Applying Universal Design for Learning

This week, I get to lead a training session for the Special Education teachers at my school on Google Chrome Apps & Extensions that can support learners with special needs.  To my delight, as I began to prepare resources for that session, I discovered that the topic of CEP 811 this week – Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – fits perfectly with the kinds of issues both special education teachers and general education teachers face as they teach the diverse learners in their classrooms. UDL, as described in the CAST guidelines (2011), is a framework to consider how curriculum and pedagogy can be implemented to best help individual students learn the content and learn how to become expert learners.  Its focus is on adding flexibility in ways that benefit all learners, including those with identified special needs and the individual variation in all learners.

When using UDL principles, teachers should examine three main areas:

  1. Representation:  WHAT are learners interacting with as they learn?  Is the content represented in a variety of ways, including auditory, visual, and tactile?
  2. Action & Expression: HOW will learners learn and demonstrate their mastery?  Are they given the choice to write, speak, draw, and use a variety of tools? How are students supported in the learning process?
  3. Engagement: WHY will learners care to learn?  How are their individual interests and strengths motivated and engaged throughout the learning opportunities?
As I reflect on my 7 years of teaching experience, I think I have increasingly allowed these principles to shape my teaching practice, even though I didn’t know they were part of the UDL framework.  Allowing flexibility and choice is easier as I’ve gained access to technology tools (like this amazing Wiki of tools!) that allow the learning to be personalized to each student.
A few weeks ago, I created a lesson plan for my high school chemistry students to explore conductivity and bonding.  After learning about the UDL guidelines and reflecting on that lesson plan, I realized that there were many aspects of that lesson that were already aligned to UDL principles, but that there were a few gaps as well.  So I revised the lesson to better address the needs of all learners. (Changes are in pink font.)

I created an infographic using to summarize the UDL supports and design built into my revised lesson:

 As you can see in the blue bubbles of the infographic, I added a significant number of new representation supports in this lesson:
  1. Students process information in different ways and at different rates, so I added an instruction sheet (rather than just oral teacher directions) for the MakeyMakey portion of the lesson.  This is a Google Doc that will be shared with students, so they can change the font size, translate it into their native language, have it read to them by a screen reader, and access it on any internet-connected device.
  2. I also incorporated a screencast that summarizes the key ideas from the day 2-3 bonding activity and a graphic organizer to help students connect the MakeyMakey activity to their in-class activity.  The great thing about screencasts is that students can rewind them, pause them, watch them repeatedly, and even watch them with subtitles.  It is yet another way to represent the same information to learners.
  3. Students will fill out a graphic organizer at the end of this lesson, to further support their comprehension, connection, and transfer of the concepts in this lesson.
The green bubbles in the second row of the infographic represent the supports for action and expression.  Many of these supports were already in place in my initial lesson.  The open-endedness of the inquiry lesson lends itself well to meeting diverse learners’ needs.  The MakeyMakey allows students to “input” with a wide variety of items, so even students with physical limitations can find a conductive item that they can manipulate.  Students are able to choose how much they push themselves with the song they select and whether they modify the Scratch program.  And the teacher can select groups strategically, and question or help groups strategically, based on the group members’ levels of understanding.  The goals and expectations are very clearly laid out in the newly-added handouts & essay checklist, so students are well-supported as they grow in their executive functioning skills through this lesson.
Finally, the red bubbles in the last row represent the supports for student engagement in this lesson.  As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this lesson provides students with multiple points of entry to engage their interest.  They have a large degree of choice in the lesson, but the teacher can easily limit that degree of freedom for students who might be intimidated by the lack of structure.  To help students persist through the challenges of an open-ended learning opportunity like this one, I added “roles” for students.  This will help students stay on task, find a role in the group that suits their interest and comfort level, and engage in collaborative, productive group work.  Throughout the lesson, the teacher will be helping students regulate their participation and understanding through questioning techniques.  At the end of the multi-day lesson, students will be able to synthesize their understanding in a short reflective essay, hopefully clearly describing their understanding of the concept and addressing any challenges they faced in the activity.
I am very pleased with this modified lesson, as I think it will  meet the needs of my diverse learners better than my original lesson did.  As I modified the lesson this week, I was thinking about some specific students who are currently in my class and how they will benefit from these modifications.  I hope to apply these principles more broadly in other lessons that I teach in the future.  Do you have any additional suggestions for modifications? If so, please let me know!
(CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. )