Find your portal

How to apply the Universal Design for Learning in the classroom

This post was originally published in the October 2018 issue of the Education Today Magazine.

The way people learn is as unique as cats’ noses. In case you wonder, there are no two cat muzzles exactly the same. So even though students in a classroom may look alike, they each have a unique combination of background, strengths, needs and interests that affect their learning outcomes.

Since classrooms are so diverse, curricula need to meet this diversity. However, most often than not, teachers need to meet the same curriculum goals for all their students. These two terms, “the same” and “diverse”, when considered in the same setting inevitably mean obstacles to surmount and challenges to overcome.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is thought to be the solution to the above problem.

Why Universal Design for Learning in the classroom matters

In a traditional classroom setting, when a student has a hard time getting the expected learning outcomes they also often take the blame for their poor results. Maybe they didn’t study enough, they didn’t pay attention to class when the teacher explained a key concept, maybe they are just lazy and uninterested in their own educational journey.

Only recently have people considered the fact that the curriculum (instead of the student) might play a significant role in the unsatisfactory results. Every classroom is made up of a very diverse group of individuals, yet the curriculum is the same for everyone. Maybe, if we designed the curriculum to be more flexible and adaptable to meet the diverse needs of students, the learning outcomes will improve for most.

This is the basic idea of Universal Design for Learning, advanced by the people of CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), a nonprofit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through UDL. According to them, Universal Design for Learning is rooted in the learning sciences — including neuropsychology, human development, and education research.

There are three basic principles to UDL, and before we go on to the part about how to apply it in the classroom, these principles need to be highlighted. Each corresponds to a different part of the human brain that is involved in the learning process and each affects a student’s learning outcomes in its unique way.

  1. UDL provides multiple means of representation. This answers the WHAT of learning. Teachers should therefore present information and learning content in more than one way. There are multiple options for customizing instructional delivery, from offering alternatives for auditory or visual information to guiding information processing and manipulation. This diversity in how students get new information helps them be resourceful, knowledgeable learners.
  2. UDL provides multiple means of action and expression. This answers the HOW of learning. Some students enjoy being in the center of attention and present slides of something they learned. Others prefer the more traditional way of writing an essay on what they learned, yet others might be very happy to create a physical model of a new concept they got to master. By being able to demonstrate their learning through more than one standard way, students become more strategic, and goal-directed learners.
  3. UDL provides multiple means of engagement. This answers the WHY of learning. Motivation is a crucial factor determining the success of the learning process. Every lesson must spark an interest in students’ minds and teachers need to identify the best way to achieve this, whether by providing options for sustaining effort or self-regulation to insuring a greater degree of student agency and individual choice.This will help students become more purposeful in their learning process and more motivated.

Now that the theoretical part of universal design for learning is clear, let’s move on the foggy one: implementing it. There is no one best way to put UDL into practice; how could it be when the students in a classroom are so diverse?

Things to consider when applying UDL in the classroom

The comprehensiveness of the universal design framework can overwhelm even the most ambitious educators. The educational system tends to favor the one-size-fits-all instead of options over options of delivering instructions, assessing students and keeping them motivated.

Schools and teachers who seek to create learning environments that are inclusive for all must embrace change and prepare for a long and bumpy journey. The UDL framework is complex and there might be the need to introduce individual components of it over time. After all, change is a process, not an event.

The first step in implementing universal design for learning in the classroom is to carefully assess the current situation. One needs to establish exactly where is Starting Point A if they are to plan the journey to Desired Point B. This analysis of the current classroom, school, or even district will determine the goals, pinpoint the priorities and offer a clear idea of where to start and what to look for.

Here are a few aspects to consider when implementing UDL in the classroom. Some require a budget and a mixture of resources, others are simple changes with immediate effect. But no matter the details, universal design for learning boils down to offering more options and choosing the one that works best in a particular setting.

Ensuring the flexibility of the physical learning environment

In a UDL classroom there must be flexible work spaces for students. Different learning activities require different settings. Group activities are great, but individual work must happen as well. So the classroom should include spaces for group instruction, small and large group work and also for quiet individual work. Desks on wheels that can be rearranged for different purposes, bookshelves that store classroom supplies and separate the rest of the room from the quiet area, or a table for building mock-ups are all examples of great flexible furniture.

Establish clear learning goals with students

Having options is great but at the end of the day (actually at the end of the school year) the same curriculum goals must be met by all students. UDL allows the journey to that goal to correspond to students’ individual needs, and establish smaller and more personalized goals along the way. But the end result still must be the same. When students know what they’re working to achieve and have a degree of choice on how to do it they’ll be more motivated to reach those goals. That’s why goals are always made apparent in a UDL classroom.

Determine the types of content that best support their learning

If students can’t access information, they can’t learn it. There are many types of disabilities that students suffer from, or they just thrive on one type of content and struggle with another. In a UDL classroom, all learning content must be accessible for all types of learners. For example, students should have various options for reading, including print, digital, text-to-speech and audiobooks; they should be able to select text enlargement if necessary, or set the screen color and contrast. All video content should have captions, and audio files transcripts.

Read more: How to create accessible e-learning design

Consider together all the assessment types

In a UDL classroom there are always more than one way for students to demonstrate what they learned and prove their mastery of new concepts. An essay or a worksheet can do the trick. But so does being able to create a video about the most important part of a lesson. Green screens are not just for professional actors anymore. Or a podcast. They could even be allowed to draw a comic strip. As long as students meet the above mentioned learning goals they should be allowed to complete various types of assignments.

Agree on the purpose of feedback and grades

In a traditional classroom the main scope of grades is to measure performance and they are the most palpable form of feedback. A good grade equals a good student, while a bad one does not. But students’ progress should be based solely on how they perform in a few and fixed intervals of time. With UDL students get feedback as often as they need it, so they are able to continue their learning journey in the same direction or make adjustments if they somehow fall off tracks. They are encouraged to react on the choices they made in class and whether they met the goals. If they didn’t meet the goals, they’re encouraged to think about what might have helped them do so. And most importantly, grades are regarded as tools to reinforce those goals.

Consider the supporting edtech tools

UDL would not be possible without technology. A UDL classroom is a techy one. Edtech tools come in incredible numbers and there’s always something new, something better, something that promises to change the educational world. It’s up for every educator to decide which one is which. Using a learning management system with adaptive learning features, personalized learning paths and a generous amount of assessment types is a start. But there are plenty of other tools and websites that can support universal design for learning. The team at BTSC have created this comprehensive list, so do check it out.

Closing thoughts

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching aimed at meeting the needs of every student in a classroom. It promotes having options to more aspects of learning, from how instruction is delivered, to how students can demonstrate their learning, to various ways of nurturing interest and motivation in every learning activity. UDL can be very helpful for students with learning and attention issues, but most of all, it minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students. Because when we design for disability, we all benefit.

In the end I encourage you to spend exactly 13 minutes and 18 seconds to watch this inspiring TED Talk. It’ll be worth your while: