Universal Design for Learning: A Practical Guide
Universal Design for Learning is student-focused and also instructor-focused, because UDL is a curriculum design, development, and delivery framework that focuses on creating expert learners. Learners do not exist alone in a classroom. Classroom ecology is a network of students and instructors who are imbedded in that design. Strong curriculum design should account for student experience and instructor experience, the interactions between student and instructor, and how the design supports a rewarding and engaging learning climate.
One of the most important changes you may experience in working through the UDL framework is the idea of creating expert learners. Often, our goal as instructors is to help students become experts in the content we are teaching. But expert learners are not content experts. They are experts in understanding how they learn, under what conditions they learn, what their preferences are, where they are likely to fail, who they should team up with, and when to ask for help. This can mean that you are teaching expert learners who still fail your class and know exactly why they failed. Likewise, you can have inexpert learners who do well in your class and have no idea why!
Designing for expert learners means that your design should have explicit learning outcomes and expectations so that students have defined goalposts. These goalposts help them gauge how readily they are learning the content and what types of changes they should seek out to improve their performance.
When learning outcomes and expectations are not explicit, you may notice that students
- Are unwilling to ask questions or ask superficial questions
- Are unwilling to take chances
- Do not participate in class discussions
- Argue over grades and deadlines
- Say “I’m not sure what you’re looking for”
- May attribute their success or failure to luck
The UDL framework is student-centred insofar as it helps us investigate these threats to engagement. It encourages us to empathize with the student experience, assess engagement and background knowledge, solicit feedback not only on the content and its accessibility, and offers multiple paths to engagement, learning, and demonstrating knowledge. We can only start developing expert learners if students are aware of what they are meant to learn.