Universal Design for Learning (UDL) grew out of the work of Ron Mace, an architect in the 1980s, who avidly advocated for individuals with disabilities. Mace made it his life's purpose to ensure that products and environments were usable by everyone. For example, we have all used and benefited from the curb cut. Dragging a baby stroller up a step sometimes takes the help of a benevolent stranger, when a simple slope in the concrete facilitates travel for everyone. Curb cuts were primarily for individuals in wheelchairs, but they also work for adults with shopping carts, rolling luggage, or baby strollers, and even for children on bicycles! In more recent years, this concept of universal design has been applied to our profession as a way to help all students access learning. UDL is guided by three key principles: providing multiple means of representation, the “what” of learning; providing multiple means of action and expression, the “how” of learning; and providing multiple means of engagement, the “why” of learning. We would like to briefly explore each of these principles and offer some suggestions for making UDL work in the university classroom.
What: providing multiple means of representation
When UDL is applied to the university classroom, we must consider the many ways our students access information; this is the “what” of learning. Gone are the days when we can simply stand and dispense our knowledge. We have students with sensory issues, such as blindness or deafness; we have students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia; and we have students with language differences, to name a few. How do we make sure they can access our content? For starters, we can incorporate multiple modalities—vision, hearing, and touch. When we prepare, we should be asking ourselves if our presentation will be accessible to everyone or if it's just the way we are used to delivering content. We can adapt our format by amplifying sound or providing captions, enlarging our text, changing the font, or even using color to emphasize major points. We can provide hands-on experiences using models or manipulatives. We should also carefully examine our use of various types of language, symbols, or expressions, and work to connect our content to students' previous experiences. The use of tables, videos, animation, and even comic strips can enhance the meaning of our content.
How: providing multiple means of action and expression
The second principle refers to the “how” of learning. How do we ensure that our students convey to us what they are learning? Students should be given the opportunity to represent what they know in a variety of ways. For instance, some may need to verbally express their understanding, while others may need to write what they have learned. We have students with physical challenges, and for them, using alternatives to pen and pencil or even a mouse may be indicated. Thankfully, technological advances have provided us with such tools as joysticks and voice-activated programs or switches. Multiple media may help some candidates; film, music, dance, or other forms of movement can also be ways of communicating what has been learned. Other means of expression include interactive Web tools or social media. Software programs such as those designed to check spelling or grammar, predict words, or convert text to speech should be options. Some students may need additional support in the form of scaffolded instruction, checklists, or schedules that help them successfully manage their learning.
Why: providing multiple means of engagement
The third principle focuses on the “why” of learning. Here, our attention turns to factors such as background knowledge, culture, and personal relevance, which are different for every student. What can we offer that will enhance the engagement of everyone? We can start by thinking about students' interests. We can cultivate engagement by offering different ways to reach course objectives and individual academic goals. When we provide a safe environment that encourages self-expression and connects with our students' personal lives and other characteristics, we increase the likelihood that learning will take place and that engagement will grow. Students vary in their possession of motivation and self-regulation skills. We increase their likelihood of success when we show them how to break large tasks into manageable parts. Peer groups, mentors, and coaches can also provide support that increases engagement with course content and activities.
When viewed collectively, UDL means that information is presented in a flexible manner, taking into account how students may best express their learning and how they are best engaged in their learning tasks. In short, all students deserve access to the curriculum in ways that make the learning meaningful to them.
For more information on and suggestions regarding UDL, see www.cast.org.
Contact Patty Kohler-Evans at Pattyk@uca.edu.