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The Ahead Journal

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A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Adopting Universal Design for Learning – It’s Just Good Teaching

Dr Kevin L. Merry

De Montfort University

About the Author

Introduction

De Montfort University (DMU) is large and diverse. For example, approximately 54% of students come from a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, and there are more than 3000 international students representing over 130 countries. The University has a lengthy tradition of widening participation for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, and possesses one of the lowest grades on entry profiles in UK Higher Education (HE), resulting in a largely heterogeneous demographic profile among students.

Of particular interest is the proportion of students declaring themselves disabled. Since 2015, this has approached 20% of the total student population at the University. With such a diverse cohort of students, especially students possessing a declared disability, it cannot be assumed that each individual student will be able to engage with, and ultimately make sense of their learning in the same way. As such, a single ‘one size fits all’ solution to learning and teaching is simply not appropriate where such diversity exists. Subsequently, over the past six years, DMU has faced challenges in relation to supporting effective learning among its diverse community of students, particularly its large community of disabled students.    

Compounding the challenge of supporting the diverse groups of students at DMU, was the UK Government’s decision to change the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) ahead of the 2016/17 academic year. The DSA is a fund covering the study-related costs of possessing a disability, long-term health condition, mental health condition, or specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia. The type of support and funding available depends on individual needs, with students able to receive support with general study expenses, such as photocopying, specialist equipment and some non-medical help. Changes to the DSA from September 2016 meant that some support roles including note-taking support, library support assistants, readers, study assistants and scribes, would no longer be funded by DSA. Consequently, the University was required to rethink its approach to enabling all of its students to access and fully participate in learning.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

For DMU, the solution to the challenges imposed by possessing a diverse community of students, and compounded by reductions in available support through DSA, was to embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as its institution-wide approach to learning, teaching and assessment.

UDL is an approach that incorporates a variety of options to allow it to be accessible and inclusive for diverse groups of students possessing a wide variety of learning needs and preferences (Rose and Meyer, 2002; Burgstahler and Cory, 2010). Variety in the way in which students’ approach, engage with, and make sense of learning is known as student variability.

There is a high level of student variability among the diverse groups of students that make up modern universities. Student variability represents all things that may influence a student’s engagement with, and approach to their learning (Meyer et al., 2014). As such, it can be useful to think of the sources of variability as potential barriers to effective learning.

An obvious source of student variability is disability status. For example, a dyslexic student for whom processing and remembering information is a challenge, would engage with and approach learning in a very different way to a non-dyslexic student. Fortunately, UDL is an approach to learning and teaching that is based around planning for student variability by incorporating a variety of options to allow it to be accessible and inclusive for all. UDL supports the creation of customisable learning experiences by removing barriers from the learning environment (Meyer et al., 2014). Subsequently from a diversity, but particularly from a disability perspective, UDL represents an approach well-aligned to the needs of DMU.

UDL is based upon three principles: 1) multiple means of Representation, providing students with a variety of ways of acquiring information via learning resources; 2) multiple means of Engagement, considering students’ interests and learning preferences ensuring that they are appropriately challenged and thus motivated to learn; and 3) multiple means of Action and Expression, allowing students with alternative ways to demonstrate their understanding (Davies et al., 2013). Application of UDL from a learning and teaching perspective is essentially about ensuring the provision of customisable options in relation to the three principles. The aim of UDL is to support the development of expert learners who are, strategic and goal-oriented, resourceful and knowledgeable and purposeful and motivated.

The Cheese Sandwich

To support the implementation of UDL at DMU, the ‘Cheese Sandwich’ approach to supporting learning was created (Merry, 2018). The cheese sandwich is an approach to supporting student learning that helps students to become expert learners by supporting their mastery over each of the cognitive skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1968).

Diagram of Blooms Taxonomy, cognitive skills - Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation

Figure 1. Bloom’s Taxonomy 

The cheese in the sandwich is represented by contact time, which is any time in which learning is directly supported by teachers and peers (face-to-face learning, live online learning), and is where students gain teacher and peer support to master the more challenging higher-order skills (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) through active collaborative learning, feedback and teacher and peer support. As can be seen in Figure 2 (below), the slices of bread represent what happens in between time spent with teachers and peers (pre and post time with teachers and peers), and are characterised by self-directed study. In these phases, students engage with content to support the development of the less challenging lower-order thinking skills (knowledge, comprehension), as well as engage in self-assessment opportunities, revisit learning, or evaluate their learning.

Diagram of the cheese sandwich approach to learning - explanation within the text of article

Figure 2. The cheese sandwich approach to supporting learning

By using time spent with teachers and peers to support the development of the more challenging higher-order cognitive skills, individual learners can be targeted for support, with those that find the learning difficult benefitting from greater peer and teacher support, whilst those that make more rapid progress can be further challenged. The teacher has the opportunity to regularly engage with each student about their understanding. As such, a continual cycle of checking understanding, providing feedback and support plays out. Such an approach is particularly helpful when supporting diverse groups of students, particularly disabled students that may experience more barriers to learning than their non-disabled peers.

UDL Guidelines

As can also be seen in Figure 2, application of the UDL guidelines (CAST, 2018) occurs throughout each aspect of the Cheese Sandwich. Hence, as well as benefitting from enhanced peer and teacher support, students can customise their learning in relation to the UDL principles. Multiple means of getting learners interested in learning (Engagement) are applied at each stage, as are multiple types of learning resources and materials (Representation). Multiple ways for learners to demonstrate their learning at each stage are also included (Action & Expression).

Creating Universal Teaching, Learning and Assessment Strategies (CUTLAS)

Initially, UDL implementation at DMU was focused on classroom-based practice, predominantly consisting of modifications to the way in which existing teaching sessions were delivered. Despite there being some excellent examples of UDL practice, there were inconsistencies in the extent to which the UDL principles were being applied.

To ensure greater consistency of UDL implementation across DMU, CUTLAS (Merry, 2019) was created. CUTLAS stands for Creating Universal Teaching, Learning and Assessment Strategies. It is a team-based approach to course design – though individual units or modules, and individual teaching sessions can be designed using CUTLAS. CUTLAS can support the development of courses underpinned by the UDL principles (Rose and Meyer, 2002; Davies et al., 2013), via a structured, facilitated process. It is a team-based process because it involves all of those people that have a critical role to play in the course or unit design. Key stakeholders typically include the course teaching team, staff specialising in technology-enhanced learning, subject librarians, and representatives from industry to name a few. The specific stakeholders involved in the design of courses is not fixed and depends upon the needs of the course being designed. As such, the course teaching team decides which stakeholders are most appropriate when designing their course.

Two critical stakeholder groups involved in designing courses with CUTLAS are the students themselves, and student welfare staff, including disability support specialists.

Student involvement is critical in relation to achieving the University’s strategic aim of ensuring that curricula are co-created with students, as well as intuitively being the right way to support student learning. In terms of the involvement of disability support specialists, this is equally critical because they can assist course teams in ensuring anticipatory adjustments are embedded into courses at the design phase, enabling high-level accessibility for all. For courses that traditionally attract a high level of disabled students such as nursing, which possesses ~50% dyslexic students, this aspect of CUTLAS is imperative in ensuring students can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

The CUTLAS Process

CUTLAS encompasses four key stages:

  •   Defining;
  •   Designing;
  •   Building;  and
  •   Reviewing.

 The broad steps of the CUTLAS process are presented in Table 1.

Pre - CUTLAS

Programme team complete CUTLAS request document. providing feedback, defining purpose and agreeing aims of the CUTLAS.

CUTLAS Workshop - Designing

Part 1: Blueprint - includes mission, look and feel. learning outcomes, assessments constructive alignment and end in mind.

Part 2: Storyboard - create a visual representation of the module or programme, paying attention to Engagement, Representation and Action and Expression.

Assigning building tasks from storyboard to each team member.

Creating CUTLAS - Building

Building the module or programme - programme team commits to creating activities from the storyboard, testing and modifying as required.

Review of build by CUTLAS facilitators, training needs identified, modification of activities/resources following feedback, reflection on process.

Post-CUTLAS - Reviewing

Testing on students and colleagues not involved in the module or programme.

Each stage of CUTLAS is important, but from a disability perspective, the Defining, Designing and Reviewing stages are critical. For example, at the Defining stage, course teaching teams begin to explore the level of variability among their students by creating a student profile based on their learning needs, preferences and barriers to learning. The student profile supports the creation of a course Blueprint. The Blueprint is then brought to life by the Storyboard as part of the Designing stage.

The Storyboard

The storyboard represents the visual plan of the course being designed and maps the journey students will take through their learning. The storyboard supports course teams in working out how to practically deliver their blueprint.  The key aims of the storyboard focus on three key aspects -

  • sequencing;
  • alignment; and
  • coherence.

These key aspects are accomplished through mapping out the learning outcomes, the study topics, the student learning activities, and the assessments (formative and summative). For the course team, working out how to practically deliver the blueprint via the storyboard depends on the support obtained from those additional stakeholders identified as being critical to the creation and delivery of the course such as staff specialising in technology-enhanced learning, subject librarians, but most importantly to the present discussion disability support specialists.

It is during the Storyboard stage that course teams begin to apply each of the points in the UDL Guidelines into their course design. At this stage, it is essential that course teams draw upon the expertise of various specialists, but particularly disability specialists to support their interpretation and application of the guidelines based on the student profile created in the Designing stage. For example, if the student profile reveals a significant proportion of dyslexic students, then course teams would draw upon disability specialists to provide alternatives to text-based learning resources, as well as ensure that any text-based resources included in the course are accessible and provided in modifiable format. Furthermore, in this scenario, disability specialists would be called upon to support the provision of flexible assessment options in circumstances where written assessments had initially been planned. Subsequently, alternative options to written assessments may be included in the course design.

It is also at the Storyboard stage that course teams begin to apply the ‘Cheese Sandwich’ approach to their course designs, ensuring that the UDL Guidelines are applied across the whole cheese sandwich (Figure 2.).

Once the course has been storyboarded, the course team sets about creating critical elements of the course directly into the course VLE as part of the Building stage. Central to the Building stage is the creation of student learning activities. Due to the need for accessibility and more pertinently, customisability, a particular emphasis is placed on technology-enhanced learning activities, such that the term ‘e-tivities’ is often used to describe student learning activities in CUTLAS. Once the e-tivities and other resources have been created in the VLE, students are then invited to test them as part of the Reviewing stage.

Reviewing

From a disability perspective, the Reviewing stage of CUTLAS is extremely important, because it is at this point that students use and review the learning resources and e-tivities created as part of the Building stage. The Reviewing stage is critical in determining whether the resources and activities remove potential barriers to learning through their accessibility and inclusivity, whilst supporting achievement of the intended learning outcomes. Feedback, including suggestions for further modification, is provided to the course team on the resources and e-tivities, which triggers further modification and review. Further review and commentary is provided by disability specialists to ensure accessibility and in some cases compatibility with assistive software.

CUTLAS has been used to design or re-design more than 150 courses at DMU, including the University’s in-house teacher training course, the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PGCLTHE). Upon its validation, the PGCLTHE received five commendations from Advance HE for its innovative UDL approach, as well as a 100% satisfaction score from participants. More importantly, though, it has provided the exemplar for UDL influenced course design for colleagues to follow. More recently, CUTLAS became part of the University’s support package for course leaders. As such, course leaders can receive training in how to create courses with their course teams using the CUTLAS process. The rationale for supporting course leaders with training in CUTLAS is that it supports an enhancement in institutional capability with regard to UDL influenced course design.

An important part of the adoption of UDL at De Montfort University has been the breaking down of artificial barriers that exist between academic colleagues and colleagues specialising in student support, particularly disability services. The Cheese Sandwich and CUTLAS have contributed to the breaking of such barriers since neither process operates in optimal fashion without critical input from those colleagues specialising in accessibility and inclusivity issues. It is surprising that it has taken higher education such a long time to embrace the idea that the anticipatory adjustments required to support disabled students are effective for supporting everyone, especially given ‘interventions for students with learning disabilities’ possesses one of the largest influences and effect sizes related to student achievement (Hattie, 2012). UDL genuinely is just good teaching after all.

 References 

Bloom, B. S.,1968. Learning for mastery. Instruction and Curriculum. Regional Education Laboratory for the Carolinas and Virginia, Topical Papers and Reprints, Number 1. Evaluation Comment, 1(2), pp. 1-12.

CAST., 2018. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Burgstahler, S. E. and Cory, R.C. eds., 2010. Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Harvard Education Press.

Davies, P. L., Schelly, C. L. and Spooner, C. L., 2013. Measuring the effectiveness of Universal Design for Learning intervention in postsecondary education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(3), pp. 195-220.

Hattie, L., 2012. Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Merry, K.L., 2018. Developing teaching practice with Universal Design for Learning. Educational Developments, 19(3), pp.16-19.

Merry, K.L., 2019. Designing curricula with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Educational Developments, 20(3), pp. 10-14.

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H. and Gordon, D.T., 2014. Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

Rose, D. H. and Meyer, A., 2002. Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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This article appeared in the AHEAD Journal. Visit www.ahead.ie/journal for more information