Universal Design for Learning
Today’s classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse as they include students from an array of backgrounds and with unique strengths and needs. With such diversity within the classroom, faculty is faced with a challenge of designing their course in a way that caters to the learning styles of all students. A key way in which teachers and instructors can overcome this challenge is by adopting universal design for learning (UDL). Universal design for learning is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn (National UDL Center).
The UDL framework was first introduced in the 1990s by David H. Rose at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). It is based on cognitive neuroscience research that reveals that individuals learn in unique ways and three brain networks namely, recognition, strategic and affective networks, are involved in learning processes. It extends the core principle of universal design, that of equal access for all without the need for adaptation. Even though the concept was initially introduced to meet the needs of students with disabilities, it has a much broader application now as it benefits all learners. UDL promotes a proactive approach towards course design, encouraging built-in flexibility in lessons to address learning differences within the classroom from the outset. In doing so, it helps improve and optimize teaching and learning for everyone by removing barriers to academic success. The approach is also more inclusive and cost-effective as it avoids having to retroactively implement time-consuming and expensive changes to an inflexible curriculum.
According to the UDL framework, course development must be based on three principles which address the brain networks involved in learning. These principles promote that all course elements (including goals, materials, methods, and assessment should allow for representation, expression and engagement in varied and flexible ways. The three central principles of UDL presented by David H. Rose are outlined below:
- Provide multiple means of representation:
Representation feeds the recognition network of the brain. This network guides how we gather information and what we see and read in the content presented. As there are individual differences in how students recognize information, course materials should be presented in varied ways to address everyone’s needs. Examples of this principle in action include adding captions and audio descriptions to videos shown in class, presenting three dimensional models of objects instead of only showing pictures, color shading for emphasis, highlighting key vocabulary in PowerPoints, vocal instruction to supplement written directions for assignments etc.
- Provide multiple means of action and expression
Expression serves the strategic network of the brain. This network is responsible for planning and organizational tasks and for performance. By allowing students multiple ways of demonstrating their abilities and knowledge through varied means of assessment in the course, instructors include all learners and give them the opportunity to succeed. Oral presentations, deliverables in the form of videos, posters or models, writing assignments allowing students to choose to write an essay, a poem or a story about a topic, all are examples of multiple means of action and expression.
- Provide multiple means of engagement:
Engagement nurtures the affective network of the brain. The affective network drives how students remain motivated and interested in learning. Instructors can ensure that all students continue to feel stimulated by broadening the scope of their content to cover a variety of relevant topics and by offering unique class activities and learning opportunities. Examples of diverse means of engagement include group discussions in class, self-assessment checklists, peer-review exercises, etc.
Disability Services strongly encourages Georgia State faculty members to adopt the principles of UDL while developing their courses as they promote the implementation of a better and more stimulating learning environment for not just students with disabilities, but rather for all learners. As UDL takes a deliberate, planned and systemic approach to course design, it prevents the need for retroactively having to remove barriers to learning to make the course accessible to everyone. Faculty who wish to receive further information and guidance on how to incorporate a universal design for learning into their course can contact Georgia State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.