways that they show you they learned the content.
That may seem like a lot, but I have 3 key elements that can be your MAP to UDL: Mix it up, Ask them, Prove it.
Mix it up
Most teachers already “mix it up” to a degree, but UDL asks you to do this strategically. Think about the ways in which you present material (representation) and/or get your learners excited about it (engagement). Don’t you already add pictures to your PowerPoint for a visual element, include a video to make a point, bring in a guest speaker, and allow a student to type instead of handwrite? These techniques help provide universal design and accessibility.
Now take that up a notch—mix it up intentionally, recognizing the diversity of your learners. Have you considered their cultural backgrounds, outside interests, learning needs, and preferences? Not everyone will want to create a rap, design a poster, or work in a group. Create a variety of options to mix up your lessons. Once you’ve created these options, you now have them for the next group of students! Consider these different examples of “mixing it up” for various purposes. Each of the activities in this blog can be done immediately and all come from the various chapters in What Really Works with Universal Design for Learning (2019).
- Content: Create a customized video library with downloads from places like Teaching Channel, Khan Academy, BrainPop, etc. Let students select the ones they like from ones you have already vetted.
- Behavior: Instead of just introducing the rules of the class, posting them, and moving on, ask students to write stories about those expectations during Language Arts, translate them into their Foreign Language, draw them in Art, and identify patterns in them during Math.
- Instruction: Rather than simply introducing new vocabulary, use jokes, riddles, and puns to help students work with language-based humor.
- Special populations: When working with young children, offer a variety of options for learning a new skill. Instead of just telling students to mix the ingredients of playdough, for example, you can also offer a picture, a real object schedule, or even a short video of yourself showing them how to do it.
- Beyond the classroom: Want to get a message to the families in your school? Write it up, translate it through Google Translate, read it into Siri, and videotape yourself sharing the message. Upload the video to YouTube, caption it, and share it liberally through emails, group texts, web blasts, and QR codes.
An essential element of UDL is student choice and student voice. People respond better when provided with options; most people don’t like to be told what to do! My own son, Kiernan, who loves to draw, refused to take an art class because, as he said, “I’d only get to draw what my teacher told me to do.” So, instead of learning more about an area of interest and strength, he chose instead to deny himself the whole art experience. Many students are like Kiernan. They don’t enjoy school, because they are constantly being told what to learn and even how to learn it!
Student choice is a major element of UDL, but student voice is the one that seems the most often forgotten. Many teachers feel they are offering students choice when they say “Would you like to research the Aztecs or the Mayans?” or “Would you prefer to be in group A or B?” While this offers limited choice (and is better than nothing!), it doesn’t value the students’ say in the matter.
This is applicable for every group. Asking them includes both students and adults. Embedding choice and voice is how a school starts to become more universally designed!
- Content: Doing a writing task? Have students select the content, the genre, and whether to type, block print, or use cursive. Allow them to choose the style they use to write, as well as the color, size of font, and if they’d like to graphically depict aspects of the writing. They can even choose to use various supports, such as speech to text, graphic organizers, and peer groups.
- Behavior: Consider adding in options to help students with their conceptual, social, and practical skills (adaptive behavior skills). Let students help you identify pictures to accompany text that are meaningful to them and help with concepts; help students self-reflect on their own social skill needs and strengths; and guide students in visualizing their plans, which might include making visual schedules, considering college, or looking at picture cards.
- Instruction: Why not have students help identify what will be in stations when co-teaching? Class input might help you identify the need to have a video station, a lecture station, and a creative station. Remember that choice and voice is important for teachers too, so be open to the feedback of your co-teacher!
- Special populations: Students who are gifted or twice-exceptional may crave options to engage with the material in an advanced manner. Using the SCAMPER technique where students can choose to substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, or reverse gives them both choice and
- Beyond the classroom: Don’t forget to give choice and voice to faculty and families. Administrators who want to build an inclusive school need to ask their teachers, staff, and community what they want and need. Surveys, flipping staff meetings, task forces, and varying resources allow school leaders to provide options and encourage stakeholders to embrace more inclusive education and UDL principles.
Allowing students to demonstrate their understanding through “multiple means of action and expression” seems to be one of the most difficult for teachers to embrace. I frequently hear questions about how to ensure the grading/options/outcomes are fair, despite the fact there is so much work on the difference between equity and equality these days! I remind them that “Fair does not mean equal!” It simply means that students get what they need. Some may need to show their learning through a visual display, such as a poster or presentation, while others prefer to write a paper or design an app, while yet others opt for a group project or even a test.
I recently started an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) program because I would like to learn more about business management. I already have a Ph.D. in Education so I have mastered some of the courses in the MBA program, such as Research Methods. Luckily for me, my MBA program is a competency-based program. I am able to skip to the end and take the competencies (tests, papers, projects), if I so choose. Being able to demonstrate competency for some classes quickly respects what I am bringing to the program and allows me to spend more time on other programs that have content with which I am less familiar. That is what “prove it” means; if students can demonstrate proof they met the competencies, that is what is important— not that they did it in the same way as everyone else.
- Content: It’s all about the rubrics. Create a guide that outlines the academic expectations and performance criteria and then students (or teachers!) can “prove” their competencies in a variety of ways that works for them.
- Behavior: Recognize that some individuals, especially those who struggle with executive functioning, will be overwhelmed by the concept of choice and the ability to select how they demonstrate competency. For them, build in scaffolds like examples of completed assignments, templates they can use, limited choice options, and checklists.
- Instruction: Offering all options to all students may help those educators who still struggle with the concept of “fairness;” on the plus side, it also ensures implementation fidelity to the concept of UDL.
- Special populations: Students with special needs, such as those with emotional-behavior disabilities, can benefit as well. Let students discuss how they can participate in interventions, select their own replacement behaviors, or practice new behaviors. Instead of “no,” ask yourself: “Why not?”
- Beyond the classroom: Work as a school to use UDL principles as you become more inclusive. Determine what formative assessments will be used to monitor progress, and why those are considered authentic measures. Have stakeholders help determine how they will reflect on student progress and who may need additional unique adaptations to continue to grow.
UDL is often compared to a GPS in that there are multiple ways to get to the same final destination. Now, you also have a MAP to get you there: Mix it up, Ask them, and Prove it!
Murawski, W.W., & Scott, K. A. (2019). What really works with Universal Design for Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.