To teach effectively, you have to reach your students, students who come to the classroom with varied backgrounds, expectations, abilities, and learning styles. This understanding is at the heart of the philosophy of practice known as universal design for learning (UDL). UDL is part of a larger movement of universal design, which works to increase access for all through designs that—from the beginning—consider needs of diverse people, not just adapting when a situation requires it. For instructors, UDL means designing your course with accessibility in mind—regardless of whether you’ve been approached by a student who may “require” such adjustments.
According to the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability Winter 2011 edition, eleven percent of undergraduates report some type of disability — and the proportions have swapped such that the majority of disabilities are now non-apparent (e.g., mental, emotional, psychiatric condition/depression, ADHD, specific learning disabilities/dyslexia), compared to more apparent disabilities (e.g. mobility impairment). Meanwhile, between sixty and eighty percent of students with disabilities don’t actually contact campus university services for “official” accommodation requests/reporting — which means many students in your classrooms may fall in this category without your knowledge.
This is also an issue of social justice. By putting disability and access considerations at the center of our teaching, we join efforts to make higher education accessible to all of our students.
Many of you have heard about the increase in classroom technologies, but in their publication Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education (PDF) Rose, et al. remind us that it’s important to distinguish UDL from use of “assistive technologies” that are available (from “low-tech” wheelchairs, eyeglasses, or ASL interpreters to more “high tech” computerized support—spell-check, text-to-speech). UDL is about making material that is physically accessible to all, but also about accessible pedagogies.
Based in neuroscientific research and primary brain networks, UDL is grounded in three key principles that are core to learning:
|Principle #1: Provide multiple means of representation||Principle #2: Provide multiple means of action and expression||Principle #3: Provide multiple means of engagement|
|Brain Networks Activated: Recognition||Brain Networks Activated: Strategic||Brain Networks Activated: Affective|
|Key word: what. The what of learning||Key word: how. The how of learning||Key word: why. The why of learning|
|Description: How we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear, and read. Identifying letters, words, or an author's style are recognition tasks.||Description: Planning and performing tasks. How we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay or solving a math problem are strategic tasks.||Description: How learners get engaged and stay motivated. How they are challenged, excited, or interested. These are affective dimensions.|
|The principle put another way: Principle #1: Present information and content in different ways.||The principle put another way: Principle #2: Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.||The principle put another way: Principle #3: Stimulate interest and motivation for learning.|
Adapted from the National UDL Center
While several starters and tips for incorporating UDL into your course(s) are listed below, an especially helpful resource for checklists and recommendations on UDL is the Access Project, a project of Colorado State University’s Department of Occupational Therapy. On their website, the Project hosts many UDL materials, including A Concise Introduction to UDL, How Do You Teach? (a UDL Checklist for professors), and a more in-depth UDL Quick Tips chart.
Remember, key principles of UDL include providing multiple means of expression and of engagement—offer students a variety of ways to express themselves and to interact with course material.
SoTL Note: These resources are helpful for learning more about UDL, but much of the current literature focuses on K-12 education, so there’s a need for additional empirical, peer-reviewed research. If you’re considering Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), learn more at our SoTL Teaching Commons page.
Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.