Not another ‘thing’: Practical application of Universal Design for Learning to higher education
Professor Jones teaches a ‘typical’ undergraduate psychology 101 course (PSY 101) to fifty students in a lecture hall. PSY 101 is 90 minutes with a quiz at the end of each class. Students are expected to access the learning management system (LMS) to complete readings and a written assignment prior to the next class; however, students say it is hard to find where these are located on the LMS for each class session. Students are also just given scores on their assignments and quizzes without feedback on why their responses are correct (or, incorrect). While Professor Jones’ course evaluations have never been high, their course evaluations have gotten lower for the quality of instruction and instructor over the last few years. At the same time, their students’ quiz and assignment scores are lower and more inconsistent compared to prior semesters. Professor Jones has taught the class for 15 years each semester and cannot figure out why. In Professor Jones’ perception, what they have always done is not effective due to the students and not their instruction. At a department meeting, Professor Jones exasperatedly expresses their frustrations:
‘Students are not reading, they are not paying attention and on their phones. They keep emailing me questions about where to find things in the LMS, they are getting the ‘easy’ questions wrong!’ Professor Jones continues, shaking their head, ‘Why are the students not engaged or following the directions?’
The other professors commiserate, but one asks
‘What challenges are the students experiencing learning from the way you are teaching and evaluating?’
Professor Jones’ situation is not unique. Learners at any level of education experience barriers, or challenges, to learning and how they demonstrate their knowledge. One way that instructors can remove barriers is through the intentional use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL provides options, choices, and flexibility to curricular materials, teaching methods, and assessments that are rooted in neuroscience around the ways that people learn (Flanagan et al., 2022, 2022; CAST, 2018).
What is UDL?
The core purpose of UDL is flexibility, including flexible learning environments. A ‘learning environment’ is not confined to a physical classroom in a building. It might be online learning, in-person learning, a hybrid of those, or any instruction setting from a field to a lecture hall. UDL attempts to remove barriers from all environments by purposely designing instruction and then how knowledge is assessed (CAST, 2018). While UDL might be more commonly associated with K-12 education, UDL is applicable to any content area, and any institution or organization from higher education to healthcare to workforce development. UDL includes guidelines and checkpoints to provide multiple means of engagement (the ‘why’ of learning), multiple means of representation (the ‘what’), and multiple means of action and expression (the ‘how’) when developing and delivering instruction. UDL acts as a catalyst that enhances other frameworks and design processes such as culturally responsive teaching, flipped classroom, and/or backwards design.
UDL should not be viewed as another thing for higher education instructors to do on top of other responsibilities. It should be viewed as what they do from the start to create as barrier-free environment as possible, saving time from having to make changes later, to create meaningful learning experiences for every learner.
When considering implementing UDL and making changes to the existing content, reflect on curricular materials, methods, assessments, and learning environments in terms of barriers,
Professor Jones reflects that their answer is 'yes' to these questions; they reflect on how relying on quizzes to measure students’ learning and a lack of organization creates barriers to students and works with their colleague to brainstorm potential alternatives to quizzes and how to organize the class (see Table 1).
|Barrier||Why is this a barrier?||UDL Approach and Guidance|
|Lecture-heavy Instruction||A lecture-only format may not be engaging or accessible to learners.||
Options for a recorded lecture with closed captions posted on website after class for learners to view as many times as needed (UDL guideline)
Break-up lecture with individual, partner, or small group activities to practice content (UDL guideline).
Assumption that learners know how to identify to key information in a lecture
|Learners may not have the needed background knowledge to understand the lecture.||Activate prior knowledge by connecting something learners know to something that they will learn (UDL guideline).|
|Quizzes, including ‘pop’ and planned ones||Quizzes only offer one “snapshot” of learner learning and may not accurately capture their knowledge, especially if learners are rushing to finish at the end of class or do not have a chance to apply the information.||Provide advanced notice for when quizzes are given; provide options for demonstrating understanding using different formats and types of media. Consider other ways to demonstrate understanding besides a quiz (UDL guideline).|
Reading tasks such as reading multiple chapters a week
|All learners may not be able to read or comprehend at the same level; all reading formats are not accessible.||Provide multiple ways to access reading materials (print, online, audio); employ video/podcasts to support key points in anchor text (UDL guideline)|
|Writing tasks such as writing an essay or summarizing a book chapter without context||Learners may experience difficulties with or anxieties expressing themselves in writing; learners may also not have the same background knowledge on how to complete a specific type of writing task.||Create options besides written papers to demonstrate understanding (example, video, podcast, slides, infographic), scaffolds to support the writing process like graphic organisers (UDL guideline).|
Feedback that is not meaningful such as being given only a grade
Learners may develop misunderstandings by not being given corrective feedback.
Without feedback, learners may not understand the concept enough to apply knowledge to future lecture topics, quizzes, or assignments.
Learners cannot work towards proficiency.
Provide specific feedback to learners so they know what they did correctly and incorrectly. When appropriate, allow learners to resubmit an assignment for additional feedback to work towards proficiency.
Feedback can also be provided by going over an assignment or other task in lecture and/or by creating a video (example, video going over each step needed to solve a math problem; UDL guideline).
|Learning management system||Confusing, inconsistent organization.||Clearly labelled content and consistent organization for each lecture and associated assignment (UDL guideline).|
Table 1. Example barriers and potential UDL solutions
Before examining how UDL can be applied to higher education in more depth, it is important first to clarify common misperceptions.
First, UDL is not developing instructional and assessment practices that match learners’ perceived learning styles, a pseudoscience (Newton, 2015). Any learning style is self-reported, without considering the content area or the importance of learning strategies and learning using multiple modalities. Instruction matched to a learning style does not meaningfully increase, and may even decrease, learning (Bozarth, 2018; Knoll et al., 2018; Pashler et al., 2008; Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, 2021). For instance, if an education professor delivering instruction on how to give a reading assessment only provides auditory instruction because most of their learners identify with that ‘style’, some learners miss out on key instruction and instructional experiences to allow them to apply the content. Those learning how to give an assessment need to be able to physically practice how to give it, have additional instruction in other modalities (examples, lectures, small group work, case studies), and have opportunities to practice with feedback. While this example is from teacher education, the use of multiple formats or modalities, practice, and feedback are essential for instruction in any field.
Second, higher education instructors may assume that, by creating a more flexible environment, learners may take advantage of an ‘easier’ option for assignments, assessments, or accessing content. However, options should be purposeful and in a way that reduces barriers while still matching the instructional objectives. For example, if an instructional objective is to communicate knowledge about a specific concept without a particular format (for example, not evaluating public speaking or writing), learners might be given the option to create a website or video, give a formal presentation, write a paper, or another format of their choice. Learners are still meeting the objective and the larger guidelines (examples, number of points to make, types of information and sources to include). Similarly, instructors may have a mindset that UDL makes teaching and evaluating learners’ knowledge harder for the instructor, or that instruction would take more time than ‘typical’ methods. While it may initially take more time to create or adapt instructional materials including potentially finding electronic resources to supplement paper-based ones, barriers are reduced for learners by considering the variability of their learning needs and strengths. Instruction may also become more engaging for both the instructor and the learners by having a larger range of instructional materials and methods (CAST, 2018). However, it is important to note that UDL is not just about giving choices with flexible assignments or assessments; UDL also includes the purposeful design of the entire instruction, such as using models and other scaffolds, providing meaningful feedback, providing background information prior to introducing a new concept, connecting concepts to learners’ future employment, and other components of UDL.
Last, UDL is not just a framework to be solely leveraged for learners with disabilities. While the original intent of UDL is to remove barriers to learning for learners with disabilities, UDL is a framework for designing instruction for all learners, and not specifically for accommodations or modifications for learners with disabilities (Chardin & Novak, 2021; Fritzgerald, 2020). Where accommodations and modifications are used on an individual basis, UDL guidelines act as a vehicle to ensure that strategies and supports are in place for any learner who would benefit. Thus, designing courses with UDL in mind helps to ensure that you are meeting the widest variety of learners, not just those that are the average (Hough, 2015).
Role of UDL in Higher Education
Higher education learners vary in their background knowledge and lived experiences, including learners who may not have taken a course in a number of years or learners who may not have experienced what might be considered a ‘traditional’ learning environment. Additionally, higher education learners with disabilities are less likely to formally report a disability to their university compared to the K-12 environment (NCES, 2022). If they do not do this, learners may not get the accommodations needed to be successful and instructors will not be aware of any learning needs, including for accessibility purposes.
For example, an instructor posts a screen capture to their LMS of an important table needed to complete several assignments. Unaware that a learner has a disability who uses a screen reader to access all text-based materials, they have inadvertently created even more barriers to learning for this learner. If the image does not have a clear description with appropriate alt text, such a learner would not be able to hear a description of the table’s content and will not be able to complete their assignments. This would not occur with UDL as one of the Cast guidelines, checkpoint 4.2, states:
‘It is critical that instructional technologies and curricula do not impose inadvertent barriers to the use of these assistive technologies’ (CAST, 2018, n.p.).
With the UDL mindset, all instructional materials are accessible from the start by removing physical barriers to access for learners with disabilities who use assistive technology. Additionally, all materials are also accessible for those without disabilities who may also benefit from the same type of tools like speech-to-text to dictate content instead of type and text-to-speech to hear the text on their screen.
Essentially, many of the strategies and tools that might be thought of as accommodations only for learners with disabilities may benefit all learners and fall under the umbrella of UDL. Learners without disabilities may experience barriers to learning such as difficulties with reading comprehension or vocabulary, time management and executive function, and/or communicating their knowledge due to difficulties with written expression. For example, having an audio or ebook option for learners to listen to instead of reading the text for those who prefer to access this method for any number of reasons such as a preference to listen to rather than read text. All learners also benefit from proactive, purposeful strategies within a course such as having access to a graphic organizer to use for planning prior to writing a large essay to reduce barriers to writing or posting supplemental resources to an LMS for learners to gain more background information on a topic. By providing learners with what they may need through delivering instruction in more than one format and providing multiple means of ways to express their knowledge, barriers for all learners are reduced.
Purposeful course design through UDL from the start not only supports diverse learners’ learning needs but also promotes active learning and learner retention (Flanagan et al., 2022;
First, UDL allows learners to make meaningful connections from their coursework and assignments to their future goals; they see the relevancy of their courses to their future goals (Levicky-Townley et al., 2021). Second, courses should provide clear ‘guidance on what information is important to support learners’ attention’ (Levicky-Townley et al., 2021, n.p) while reducing distractions that impact learning. Last, course design and delivery aligned to UDL supports positive beliefs about learners’ attention and memory and may shift their beliefs about and practices of multitasking. For example, when learners see the relevancy of the course and are engaged in the content, they may stop playing on their phones or computers and, instead, focus on engaging in the content (Levicky-Townley et al., 2021). Thus, neuroscience suggests that supporting learner diversity is considered a best practice for every learner. When sufficiently structured and action-oriented instead of passive-oriented activities, instruction anchored in UDL may reduce failure and frustration in learners (Freeman et al., 2014; Rogers et al., 2021).
Checking in with Professor Jones
After talking with his colleagues and looking at websites on UDL, Professor Jones is contemplating the benefits of creating a more engaging course, aligned to UDL, that meets his students’ learning needs and his course objectives. They hope that the new course content will improve their teaching evaluations and students’ feedback. However, they are hesitant and overwhelmed at the idea of changing an entire course and are unsure of even where to start or how to start making changes. They are becoming open to the idea to make changes aligned to UDL, but those must be doable.
Tips for UDL in Higher Education
Just like for Professor Jones, the idea of ‘UDL-ing’ an existing course can be overwhelming. However, implementing UDL can be done in a way that supports both the instructor and the learners. To help decrease feeling overwhelmed and stay focused on the goal of UDL to reduce barriers to learning, change can happen by making one change at a time over several semesters using several core steps as part of the UDL implementation cycle (see Figure 1):
Figure 1. Five core steps of implementing UDL into your course
Evaluate current curricular materials for accessibility: If current materials are only paper-based or inaccessible, work with an instructional designer or other knowledgeable individuals to select alternatives (or, adjust current materials) and then check accessibility. If not already, consider using a website or other LMS to post course materials and do so in an accessible, consistent way.
Where to start: Based on learners’ feedback and self-reflection, pick one aspect of a course to modify and examine the UDL Guideline aligned to it for ideas and general guidance. Additionally, when selecting what to modify, ask, ‘What would make the most impact that is feasible for you and can be implemented directly?’
Talk to the learner: Ask learners what works well for them such as how they access the learning materials and other content, what is engaging and why, how they best demonstrate their knowledge, and any other objectives or course-specific questions like background knowledge. This will help to identify their strengths and their needs. If concerned that they might be hesitant to share, consider an anonymous survey. While it is possible to gauge strengths and needs from prior course evaluations as a starting point, it is important to also talk to current learners as their strengths and needs may be different.
Make (and then implement) the change: If in need of assistance or ideas, consider working again with the instructional designer or other knowledgeable individuals.
Evaluate the change: After implementing the change, evaluate if it was successful based on the change and objective. For example, a common barrier is a physical textbook, providing alternate formats of the book (example, audio, video, or online that supports text-to-speech software) will help to remove those barriers. Acquiring specific feedback from learners on what format(s) were accessed, and how it helped with learning information and transfer of knowledge is important to evaluate the effectiveness of this change. Remember, a critical part of evaluating the change actively involves learners; and,
Consider one additional change based on the evaluation and repeat the cycle. If implementing UDL now feels too daunting, there are simple actions instructors can take as a first step. Quick, small changes will have a lasting impact and can be built upon to make future changes. Examples might include the following (and see Figure 2) below:
- Talking to learners and ask for their feedback beyond the course evaluation to better understand both their strengths and needs.
- Giving an alternative for one assignment that is of equal difficulty and matches the learning goal/objectives such as giving learners the option to post a discussion response as a video or other visual instead of just text,
- Using texts that have an audio version or one that is accessible to text-to-speech software and provide both to learners.
- Including scaffolds such as graphic organizers, vocabulary reviews to activate background knowledge and other supports for executive functioning.
- Breaking down complex projects into smaller components; and,
- Providing meaningful, timely feedback that tells the learners exactly what they did correctly or incorrectly and why.
Figure 2. Action steps you can take to jump-start UDL implementation in your course
UDL is not just one extra thing for instructors to do as part of their daily instructional practice; it is the ‘foundational thing’ that instructors should use for their instructional practice. Weaving other evidence-based practices such as project-based learning, backwards design, or culturally responsive teaching will help to strengthen teaching and learning for a wider variety of learners. In today’s higher education environment, whether it be in-person, online, or a mix of these, leveraging UDL does not have to be so complicated or difficult. Understanding that variability in learning needs and preferences, strengths, and challenges will help instructors plan for that variability, using UDL as the foundation. Taking action in small, medium, or large steps helps to honour learners, celebrate learning, and instil joy in teaching.
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