Filling a Balloon with Water

A leaking water-filled balloon.
A leaky bag filled with water serves as an analogy for the pressure on the working memory. Image: 77 Fotos

The challenge of working memory. Imagine filling a balloon with water. Keeping the balloon open whilst pouring in the water is challenging. As capacity is reached, excess water spills over, even going in many directions. If the balloon is degraded by sunlight, or has sustained a small hole, the water seeps out. This is like our working memory. Too much input, competing sources of information and limited capacity affect its ability to manage and manipulate complex information.

Working memory is a key element of executive function. It is crucial to learning, reasoning and making sense of the world. CAST explain that working memory is limited for every learner, but can be further limited in learners with learning difficulties. So, what can we do to support learners?

Key Strategies to Support Memory

All of the following strategies are taken from Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S. from Powerful Teaching.

Retrieval practice

“Retrieval practice” is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out. Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. Retrieval practice is a powerful strategy for improving academic performance without more technology, money, or class time.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice involves taking a given amount of time devoted to learning, and arranging that time into multiple sessions that are spread over time. In this way, the learning sessions are said to be “spaced” apart in time. Contrast this with cramming, where learning is conducted in a short, massed manner.


Interleaving supports learning by mixing related concepts, therefore encouraging students to discriminate between approaches or similaraties or differences, for example. Often used in maths, practice problems are interleaved if the maths problems are arranged so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by the same strategy.


Feddback-driven metacognition develops students’ cognition of what they know, and what they don’t. It can be valuable in guiding students’ decision-making when learning, applying and transferring skills or strategies.

Future posts will explore practical strategies related to each of these concepts. They will be linked to this post once released.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous UDL File posts. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Strategy and Planning for the Win

A child's hand moving a chess piece.
Strategy and planning for the win. Image: Anna Ventura

A business-owner friend in a professional occupation recently shared lessons from the field. Laughing as she spoke, my friend commented that it was a good place to be, when now she could look back and laugh at the chaotic, out-of-control experiences from which she learnt. She regaled me with stories of staff members who consistently operated outside of best practice and far beyond the desired culture of her business.

‘But how did it get to that?’ I queried.

With honesty and courage, my friend acknowledged that her business culture was neither explicit, nor regularly referenced, nor was any staff member addressed when breaches were made. She knew what she wanted from her colleagues and business life, but had not developed a strategy to ensure this nor planned for its success.

This intelligent, dedicated, often inspiring friend felt frustration and defeat. The business was floundering.

Think, now, about learners. In a previous post, guidance for student goal-setting was highlighted. For effective learners, after setting their goals, they will formulate a plan or develop a strategy to achieve their goal. But what of students with compromised executive function? Or those who learn a completely new skill or in a new field? Or those who are yet to develop their executive function?

To avoid feelings of being defeated by the goals or floundering trying to work towards the goals, principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) help. By providing phased scaffolding, educators support the development of strategic planning.

Practical Strategies

    • ‘Think alouds’, where the teacher explicitly talks through the strategy they are using, models strategic thinking.
    • A ‘traffic light’ prompt, embedded throughout different phases of the learning process guides students as to the pace of their work. Red means stop-and-think. Explain that the students need to plan a strategy to achieve the goal. In this scenario, the orange light signifies action towards the goal that is reviewed regularly to ensure the strategy is appropriate. The green light signifies the plan is moving the students effectively towards their goals, encouraging the student to continue with the plan.
    • Scaffolds, templates and checklists support the development of a plan at each stage of the process. Scaffold support for determining the goal or problem. Scaffold support for setting priorities and determining milestones. And, scaffold support for determining each step of the task, the resources required and ways to identify achievement of the step.

As for my friend – with support, she developed a culture and staff strategy and now her business hums – staff who share her vision, clients who benefit from clear and rigorous best practice procedures, and a business owner who feels immense job satisfaction, and who is an effective and inspiring leader. Strategy and planning for the win!

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous posts from Lizzie’s UDL File. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Teach a Child to Fish

Goal setting flowchart
Scaffold the goal-setting process to support learners’ executive function. Image: Gerd Altman.

Give a child a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a child to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. Adapted from Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s novel Mrs Dymond, this adage rings true when developing students’ goal-setting skills.

It’s possible there’s not an educator in the country who hasn’t asked students to set goals or who sets goals for students in some capacity – a lesson intention or an Individual Education Plan (IEP) goal, for example. There lies an intrinsic understanding that goal-setting supports achievement. However, when a teacher creates a goal for a student, it is akin to giving a student a fish. It denies the student the opportunity to develop goal-setting skills and strategies that they can develop and use throughout their lives. But for many students, articulating meaningful goals that lead to achievement is very challenging, especially when the student has difficulties with their executive function. So, how do educators develop goal-setting skills in students?

CAST’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework recommends processes for students to set personal goals that are simultaneously challenging and achievable.

Teach a Child to Fish – Scaffold it, model it, guide it and mirror it!

Scaffold the goal-defining process. The well-known SMART goal acronym serves as a simple scaffold to plan goals. In addition to the goal itself, guide students to estimate the effort inherent in achieving the goal.  Consider the resources required and the accessibility of these resources. Additionally, encourage students to assess the difficulty of the goal – is it challenging enough to move them forward and gain a sense of fulfilment from its achievement? Is it attainable, given appropriate effort and resourcing?

Throughout the goal creation process, model writing or otherwise documenting task-focused goals. These are goals that have an intrinsic focus on learning and improving, as opposed to rating performance or competing against others. Provide concrete examples of not only the product of achieving the goal but also the goal-setting process.

Support students with organisation tools, such as guides and checklists for tracking not only the construction of their goals but also to schedule and monitor progress.

Highlight the goals. Make them obvious and valued. Post the goals and goal-tracking schedules around the learning space. Reference them regularly and provide explicit feedback on the process of goal attainment.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website or in the CAST UDL framework.

See previous posts from Lizzie’s UDL File.

UDL to Support Executive Function

Illustration of brain filled with small images of objects.
UDL-informed scaffolds support executive function. Image: John Hain.

Engaging the working memory, using self-control, managing time and thinking flexibly are some of the mental capabilities described by the term ‘executive function’. Every day, these capabilities are drawn upon to engage productively with learning or working and to succeed in everyday life. Being intrinsically linked to success in the every day, difficulties with executive function make it challenging to focus and remain on task, to follow directions, and to manage emotions.

How can we support students’ executive functioning and what has it got to do with UDL?

Many educators are familiar with the notion of cognitive load. When teaching reading, for example, the goal is for the reader to comprehend the text. However, if a student is unable to accurately and fluently read the text, comprehending it is all the more difficult. As such, teaching reading with a strongly scaffolded systematic and explicit approach, that combines foundational and supporting skills is essential. Once decoding automaticity is gained, the brain can expend its energy on understanding.

The same is true for supporting a student’s executive function. When a student’s energy is expended on accomplishing low-level, low-impact tasks, the working memory is not available to focus on higher-order functioning skills.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) plays its role in a number of ways.  One way is through scaffolding lower-level skills, in order to remove the executive processing ‘brain drain’ of such skills. Many of the practical, easy-to-implement strategies for such scaffolding are suggested in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website or in the CAST UDL framework.

The other rung of support is through scaffolding strategies to support higher-level executive skills in order for them to develop more effectively. Upcoming posts will explore UDL-informed strategies to support goal-setting, planning, managing resources and self-monitoring.


Scaffolding and Strong Foundations

Building scaffolding
Scaffolding is required to activate prior knowledge, link new to existing information and connect different ideas. Image: Hans Braxmeier.

From sketch design to fully-realised dream, construction is a complex process. Creating a building from scratch requires appropriate scaffolding from the outset. Strong foundations then underpin the structure, allowing the building schema to take shape as a built form.

Not dissimilarly, learners require a number of ‘structures’ to build their knowledge and skills toolkit. Some require extensive scaffolding to shore up their educational schema, whilst others require liberties in the design of their learning to allow them to extend their thinking and advance mastery.

Regardless of the schematic development process for learners, they require opportunities to express their learning. Like a site visit to sign off on a stage of building production, learners need to perform or express and act on their learning at each stage.

Practical Strategies

Scaffolding: ensure adequate scaffolding is in place for the individual needs of each student. As mastery of a skill is gained, phase the level of scaffolding. An example of this is when segmenting sounds as part of learning to read. The student may initially use Elkonin boxes or ‘sound buttons’ to identify sound-letter correspondence. As the learner moves towards mastering segmentation, reliance on the scaffolds is released.

Guides: Students respond differently to different teachers and their interpersonal skills and teaching styles and methods. Exposing students to a range of teachers or learning mentors increases opportunities for students to make sense of their learning. An example of this is a peer tutoring or support program. Learning from, or practising with a peer provides a different perspective, potentially rewarding the learner with a new or deepened understanding.

Models and demonstrations: Another post in Lizzie’s UDL Files discusses the value in students being encouraged to communicate their learning through different modes. The same is true in teaching new concepts. There are very many ways in which most concepts can be demonstrated or modelled. Making use of a range of models increases the chance of a student finding a model that supports their schema-building. An example is in the teaching the multiplication facts. When using concrete materials to model, demonstrate using region models, arrays, physical jumps on a number line and physical grouping of objects.

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. You can read more about UDL Checkpoint 5.3, Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.


Toolkits for Action and Expression

Tools to support learner action and expression.
Build learners’ toolkits through broad opportunities for students to action and express their learning. Image by Slon Pics from Pixabay.

The third Universal Design for Learning principle, to provide multiple means for action and expression, considers options for the ways in which learners act upon and express their learning. Checkpoint 5.2 encourages educators to consider the tools learners use to build their toolkits for action and expression.

As educators, we are required to prepare our students for active participation in the world. CAST, the home of UDL, advise that providing access to more contemporary tools:

    • supports learners to be more prepared for their future
    • broadens the scope of content and methods that can be used in the teaching and learning process
    • increases opportunities for learners to express their knowledge and understanding
    • removes some of the barriers to learning that some students face, opening the door to success for a wider range of learners

Practical Strategies

Maths-related tasks: Provide either virtual or tangible manipulatives for students to construct their learning. Suggestions include MAB (Base Ten blocks), counters, algebra blocks, geoboards, number rods, abacus or Rekenrek. Students may also access, for example, a maths dictionary, graph paper and calculators.

To support language and written expressions tasks: Provide access to software that supports reading, spelling and writing success, including, for example, predictive text options, spelling and grammar checkers, text-to-speech and speech-to-text software. Other tools include any scaffolding tool, such as concept-maps, Venn diagrams, KWL charts, outline guides. Writing prompts, such as sizzling starts or sentence strips are valuable options.

For design and arts-based tasks: area-specific computer-assisted technologies, such as design layout software, editing and illustration applications, notation programs for music or maths, building or engineering software are some examples.

For expressing knowledge and understanding, generally: opportunities for video presentations, animations, infographics, creating wikis or a huge range of other web applications build a student’s repertoire of tools for acting on and expressing their learning.

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website.

UD, UDL, Accessibility and Ableism

A graphic showing a laptop with a green screen and several smart phones around it also with green screens. It is indicating that they are all connected.Access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic became even more problematic for some users as everything went online. So what can UD, UDL and Accessibility do to help to combat ableism?

An article by John L. O’Neill discusses Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning and Inclusive Design. In this context, the concept of Inclusive Design has a focus on the digital world. He covers the history of each, much of which will be known to UD followers. O’Neill argues that all three can be combined in innovative ways to ensure access to information. This is logical because each has the same goal – inclusion. He uses a case study where he merges the UD principle of perceptible information, the tenet of multiple means of representation from UDL, and adaptive systems from Inclusive Design. This perspective is given the title of “Abilities Design”.

O’Neill claims ableism underpins barriers and that undoing ableism is not a form of charity. Legislation that requires access and accessibility does little to change ableist attitudes.

The title of the article is, Accessibility for All Abilities: How Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design Combat Inaccessibility and Ableism

Editor’s Note: I am not sure that inventing another design category based on inclusion takes us any further forward. However, it is an example of how designers new to inclusive concepts can use existing frameworks to help their design process.

From the Abstract

Discussions about accessibility surged at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as people became more dependent on accessing information from the web. This article will explore different disability models to understand the oppression of people with disabilities. It will examine how the different principles and methods of Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design can be combined in innovative ways to ensure that all citizens have access to information without barriers.

There is More Than One Way to Peel a Potato

Potatoes and a knife.
There is more than one way to peel a potato – provide opportunities for students to express their learning through a range of communication modes. Image: Sonja Paetow.

There is more than one way to peel a potato. A comical idiom to explain there is more than one way to achieve the goal. This is the theme of UDL checkpoint 5.1, which is about multiple means of communication.

There is no single method of communication that works for all students to express their knowledge and understanding. Rather, only some methods will work for some students in some learning situations. While some learners express themselves with great clarity through the medium of art. But when it comes to written composition, for example, they may face a barrier in communication.

As such, educators must provide alternatives for students to express themselves. This  provides a way for the student to communicate their skills, knowledge and understanding of the learning. It also reduces intrinsic bias against or towards students who do not or do possess skill in a single-mode-of-expression only option.

There may be times when a specific method, mode, or skill is required to communicate learning. In order to manage this, consider the following process.

The Process

    • Define the learning goal
    • Identify the non-negotiables
    • Support a range of methods for the student to communicate their learning

Options for Students to Communicate Learning

Physical communication methods:

    • installations, sculptures, dance or other body movements
    • demonstrations, plays, theatre show
    • presentations, such as video or in-person

Visual communication methods:

    • movies, storyboards, animations
    • drawings/illustrations/diagrams, photos, animations, infographics
    • montages or collages, models, sculpture, touch-displays
    • games, brochures, digital presentations, websites
    • social media post threads

Auditory communication methods:

    • podcasts or audio clips
    • compositions, including music, songs, poems
    • voice avatars, such as Lyrebird or Voice Changer
    • surveys, case studies, interviews

Find other practical, easy-to-implement strategies for incorporating UDL strategies into learning engagements in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. 

Avoid Unintended Barriers Accessing Assistive Technology

An image of a braille keyboard and an audiobook keyboard.
Alternative keyboards, including braille keyboards, and audiobook players assist in reducing barriers to accessing technology.

Have you ever been given a tool or a piece of technology with the promise of it making life simpler…only to find it adds more complexity to your life because you just don’t know how to use it?

Consider the needs, then, of our learners using assistive technologies to access learning who may face unintended barriers. Being aware of some practical strategies to avoid inadvertently building more barriers to access learning through assistive technology is beneficial.

For anyone frustrated with an unresponsive program on their device, it is likely the keyboard command ‘Ctrl-Alt-Delete’  will come to the rescue. Having keyboard commands as alternatives to mouse functions supports accessibility. Therefore,  provide alternate keyboard commands for mouse actions.

To improve access for learners and ensure students have alternatives to using a keyboard, deploy switch and scanning options. With the click of a switch, switch control assists uses to, for example, enter text, select from menus and move the cursor. Switch control is available in the ‘accessibility’ menu of many computers.

For keyboard users with physical, sensory, or cognitive challenges, standard keyboards pose functional barriers. Depending on your learner’s needs, AbilityNet highlights the following alternatives to standard keyboards:

      • ergonomic keyboards
      • smaller, compact keyboards
      • separate numeric keypads
      • keyboards with larger keys
      • high-contrast keyboards
      • early learning keyboards
      • more specialist keyboards – Braille, chording and expanded devices
      • typing without a keyboard

Spectronics provide information regarding a range of on-screen keyboards to limit or remove barriers to computer use stemming from a range of physical or cognitive challenges.

Tactile feedback overlays added to touch screens can improve their accessibility to vision-impaired users. Microsoft’s touchplates are tactile guides that provide tactile feedback for touch screens. Touchplates are physical guides that overlaid on the screen that are recognised by the underlying computer application. Additionally, customised overlays for touch screens and keyboards provide support for interacting with large touch screens or accessing spatial data. Read more regarding the challenges with touchscreens faced by vision-impaired users, and some overlay options.

Implementing the above practical strategies could go a long way in supporting access when using assistive technologies. Be sure that any software selected for use works flawlessly with the tools!

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

Simple Solutions Sometimes Overcome Physical Barriers to Learning

A student writing with the aid of a pencil grip.
Low-tech adjustments can support learners to overcome physical barriers to learning. Image by ePhotographyAustralia.

The third pillar of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines urges educators to provide learners with multiple means of action and expression. This pillar recognises that there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners. Whether due to a physical, cognitive, learning or preferential impact, learners ability and interest in expressing their knowledge and skills differ.

Guideline 4 relates to physical activity. Within this guideline, there are two checkpoints. We explore Checkpoint 4.1 in this post. Checkpoint 4.1 provides guidance on varying the methods students use for responding to and navigating the physical environment.

Practical Strategies

For motor skills that may serve as a physical barrier to learn, consider, multiple methods of achieving the outcome. For example, if writing is impacting access, a range of low-tech or high-tech alternatives are available:

Low-tech solutions can be used for a multitude of barriers:

Adaptive scissors, for example, can remove a potential barrier for some students.

A range of seating options are available to manage a student’s seating position and sensory input  – wobble stools, cushioned seating, adjustable height seating are some examples.

If the writing surface is problematic, consider alternatives – paper quality and size and mini-whiteboard choices can help.

Investigate writing implements – is the pen or pencil troublesome – can a longer/shorter, thicker/thinner/triangular, less inky/smoother flowing tool assist? Would the student benefit from a pen/pencil grip?

Consider the input source. For example, is the text large enough? Is it supported with adequate graphics to support understanding? Are manipulatives of adequate size and weight for the task?

Higher-tech options include assistive technologies that support physical access to learning.

The use of computer technologies can be helpful. Within such access, deeper layers of support can be implemented, including keyboard adaptions, eye-gaze communication, speech-controlled input and adaptive switches.

In addition to providing multiple means for the student to act on their learning and express themselves physically, also consider the barriers to learning that may be met by a student facing physical barriers. CAST, the home of UDL, recommend providing alternatives in expectations surrounding work rate, timing allocated to tasks, speed of task completion, and extent of the physical requirements involved in interacting with learning materials, manipulatives and other equipment, and technologies involved in the lesson.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.