UDL: A practical guide

A row of female university graduates in gowns leap into the air with joy. The picture indicates their happiness in graduating.There is a myriad of academic papers on the topic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). So it’s good to get some practical assistance from practitioners. A guide from Canada provides a great introduction for newcomers to the topic. The three key areas for designing learning are multiple means of:

    • engagement: the why of learning
    • representation: the what of learning
    • action and expression: the how of learning

The guide begins with a Quick Start, then looks at Opportunities and Challenges, User-Centred Design and Case Studies. It’s titled,  Universal Design for Learning: A Practical Guide.

The guide lives the message with easy to understand text and logical structure. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction: 

“Post-secondary instructors are facing more challenges nowadays because the student population is increasingly diverse. Students with diverse cultural backgrounds, skills, abilities, interests, experiences, and social-economic status require instructors to reflect on their teaching practices and adopt user-centred approaches for course design and delivery. But how do user-centred approaches look like in practice? And how can instructors deliver quality learning outcomes to maximum number of students? Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a curriculum design, development, and delivery framework that could help answer these questions. 

LOL: It’s Funny Until it’s Not

A graphic of a pink cloud with the letters LOL in white.
LOL! Funny, except when acronyms create a barrier to learning.

What is your story of a misunderstood emoji or text message abbreviation? My uncle, upon learning of a significant and upsetting event, signed off his text message with ‘LOL’! Whilst confusing, it was bemusing that he would ‘Laugh Out Loud’ at this unfortunate scenario. Of course, it transpired that he thought LOL stood for ‘Lots of Love’.

Although this example is a simple and funny example of potential barriers to communication, it is symbolic of the challenge some learners face. Symbols, icons, emojis, labels, vocabulary, acronyms, abbreviations, and more are often taken for granted, But they may act as a barrier to learning for some. For reasons including word knowledge, world experience, background, language, context and learning ability, some learners may find such terms or symbols a barrier to accessing meaning.

Small, easy-to-implement strategies have the power to diminish potential barriers for these learners. A range of experimental studies, scholarly articles and studies support the strategies below.

Practical Strategies

CAST recommends the following strategies to minimise potential barriers for some learners;

    • Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols, especially in ways that promote connection to the learners’ experience and prior knowledge
    • Provide graphic symbols with alternative text descriptions
    • Highlight how complex terms, expressions, or equations are composed of simpler words or symbols
    • Embed support for vocabulary and symbols within the text (e.g., hyperlinks or footnotes to definitions, explanations, illustrations, previous coverage, translations)
    • Embed support for unfamiliar references within the text (e.g., domain-specific notation, lesser-known properties and theorems, idioms, academic language, figurative language, mathematical language, jargon, archaic language, colloquialism, and dialect)

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a single, global guide to web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals. Recommendations cover a wide scope and greater detail than those above. Although designed to support creators to make web content more accessible for people with disability, the features are useful options for all learners. Refer to WCAG Guideline 3.1 for information regarding the goal of making text content readable and understandable.

Find more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website.

More Than Meets the Eye

A photo of a woman standing with her back to the camera, looking towards a contemporary painting, suggesting that providing supplementary sources of information to complement visuals can reduce barriers to learning.
There’s more than meets the eye in many visuals. Supporting learners with alternate sources of information reduces barriers to learning. Image by Béla Dudás from Pixabay.

Picture yourself, head cocked, eyes squinting, posing thoughtfully in front of a newly acquired work in your favourite gallery. Overheard, muted voices share their musings on the meaning of the work. At odds with your initial perception, you struggle to make sense of the piece. Reading the print description and listening to the narration on the audio guide provide some insight. You learn there is so much more embodied in the artwork than meets the eye .

Now consider learners for whom visual representations are not accessible. Vision impairments, visual processing disorders, or just difficulties in interpreting visual information all create barriers to learners in accessing information.

Visual information is often complex – representations and relationships between objects, graphics, tables, infographics, illustrations, datasets and more –  lead to difficulty for some in synthesizing and making meaning. Additionally, visuals, such as artworks or symbolic representations often contain multiple meanings. Context, experience and prior knowledge may be required in order to comprehend the intended meaning.

Providing supplementary sources of information to complement visuals reduces barriers to learning.

Practical Strategies

CAST, the home of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recommend the following practical strategies to reduce the barriers to learning that visuals may impose:

    • Provide descriptions (text or spoken) for all images, graphics, video, or animations
    • Use touch equivalents (tactile graphics or objects of reference) for key visuals that represent concepts
    • Provide physical objects and spatial models to convey perspective or interaction
    • Provide auditory cues for key concepts and transitions in visual information
    • Follow accessibility standards when creating digital text 
    • Allow for a competent aide, partner, or “intervener” to read text aloud
    • Provide access to text-to-speech software

Find more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. 

 

Sound Advice!

Sound Advice: ET, the ExtraTerrestrial wrapped in a white blanket standing against a backdrop of a starry night sky.
Sound is fundamental to both films and learning but alternatives or supplementary supports must be provided. Source: Couleur from Pixabay

Did you know, that according to Empireonline.com, an ice-cream cone was used to produce the sound of raptors hatching in the film, Jurassic Park? Or that jelly, popcorn and liver were used to create the sound of ET’s movement in the film of the same name?

Auditory input is integral to most films, so too is it an important part of learning and teaching. It helps explain learning content and express emotion. However, for some learners, processing auditory information is challenging or impractical. Challenges may stem from hearing impairment, competing sources of auditory information (eg background noise, multiple people speaking at the same time, music, etc), the location of the learner (eg on the train), the time it takes to process auditory information or even difficulties with memory, so here is some sound advice!

Practical Strategies

Awareness of these potential barriers allows educators to provide alternatives or supplements to auditory information. Captioning videos is a relatively simple way to allow an alternative to auditory information. Speech-to-text options also serve this purpose. Transcripts of lessons or seminars provide an alternative, too.

To supplement auditory information, enhance learning with visuals. These may include posters, infographics, diagrams, illustrations, photos or notations of music and other sounds. Making use of symbols and emoticons to supplement auditory information is another option. Where required, sign language and braille options must be considered.

Other visual and tactile information serves to supplement auditory information, too. Consider the ‘yellow line’ on a train platform. In addition to announcements over the intercom to stand behind the yellow line, train stations have signage sharing the message and tactile ground surface indicators (the rows of slightly raised circular markers). The provision of auditory, visual and tactile messaging serves to reduce barriers to understanding.

Find more sound advice to reduce barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

Making Learning Accessible

A buffet table filled with a range of small baked good.
Buffets allow for customised meals. How can we apply customisable options for our learners? Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Although not COVIDsafe, one benefit of buffet-style eating is that diners customise their meal to their specific needs or pleasures. The diner controls what options they select in order to benefit from the experience. Similarly, in teaching and learning, learning content must be provided in multiple ways and be as customisable as possible.

Representation in UDL is about making learning accessible by providing multiple ways to grasp skills and understand information.

Representation is the second principle of the Universal Design for Learning framework. It focuses on the goal of developing expert learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable. Representation regards the manner that learning and the transfer and generalisation of learning occur.

To cater to the variability of learners in how they grasp skills and understand information, learning must be represented in multiple ways. Checkpoint 1.1 in the UDL Guidelines focuses on making learning accessible through the way print and digital information is shared and perceived.

Digital information, when created effectively, provides many opportunities for flexibility. Information is controlled by the learner when features such as colour contrast, text size and positioning of pop-outs, for example, are designed to be customisable. Print materials are generally more difficult to adjust due to their static nature. However, consideration when designing, such as ensuring effective contrast, helps minimise some challenges for learners.

Practical Suggestions for Designing Web or Print Content

CAST, the Center of UDL, suggests considering the following aspects in designing digital and/or print materials:

    • The size of text, images, graphs, tables, or other visual content
    • The contrast between background and text or image
    • The colour used for information or emphasis
    • The volume or rate of speech or sound
    • The speed or timing of video, animation, sound, simulations, etc.
    • The layout of visual or other elements
    • The font used for print materials

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a single, global guide to web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals. Its recommendations cover a wide scope and greater detail than those above. Although designed to support creators to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities, the features are useful options for all learners.

Read more about the WCAG or see web content accessibility features in action on the CUDA website.

Self-Regulation Through Self-Assessment and Reflection

An image to depict self-regulation. A man, with his back facing the camera, reflects on his work, pinned on a pinboard in front of him.
Self-regulation techniques include self-assessment and reflection—image by Pexels from Pixabay.

How about asking students what works well in their learning environment? Self-assessment and reflection is a useful strategy to develop self-regulation skills. It’s also motivating and supports the development of personal goals. This strategy links to Checkpoint 9.3 “Engagement” in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles.

CAST explains that individuals vary in their metacognitive abilities. While some learners require explicit instruction and modelling of metacognitive thinking, others will show great skill with this.

For some learners, knowing they are achieving independence in their learning is highly motivating.  Conversely, a loss of motivation occurs for  learners when they cannot see their progress. It is, therefore, important that learners have access to and options for a variety of scaffolds supporting various self-assessment techniques. This provides students with opportunities to identify and select techniques that are favourable for them.

Practical Strategies for Self-Regulation

Recommendations for the types of scaffolds and frameworks to develop self-regulation, as suggested by CAST include, to:

    • Offer devices, aids, or charts to assist individuals in learning to collect, chart and display data. This is taken from their own behaviour for monitoring changes in those behaviours
    • Use activities that include a means by which learners get feedback and have access to alternative scaffolds (e.g., charts, templates, feedback displays).  These must help students see progress in a way that is understandable and timely

Explicit Strategies

For assessment and development of classroom or learning group culture, co-generative reflections are a great opportunity for insight and student agency. These are also known as cogenerative discussions, cogens or action groups.

This strategy involves a small group of students, representing a diverse mix of the learning group. The students come together to make commendations about what is working well in the learning environment. Additionally, the students make recommendations for improvements.

This simple strategy usually takes place outside of the usual learning time. It promotes ownership and agency, giving students a forum and voice. It is an excellent strategy to develop class culture from the inside out.

From experience and feedback from peers, developing student writing is a challenge across all levels of education. Students noting their progress is an effective method to heighten engagement in writing. Writing record charts, also known as writing graphs, is an effective tool.

To use this strategy, implementing a daily or regular writing routine is important. The teacher provides a writing prompt. Students respond by composing text. They then measure their writing achievement. Individual goals can be set, related to, for example, criteria in a rubric, word count, punctuation use or descriptive language. The students tabulate their results and visually note their achievement in the form of a graph. This strategy is appropriate for whole-class use and allows each student to progress at their own pace. It facilitates simple-to-manage individualised goal-setting. Perseverance is inherent in the process, and identifying progress is highly motivating.

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements on the CUDA website.

 

Facilitating Learners’ Coping Skills and Strategies

Image of a child with his arms crossed in front of a chalkboard with muscles drawn on it.
A growth mindset plays a key role in motivation and achievement.

Facilitating learners’ coping skills and strategies are part of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategy to foster engagement and support learner self-regulation. In the CAST UDL framework, Checkpoint 9.2, encourages educators to facilitate learners’ personal coping skills and strategies.

CAST Checkpoint 9.2 suggests educators provide differentiated models, scaffolds and feedback for:

    • Managing frustration
    • Seeking external emotional support
    • Developing internal controls and coping skills
    • Using real-life situations or simulations to demonstrate coping skills, and
    • Appropriately considering judgments of “natural” aptitude (e.g., “how can I improve on the areas I am struggling in?” rather than “I am not good at …”)

Growth mindset

This final point aligns closely with developing a ‘growth mindset. ‘Growth mindset’ is a phrase used ubiquitously in schools and universities. It is based on the work by Standford academic, Carol Dweck. A growth mindset is that which is open to developing talents. Effective strategies, smart and hard work and support from others are valued. Dweck’s work suggests that a growth mindset supports learners (and employees) to achieve more than those who believe their talents are innate. This is called a fixed mindset. Dweck suggests this is due to people with a growth mindset being less concerned with looking smart, rather, diverting that energy into learning.

In her Education Week article, Dweck provides specific examples of language educators use to promote a growth mindset. Examples include:

    • Adding ‘yet’ to the end of a statement concerned with something you are not currently achieving. An example is, “I cannot play this piano piece yet.”
    • Saying words of encouragement along the lines of, “That feeling of that activity being challenging is the feeling of your brain growing,” or
    • “It is not expected you will get this all straight away. Let’s just work on the next step,” or
    • “Learning how to do this problem/activity/strategy grows your brain.”

For students and their teachers

Just as this feedback can be given to our students, so too can educators use it in in their own teaching and learning. A reflective activity is to analyse how you react or respond to, for example, challenges in the day. Are you interested in learning from feedback from students, or is it frustrating? When the learning experience is not going as planned, do you feel exasperated or curious as to how to change it for next time? Dweck encourages educators to, ‘Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them.’

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements on the CUDA website.

Emotions and Motivation in Learning

Wax-On, Wax-Off: Mr Miyagi and Mastery-Oriented Feedback

A still from the movie, The karate Kid, where Mr Miyagi teaches Daniel the 'wax-on, wax-off' routine.
“Wax-on, wax-off.” Working towards mastery. A still from the movie, The Karate Kid. Source: Movieclips on Youtube

“Wax-on, wax off,” the famous explicit instruction began the Karate Kid’s training towards karate mastery. In the film, The Karate Kid, Mr Miyagi, a martial arts master, guides Daniel, his teenage protege, to mastery through instruction and feedback. This feedback ensures Daniel’s karate moves become almost instinctive, enabling him to transfer his skills to new situations. The power of Mr Miyagi’s training and feedback came to the fore in the final scenes of the movie.  Daniel is forced to draw upon all of his skill to face his nemesis in a high-stakes karate tournament. Explicit feedback that developed his ‘wax-on, wax-off’ move pays off!

So what strategies can help every educator be a master teacher when it comes to providing feedback?  Just as Mr Miyagi provided for Daniel, high-quality instruction and specific, regular, timely feedback are crucial to develop our learners to achieve mastery. In his book, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment, George Leonard wrote, “… if you intend to take the journey of mastery, the best thing you can do is to arrange for first-rate instruction. For mastering most skills, there’s nothing better than being in the hands of a master teacher.” 

Recommendations for mastery-orientated feedback

CAST, the home of UDL, recommends the following key steps towards feedback that supports mastery:

    • Impart feedback that encourages perseverance, focuses on the development of efficacy and self-awareness, and encourages the use of specific supports and strategies in the face of challenge
    • Provide feedback that emphasises effort, improvement, and achieving a standard rather than on relative performance
    • Offer feedback that is frequent, timely, and specific
    • Ensure feedback is substantive and informative rather than comparative or competitive
    • Include feedback that models how to incorporate evaluation, including identifying patterns of errors and wrong answers, into positive strategies for future success

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements on the CUDA website.

Collaboration and Community

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

Young adult students collaborating around a paper-based work task.
Collaboration and Community are key to human development.

Darwin celebrates the power of collaboration in this quote. He notes its value in the development of humanity and the animal kingdom. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework also celebrates collaboration as a key to success in supporting learning variability.

Checkpoint 8.3 in the UDL framework focuses on collaboration and community. Whilst communication is more difficult for some, it remains a goal for all learners. Working with peers in a community of learners provides opportunities to learn how to work effectively with others.

Strategies

CAST, the home of UDL, recommends the following strategies to create opportunities to build community and foster collaboration:

    • Create cooperative learning groups with clear goals, roles, and responsibilities
    • Create school-wide programs of positive behaviour support with differentiated objectives and supports
    • Provide prompts that guide learners in when and how to ask peers and/or teachers for help
    • Encourage and support opportunities for peer interactions and supports (e.g., peer-tutors)
    • Construct communities of learners engaged in common interests or activities
    • Create expectations for group work (e.g., rubrics, norms, etc.)

Specific strategies, adaptable to all levels of education, include carousel brainstorming, cogenerative dialogue and the visible thinking routine called Give One, Take One.

Carousel Brainstorming

Conversation, movement and reflection are hallmarks of carousel brainstorming. The strategy provides the opportunity for new learning and consolidation and review. In this strategy, small groups of students rotate through the learning space. They stop at different learning zones for a short time. At each rotation, students activate their prior knowledge related to a given concept. They share their ideas with their peers. Each group records their ideas and understanding at the rotation, which allows subsequent groups to build onto those ideas and reflect further.

This strategy can be adapted easily for online learning, using shareable documents, such as Google docs or breakout rooms in Zoom, for example.

Cogenerative Dialogue

Cogenerative dialogue serves a goal to improve community between learners. The dialogue occurs in small groups, usually between four and six students. Ideally, the groups are composed of a diverse learner group. The students meet, often outside set class times, to discuss and explore opportunities for improvements in the class. This strategy fosters students’ agency and ownership of their learning environments. In schools, cogenerative dialogue may be given alternate names, such as a Student Action Group.

Working together with a common goal to improve the learning experience fosters a positive class culture, building community through collaboration.

Give One, Take One

A scaffolded task promoting collaboration through give-and-take. Students reflect upon and respond to a prompt. They then share one understanding with a peer and take one of their peer’s understanding. This procedure can repeat as much as desired so students can collaboratively build their knowledge and understanding of a concept.

Interested in other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements? You will find them on the CUDA website.