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Course Design that Meets More Learners' Needs

Universal Design for Learning offers a flexible framework for students who need extra support.

universal design for learning

At East Carolina University, a quiet revolution is taking place.

Several faculty members are using clickers to keep students engaged and check for understanding. Others are recording their lectures and posting them online for students to review at their own pace, or adding video animations to their lessons to make abstract concepts come to life. A psychology professor gives his students outlines before class, with key concepts left blank for them to fill in while he talks.

This approach "doubles my chances of remembering important information," one student remarked.

ECU is one of three North Carolina universities taking part in a grant-funded project called College STAR, which aims to support students with learning disabilities. These challenges might include dyslexia, dyscalculia and problems with focusing or memory recall, among others.

One way College STAR supports these students is by training faculty and instructional designers in the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for creating flexible learning environments that can accommodate a wide variety of learning styles. The project's goal is to "help our universities be more welcoming places for students with learning differences," said Sarah Williams, principal investigator.

That's an important objective, as research suggests that students with learning disabilities face significant hurdles when they move on to higher education. While 87 percent of students with learning disabilities receive some kind of assistance at the K-12 level, only a small fraction of these students continue to receive support when they get to college. There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy (see "How Colleges Can Better Serve Students with Learning Disabilities"), but learning disability specialists say it highlights the need for colleges to approach their course design in ways that will appeal to the largest possible number of learners — and UDL can help.

Students with learning disabilities are often "anonymous" on college campuses, Williams said, adding: "There are a lot of students with learning differences we just don't know about, because they don't self-disclose. But they can still benefit from an educational environment designed with UDL in mind."

More Flexible Instruction … and Richer Forms of Assessment

UDL calls for instructional approaches that give students multiple means of representation, so they have various ways of acquiring knowledge; multiple means of expression, so they have alternatives for demonstrating what they know; and multiple means of engagement, to tap into their interests, challenge them appropriately and motivate them to learn.

Rather than simply deliver information in a lecture format, for instance, faculty might incorporate video or graphic organizers to help visual learners understand the material. They might make course readings available in multiple formats, including audiobooks. They might "flip" their classroom, having students watch a lecture on their own and using class time to engage students in a discussion of the content. Or, they might find creative ways to assess students' knowledge, like asking them to design a project.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is a leading proponent of UDL, and the organization has launched a Web site with guidance to help campus faculty and administrators tackle this approach.

One of the challenges to adopting UDL in higher education is a lack of centralized decision-making on many campuses. "There are often multiple stakeholders making decisions," said Sam Johnston, a research scientist with CAST. Technology buyers, instructional designers and faculty all need to understand UDL and how to apply it within their institutions, she added.

Allowing students to access course content in a variety of ways is a good start, but it's only the first step, Johnston said: Faculty and administrators also must explore richer forms of assessment. "We're still using multiple choice for assessment because it's expedient, but it's not effective for a large number of people," she said. For many students, recalling facts can be a challenge; for others, when they sit down to take a multiple-choice exam, "you're getting a better read on their anxiety than on their skills."

Faculty should give students a range of options for demonstrating their knowledge, Johnston said, such as creating an artifact, performing a task or even completing a simulation.

The San Francisco company Forio offers a platform for universities to build their own simulations, and many business schools — including Harvard Business School (MA) and the Wharton School of Business (PA) — have partnered with Forio to develop simulations as part of their curriculum.

If colleges aren't offering a wide range of assessments, they aren't going to get an accurate picture of their students' true abilities, Johnston said. "If all we're doing is throwing the same form of assessment in front of all students again and again, we're going to be constantly remediating a certain population of students," she said, "when maybe what we need to do is find some different approaches. We might find they actually know more about the topic than we're giving them credit for."

She added: "You can improve the classroom environment … but at the end of the day, people are passing or failing based on how they're assessed."

"It's Okay to Try One Thing at a Time"

Another challenge to implementing UDL in higher education is that few faculty members have been trained in how to teach students with learning disabilities.

"They're at a different starting point," Williams said of college faculty.

North Carolina's College STAR project seeks to "meet faculty where they are," she said, with online communities of practice designed for instructors at varying stages of implementation. Some have redesigned entire courses to make them more accessible, while others are just beginning the process.

For those just beginning, it's perfectly acceptable to start small, Williams reassured. "It's okay to try one thing at a time," she said. "Is there a new instructional practice that you've heard about that you'd like to investigate in your classroom? Or, is there a specific problem that you really want to look at, like increasing engagement?" The online communities of practice are places where faculty can share ideas, successes and lessons learned as they experiment with UDL in their courses.

The College STAR Web site also contains modules on topics such as flipping one's classroom, creating a welcoming learning environment and implementing game-based learning. And College STAR offers in-person training for faculty, Williams said — especially new instructors to make sure they're aware of the issue.

Besides ECU, other project participants are Appalachian State University (NC) and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. College STAR's organizers hope to expand their efforts throughout the UNC system if they can secure more funding.

In leading a UDL revolution in North Carolina, College STAR is following the example of the California State University system, whose EnACT program (Ensuring Access through Collaboration and Technology) includes a component called UDL-Universe. Like College STAR, this program supports college faculty as they weave UDL into their course design.

UDL "can be done in a college setting," Williams said. "It just takes time." It also involves changing the culture of an institution.

She concluded: "We've been thrilled with the response from faculty and students across our campuses. Faculty want to do right by their students. They want to help their students be successful, and they're hungry for ideas."

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