Universal Design Learning: What it is and How to Implement it

  • February 21, 2018
Universal Design Learning Higher Ed

It is no secret that when it comes to learning, not all students are alike. Educators, managers, and even parents have all come across this realization and have continued to seek out ways to adapt to the needs of the learner. Most educators are familiar with the concept of the “7 Styles of Learning”, including Visual, Aural, Verbal, Physical, Logical, Social, and Solitary. However, although they are aware of these different styles, it’s more than often not practical to be able to apply a particular learning style to each student’s unique needs. Because of this, Universal Design for Learning was developed.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.” UDL was created to bring the vast variety of different skills and needs to learning. UDL has been around for a while now, but its popularity has spread due to the recent focus on improving accessibility in higher education (and education overall). As many educators have found, each student is influenced by a different set of interests, strengths, and struggles. In fact, some compare a particular learning style to being as unique as a fingerprint.

Neuroscience research has led to three basic principles of UDL:

  • Principle 1: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Known as the “what” of learning, this refers to the different way learners perceive and comprehend information. Learners with disabilities like deafness or dyslexia may require different strategies in learning content. With UDL, it’s crucial to provide multiple options for representation of content.

  • Principle 2: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Known as the “how” of learning, this refers to the ways learners navigate through the learning environment. For example, learners who struggle with organizational abilities may require a different approach than others. Some learners may be better at expressing themselves through written text rather than speech.

  • Principle 3: Provide Means of Engagement

Known as the “why” of learning, this is essential to learning, as it dictates how a learner becomes engaged and motivated to learn. This principle is the reasoning behind students’ effort, persistence, and self-regulation. This can be very important in the classroom as well as in online environments.

 

11% of undergraduate students have reported having a disability. Many believe the percentage is actually much higher, but a significant number of students choose not to identify themselves as having a disability. Despite the increasing rate of college students that have a disability, retention rates and graduation rates remain very low. According to the National Center for Special Education Research, just 34% of students with learning disabilities complete a 4-year degree within 8 years of graduating high school, compared to 56% of all students nationally who graduate within 6 years. Even more troubling, while 94% of high schools students with learning disabilities seek help, only 17% of college students do. Because of this, educators need to pro-actively adapt learning so that they can help student optimize their learning experience. This is where UDL comes in, which is meant to help the largest amount of learners through different strategies. UDL can help educators reduce barriers and assist students in reaching their full learning potential.

 

Implementing UDL

So what is the best way to implement UDL? Below, we outline 4 strategies driven by the principles of UDL that educators can utilize to put UDL to practice.

 

  1. Deliver content through a variety of mediums.

With UDL, educators often find that when they make one adaptation for student, it ends up helping many more – which is the idea behind UDL. For example, one teacher put an amplification system in her classroom to help a hearing-disabled student. After installing it, she found that many more students with normal hearing reported a huge difference in the ability to comprehend instructions and explanations.

For some students, listening to content or instructions is much easier for them compared to reading written text. By providing lessons through a variety of mediums like audiobooks, podcasts, videos, and more, you further adapt to different learning styles. Applications like Voice Dream Reader can even assist in turning digital text to voice.

Many colleges have created resource centers for instructors to make it easier for them to develop accessible coursework, like Colorado State University’s ACCESS project and California State Universities’ UDL-Universe program. Resources include things like showing instructors how to caption videos, turn digital text to audio, creating accessible PDFs and PowerPoints, and including alternative text on images.

 

  1. Give students different options for showing that they comprehend content.

Thanks to the variety of digital tools available to students today, allowing students to complete assignments in various ways has become much easier. Gone are the days of asking all students to turn in a written paper to show they comprehend a subject. Instead, educators can give students a variety of options like a speech, a paper, a digital presentation, a video, or even an infographic.

Free tools like Google Forms make it easier for educators to upgrade from standard multiple-choice forms like scantrons and offer students a way to increase font size, use text-to-speech read text aloud, or link out to more information on any topic if needed.

 

  1. Offer flexible workspaces.

It seems that tech companies like Google are on to something with their flexible workspaces for employees. Over time, educators and learners have found that they learn best in particular environments. To some, that might mean that they can focus better standing up compared to sitting down. For others, it might mean they need to be alone in the quiet compared to in a group with noise around them. Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia began implementing flexible classrooms, allowing students to sit wherever they’d like in the classroom, and found that grades improved and students seemed happier and more engaged.

Whether a learner is comfortable in their environment or not can directly affect their learning potential. This also goes for employees at a company, where studies found that the ability to be mobile, switch up their surroundings, and have a say in how they work directly improved happiness and productivity.

By simply providing a variety of seating options and flexible tables, learners can experiment and discover which environment works best for them.

 

  1. Offer feedback and plan for assessments.

A critical puzzle piece to UDL is mastery-oriented feedback, or feedback that orients students toward mastery and that emphasizes role of effort and practices rather than “intelligence” or “ability”. Once an educator begins to implement UDL, “checkpoints” for both the educator and the learner should be mapped out to ensure improvement and progress. It’s important to give learners the opportunity to assess their learning progress through regular check-ins, and to provide goal-related feedback during the check-ins. Ensuring learners are aware of the different variables they should be assessing, for example, “I understand this lesson better through a video compared to reading the content”, is important for effective check-ins.

Remembering another crucial part of UDL, offering a variety of choices for assessment, means that educators should offer different ways for students to show that they are improving or grasping a concept. Utilizing peer feedback could also be an effective way to get a sense for different learners progress and how they engage best with learning.

CAST Professional Learning, originally co-founded by David Rose, offers a variety of questions and considerations educators should use when developing their assessment plan. The most important thing about assessment is to remember that it’s a dynamic progress, and that both the educator and the learners will always be evolving.

 

Does UDL Really Work?

Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Lecturer, David Rose, has done extensive work in examining and researching how the curriculum – not the student – may be disabled. Through UDL, his goal was to reduce barriers in the design of the learning environment, making learning accessible to all types of learners. In a study done in 2008, faculty were surveyed on their perceptions after a UDL training module, in which 92% of faculty reported feeling more comfortable meeting the needs of students with disabilities. In another student done by a public university, a large undergraduate special education course was redesigned using principles of UDL. At the end of the semester, students that took the redesigned course rated it higher than the original course, and specifically called out their appreciation for the multiple mediums of delivery for course materials.

The concept of UDL cannot only be applied to classrooms, but employee training as well. Any time a person is learning something new is an opportunity to implement the principles of UDL to optimize their learning potential. For example, when developing an online orientation or training, the strategies above can be utilized to ensure your content is accessible to all types of learners.

For more information on UDL, the research behind it, and ways to advocate and implement it, visit the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.