Universal Design for Learning: A Practical Guide
Teaching to the Margins
What are the margins? The margins refer to those teaching and learning places that lie outside an ideal student or what our education system is built to work with. UDL grew out of a movement to include students with learning disabilities who had traditionally been excluded from school. Teaching to the margins means we are mindful of who is experiencing barriers and how to design curriculum for inclusion of as many students as possible.
Creating Expert Learners
According to CAST guidelines, an expert learner is a learner who is purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. Expert learners know what they do not know and are good at seeking help. They have a sense of their goals and objectives and are able to map out and monitor the course to getting there. If they succeed or fail, they are able to attribute their success or failure to their persistence, strategy use, learning preferences, and sense of engagement.
UDL emphasizes being proactive rather than reactive in educational planning. This includes developing ways of anticipating the kinds of learners you are likely to encounter in your classes, planning for flexibility, and gathering feedback from the very beginning. Being proactive means that as an instructor, you become skilled at understanding and addressing diversity in your classroom instead of being surprised and planning as the need arises, with ad hoc solutions.
UDL also grew out of the Universal Design movement which sought to design the built environment (stairs, bathrooms, hallways, cafeterias) so that they could be used and accessed by people with a diversity of access needs. The L for Learning part was added to bring the same spirit of designing for inclusion to the educational environment. UDL looks at access in terms of how learners engage with the class environment, how they interface with the way knowledge is represented and how they express their learning. Access is the basic starting point in the UDL framework.
Providing Flexibility in Getting to Learning Outcomes
A priority for UDL work is designing for choice and flexibility in working towards learning outcomes. In a UDL-guided curriculum, learning outcomes are specific, explicit, and have a direct line to learning activities. Unlike a modified curriculum where learning outcomes can be narrowed or changed outright, UDL prioritizes maintaining learning outcomes and programming choice and flexibility to get to the outcome in different ways.
Explicitly Addressing Expectations and Structure
If learners are to find multiple routes to the same learning outcomes, it is crucial to be explicit, transparent, and concrete around the course structure, learning outcomes, assignments, tests, and exams. For example, do you hope that students will find your course transformative? What are some concrete markers of transformation? Do you want students to be able to readily apply theory to practice? What are the steps in that application so that both you and students can know when they have been successful? When we are experts and have taught for a number of years, our understanding becomes increasingly implicit. UDL advocates practices that bring those implicit understandings to light and designing curriculum and activities so that expectations are clear, concrete, and actionable.
Frequent, Varied Assessment
An important part of the UDL framework is frequent, varied, low-stakes assessment. UDL advocates offering formative assessment of engagement and prior knowledge so that students have a sense of where they are starting, a crucial line that will help them understand overall goal structure in the course. Regular, low-stakes assessment gives students regular feedback which will help them understand not only whether they are on track, but how they might be steering the wrong way, and how to get back on track. Frequent, varied assessment helps students not only build a grade, but to map and chart their course from start to finish.
How might these priorities change your teaching practices?