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.

There are more practical, easy-to-implement strategies on reducing barriers to learning 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

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning 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.


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.

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

The ’80s Mix-Tape and UDL

A grey coloured music cassette tape with a yellow label marked, '1983 Mix Tape #3.'
The ’80s mix-tape provided variety to keep listeners engaged. Variety is key to keeping our learners engaged, too.

Who remembers the classic mix-tape? Originating in the ’80s, the mix-tape was a compilation of music usually recorded on a cassette tape. An essential for lovers and road-trips, the mix-tape provided variety, keeping listeners engaged! Taking the mix-tape approach and applying it to learning is the theme of this week’s post. We focus on Checkpoint 8 in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework. It is about engaging and supporting learners to keep motivated. The strategy is to vary learning demands and resources to optimise challenge.

CAST explains that learners vary in their skills and abilities as well as the kinds of challenges that motivate them to do their best work. All learners need to be challenged, but not always in the same way. They need varied levels and types of demands. Learners also need to have the right kinds of resources to successfully complete the task. Creativity allows for many versions on a theme, too. Here are two practical strategies to get started.

Choice Menus

A choice menu is a suitable strategy for learners at any school level or in higher education. A choice menu, also termed a learning menu or choice board, offers a range of options. Learners can choose an option to demonstrate their knowledge of skill. Learner preferences should be included to support learner variability and optimise choice. The requirements of the task can be varied, and so too, the format in which it is completed.

A strengths-based strategy approach supports learners to play to their strengths by selecting a format and medium that will best represent their skill or knowledge. Variety can also be offered in the complexity of the class. Using the idea of ‘menu’ means we can think in terms of simpler bite-size options, meatier main course options, and dessert for extending the learning or assessment.

Flipped Classroom

Flipped classrooms, alternatively referred to as an inverted classroom or blended learning, involves the learner exploring content independently, prior to the lesson with the teacher. The strategy enables students to access a variety of content at their own pace. Less time is required on acquiring knowledge so there is more time to apply the knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. The increased opportunity for interaction heightens engagement and student interest.

This strategy is often undertaken in university study, especially when taken online. Particularly relevant to schools now, too, with the increase in online distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Find further strategies on recruiting interest in learning and promoting student engagement on the CUDA’s UDL page.


Purposeful and Motivated Learners

Two young girls deeply engaged in their learning.
Sustaining focus on the learning goal. Source: Klimkin from Pixabay

To develop purposeful and motivated learners, educators provide multiple ways to engage their learners. One of these ways is to provide options to help learners sustain their effort and persist with their learning. Checkpoint 8 in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework covers this point.

The framework explains that learners require support to remain focused on the goal they are striving towards, and its value. This is the learner to sustain effort and concentration in the face of many distracters. General suggestions, relevant to both school and higher education settings, include:

    • Prompting or requiring learners to explicitly formulate or restate the goal
    • Displaying the goal in multiple ways
    • Encouraging chunking of long-term goals into shorter-term objectives
    • Incorporating the use of prompts or scaffolds for visualising desired outcomes
    • Engaging learners in discussions of what excellence looks like
    • Generating relevant examples that connect to their background and interests

Some specific strategies include Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and rubrics.

Discrete Trial Training

First, Discrete Trial Training. DTT takes a skill and pulls it apart into its basic components. Starting at the most fundamental component, the student learns or acquires that skill (acquisition), practices the skill to mastery (fluency), maintains the skill across time (maintenance) and transfers the skill to a new situation (generalisation).

A technique used in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), DTT has been used for decades in supporting learners with autism. However, DTT is possible to incorporate into any learning setting.

As DTT is concise and provides step-by-step support tailored to develop a skill efficiently, it is useful in supporting students to succeed with small components of a larger goal. Positivity and brevity are key features, making learning, and ultimately goal achievement, more attainable through its step-by-step format, thus supporting the development of purposeful and motivated learners.


Next, rubrics. Most educators will be familiar with rubrics. A rubric is an assessment tool that can also be used to track development through a task. Rubrics are primarily used to collect data on students’ progress related to a specific skill or assessment task. Rubrics support students to understand the requirements of a task, how it will be marked, and most importantly in terms of making learning goals salient, how well the student is progressing toward achievement of the task or skill.

In summary, because rubrics can be used as formative and summative assessment tools, they can be used across the who learning activity/assessment duration to support learners to track their progress, sustain their effort and persist with their learning.

Well-considered rubrics are powerful tools for focusing on goals or outcomes. They can even be co-created with the learner to make the student goals even more salient.

Other strategies to heighten engagement in learning

In previous posts, we have explored tools and strategies to enable educators to recruit students’ interest in their learning. Click the link to read more about these strategies:

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

It’s a veritable feast! Feedback sandwiches, retell burgers and auditory sandwiches.

An illustration of a burger on a pale blue background.
Burgers and sandwiches – foody frameworks to reduce threats in learning.

It’s a veritable feast! Foody frameworks to reduce threats in learning.

Feedback sandwiches, retell burgers and auditory sandwiches – so many options to nourish our learners. Reducing threats and minimising distractions is the goal of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines checkpoint 7.3.  Sandwiches and burgers are some examples that work toward this goal.

The optimal instructional environment offers options that reduce threats and negative distractions for everyone. The aim is to create a safe space in which learning can occur. The CAST UDL guidelines on minimising threats and distractions explains in more detail. Many of their recommendations are suited to school and higher education settings.

Foody Frameworks

First, the feedback sandwich. A feedback sandwich is where specific commentary on an area of improvement is ‘sandwiched’ between two examples of positive feedback. Of course, each piece in the sandwich needs to be genuine and matched to the goals of the exercise. Googling ‘feedback sandwich’ proves the concept to be quite contentious with both strong proponents and opponents. Some opponents suggest the positive feedback is merely praise. To make the feedback meaningful, whether noting positives or focusing on areas of development, it must be specific and communicated clearly.

Next, with a similar ‘sandwiching’ concept is the auditory sandwich. This strategy reduces perceived threat by supporting a learner’s comprehension. Where learners are required to process information using auditory channels, the facilitator provides the verbal information (instruction, direction, new vocabulary), which serves as the bread in the sandwich. The filling represents a visual which is produced after the verbal instruction. After sufficient time to process the visual, the auditory information is provided again. Specific keywords should be stressed or noted through intonation or volume change, for example. Providing multiple means for the student to take in the information reduces cognitive load and supports understanding, thereby reducing ‘threat’.

The final example is ‘retell burger’. This scaffold takes a similar visual approach to support understanding noted in the previous examples. The retell burger is a framework to support students to note key information. There are many variations of this idea, both in terms of the framework and its application to different activities. In one example, the top burger bun is the main idea or key concept, the tasty fillings (onion, tomato, lettuce) are a number of key facts and details or story complication, a hearty cheese slice reminds the student to note the resolution or conclusion, and the bun base rounds out the burger by supporting the learner to make connections or draw conclusions.

Scaffolds and strategies such as these foody frameworks to reduce threats in learning are easily implemented in many learning scenarios. The CAST webpage on mininising threats and distractions lists the following:

    • Create an accepting and supportive classroom climate
    • Vary the level of novelty or risk
      • Charts, calendars, schedules, visible timers, cues, etc. that can increase the predictability of daily activities and transitions
      • Creation of class routines
      • Alerts and previews that can help learners anticipate and prepare for changes in activities, schedules, and novel events
      • Options that can, in contrast to the above, maximise the unexpected, surprising, or novel in highly routinised activities
    • Vary the level of sensory stimulation
      • Variation in the presence of background noise or visual stimulation, noise buffers, number of features or items presented at a time
      • Variation in the pace of work, length of work sessions, availability of breaks or time-outs, or timing or sequence of activities
    • Vary the social demands required for learning or performance, the perceived level of support and protection and the requirements for public display and evaluation
    • Involve all participants in whole-class discussions

Gastronomic delights are specific strategies educators implement to reduce threats in a given learning situation.

To read of other specific strategies to work towards the UDL checkpoint goal of recruiting interest, see our other posts:

IKEA hack to promote student interest and choice: Strategies to optimize individual choice and autonomy.

From Realia to Social Stories: Strategies to optimise relevance, value and authenticity.

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

From Realia to Social Stories

Realia: Woodtype blocks are piled on a table. The word 'love' , created from the typographic blocks stands on top.
Optimise authenticity with realia. Credit: Image by Foundry.

Realia is about using familiar objects and social stories as teaching aids. It applies to all ages and situations: toddlers, school students, higher education and adult learning. Incorporating everyday situations and artefacts into learning experiences increases engagement, value and relevance for learners.

CAST, the home of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) explains:

‘Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their interests and goals. This does not necessarily mean that the situation has to be equivalent to real life, as fiction can be just as engaging to learners as non-fiction. However, it does have to be relevant and authentic to learners’ individual goals and the instructional goals. In an educational setting, one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility and relevance, of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities.’

Strategies used should be inclusive, personalised, relevant and contextualised. So what are some easy to access tools and strategies that enable this goal?

Making use of realia. Realia is the term for describing authentic objects from real-life which are incorporated into learning experiences. A colleague with whom I teach keeps a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ containing realia related to the concepts being explored in the class’ inquiry unit. The realia serves both as a provocation, a tool for engagement and to prompt curiosity and deep questioning. As realia is used to improve students’ understanding of other cultures and real-life situations, related to concepts, it can be incorporated into any age or stage of learning, including tertiary.

Social Stories. Often used for young students but equally relevant for older students and adults with social skill development needs. Social stories are used to teach everyday situations and expectations through narrative. Used in schools and at home, social stories help develop routines or teach social and behaviour expectations, for example.

The information is presented in the format of a story. Personalising the story with the student’s name or image makes it more relevant. It also fosters a deeper connection with the topic. Social narratives are found to be successful in teaching skills to students with autism and attention deficits.

Personalised problems. Making the subject matter relevant to learners’ lives engages learners across all age groups. It helps give meaning to the learning.  Remote online learning during the coronavirus pandemic sparked a wave of creative maths problems based around issues of the pandemic. From word problems related to panic buying to modelling the exponential growth of virus spread, educators were adapting learning to heighten relevance.

These simple strategies are easy to adopt and easy to adapt and can help optimise relevance and authenticity in learning.

A previous post discusses fun strategies for optimising individual choice and autonomy, another UDL engagement checkpoint.