By: Stephanie Baumann, MS, MA, Georgia State University
We’re often taught to think there are two kinds of students sitting in our classrooms: ones that need special learning accommodations, and ones that don’t. What this dichotomy fails to take into account is that we all have different ways of connecting with, remembering, and engaging with material – accommodations or not. You and I could sit in the same lecture, and undoubtedly our notes would look different, the details we remembered would be different, and the way that we connect the material to our own experiences would be different.
So how, then, are we as instructors supposed to teach students who all learn like individuals?
Thankfully, there is a framework for that!
The Universal Design for Learning (UDL), created by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), is a teaching framework to help improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn (CAST, 2008). Essentially, it breaks down teaching and learning into three main components, Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression:
The CAST website provides an interactive walkthrough, complete with targeted research, of the UDL guidelines that instructors can use as to include multiple forms of Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression into all aspects of your course.
Because wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get our students to be purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed learners?
While the UDL Guidelines are amazing, I will also admit that they can feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re new to the idea of UDL. What I want to suggest here are just a few examples of ways that you could make small, but impactful, changes to your class that would not require a major course overhaul. You do not need to make all of these changes, or even make more than one at a time, but I would encourage you to think through at least 3 small changes that you could make to your own course.
Lectures – the backbone of most courses. Yet despite their importance, we often don’t spend enough time thinking through how our students might connect with those extremely important words on a slide. While there are many ways you could make your lectures more in line with UDL principles, here are a few small ideas that would not require much effort but could make a great impact to students.
Engagement – Pare down your lecture slides to include minimal text information or irrelevant distractions (like busy themes), and instead use visuals, color coding, or highlighting to draw students’ attention to key information.
Representation – Use visual cues (e.g., page numbers, logos) to help students visually connect content to topics, and use a variety of methods for presenting information, such as text, images, videos, websites, etc.
Action & Expression – Provide students with different ways to answer questions regarding your lecture content to demonstrate what they know (e.g., polls, think-pair-share, discussions, one word response, one test question). This is also a great opportunity to utilize technology in your classroom.
Many times instructors feel as though they are boxed into to a standard list of assignment options: papers, discussions, and presentations. While I would argue that there are many more options than this, there are ways that you can make small changes to even these three assignment options in the prompts, the formats, and the interaction that will benefit students.
Engagement – Give students the opportunity to make the content relevant to them. Consider giving them a choice in their topic areas or article selection, or provide questions or assignments that are open-ended enough that students can make their own links. Also consider opportunities for self-reflection where students can forge their own connections to the material.
Representation – Do you always use essay assignments in your class? Consider swapping it out for, or even using it in addition to, other formats such as presentations, discussions, or different paper styles. Do you frequently use discussions? Could you turn one into a debate or an online forum? If you require presentations, consider whether students could have more choice in the style or format of how they present.
Action & Expression – Providing a variety of different assignments also gives students different ways to show what they know. You may find that some students are better able to articulate what they know in visual formats over written formats, or are shy in discussions but are willing to share their knowledge in a discussion board or small-group project.
We often think of exams only as ways that students show us whether or not they’ve learned the material. But consider that the standard multiple choice exam only gives students one single way to make connections to the content and share what they know.
I challenge you to consider ways that you could use multiple types of questions on your exams; for example, add in some matching definitions that rely on memorization of key terms with multiple choice questions and/or fill-in-the-blank choices that encourage students to draw on what they know. Could you also include some short answer or essay questions (even better if you offer a choice of questions) that allows students to synthesize multiple concepts or apply what they’ve learned?
Providing an exam with multiple question formats connects with all areas of the UDL framework.
These are just a few of the many ways that you could make small changes to your class that could make a universal impact to your students. While it may still feel overwhelming, I encourage you to choose just one or two and start incorporating them into your courses, and see how students respond. I am confident that you will find that students, especially those who are benefitting from those small changes, will notice a difference!
References and Resources
CAST Website and UDL Guidelines: http://udlguidelines.cast.org/?utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=none&utm_source=cast-about-udl
UDL Exchange – UDL Course Builder: http://udlexchange.cast.org/home
UDL Curriculum Toolkit: http://udl-toolkit.cast.org/home
CAST Website for Research: http://www.cast.org/
SETOP 2020 conference Presentation: Making Small but Impactful Teaching Changes using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework: https://stephaniedbaumann.wordpress.com/setop-presentation/
Stephanie Baumann, M.S., M.A., is a PhD candidate in Developmental Psychology at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta, GA. She has experience as an instructor of record for both intro-level and upper-level undergraduate courses, including Introduction to Human Development and Multicultural Issues in Psychology, as well as experience as a graduate teaching assistant for research methods labs. She has also presented information about Universal Design for Learning at teaching conferences and disability conferences, including the Southeastern Teaching of Psychology (SETOP) in 2020. She also has an assistantship with the Center for Leadership in Disability at GSU and is a former Georgia Leadership and Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) trainee. Stephanie’s primary research focuses on early verbal and nonverbal language development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and ways that parents, teachers, and interventionists can use different formats, such as cartoons and virtual media, to enhance learning for all children.