Using Universal Design for Learning to Help all Students Succeed

By Dr. Michele Larson


Based on the education statistics, I should never have made it this far. The fact that I have multiple graduate degrees makes me an anomaly. Not because I was raised in poverty (which I was), but because as a person with a learning disability the odds were stacked against me. Although 68% of high school students with learning disabilities currently earn a high school diploma (which is roughly 20% lower than for their peers without learning disabilities), only 34% of undergraduates with learning disabilities successfully earn an undergraduate degree (compared to 56% for their peers without learning disabilities; Krupnick 2014) and even fewer pursue a graduate degree.

Of those students with learning disabilities that pursue college, only a fraction (17%) seek support for their learning disability in college (although 94% had accommodations in high school; Krupnick 2014). Reasons for not seeking accommodation include identifying as independent of disability status, fear of being seen as lazy or unintelligent, expectation of negative responses from instructors, underestimating a need for accommodation, lack of information on accommodation provided by the college or university, and costs associated with testing (Corcoran and Chard 2017).  I did not seek out accommodations for my learning disabilities in college because of the costs associated with re-diagnosis of my condition (estimated at ~$4,000 and not covered by insurance), lack of accommodations given at the time (I earned my BS in 2001), and the desire to complete college without assistance. Although I found ways to manage my learning disability and succeed in college, many of our students are not coping well especially with our current world situation and the need for online learning. So, what can be done? How do we help struggling students (whether due to a learning disability or other disadvantages)?


The Fundamentals of Universal Design for Learning

One method to increase student learning, especially for underrepresented and marginalized groups including students with learning disabilities, is to create courses using Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  Universal Design for Learning is a framework used to design courses that are highly accessible to most students by following three key principles: 1) multiple means of engagement; 2) multiple means of representation; and 3) multiple means of expression (Rose et al. 2006, Capp 2017, Chandler et al. 2017, Boothe et al. 2018). The principle of multiple means of engagement includes providing options for increasing student interest in the topics, allowing students different methods for interacting with the content during class, and helping students develop self-regulating behaviors (Chandler et al. 2017). The principle of multiple means of representation provides students different ways to interact with the content by providing resources that utilize different sensory systems (podcast for audio content, lecture for audio and visual presentation of information, narratives to help students integrate ideas, diagrams or other graphics for visualization of content, and hands-on activities for tactile experiences; Chandler et al. 2017). The final principle, multiple means of expression, allows student multiple ways to express what they have learned on a topic (Chandler et al. 2017). Because not all students excel at writing, many students that understand concepts may be penalized due to their limited writing skills on essays or other written assessments. Thus, incorporating a variety of different types of formative and summative assessments into a course increases the ability for students to demonstrate their learning. In many instances, a single addition to a course can fall into more than one of these principles depending on how the resource is used by the students. So, let us look at each of these principles and how to integrate them into college courses.

Multiple means of engagement allows students different methods for engaging with the course material. Methods for implementing multiple means of engagement include aligning course objects to assignments, allowing time for students to work and apply concepts during class (often termed “guided practice” as the instructor is able to assist students as they work on problems), providing alternative sources of content (YouTube videos, additional reading, etc.), using real-world scenarios or case studies to provide context for ideas, providing additional class materials (study guides, examples, rubrics, class notes, etc.), designing and incorporating different types of active learning strategies into the class, and creating frequent assessments that are well aligned to the course objectives. By designing courses with multiple means of engagement, students learn not only the content (due to have many methods for interacting with the ideas presented), but also develop collaborative skills (through group work and other active learning strategies) and learn how to find and access resources (whether directly via guided research projects or indirectly by seeing all the different types of resources available; Chandler et al. 2017). One key aspect of this principle is that not only are materials easily accessible, but also that the instructor be accessible to students by having multiple ways for students to contact and interact with them (via email, Zoom meetings, after class, etc.).

The second principle, multiple means of representation, focuses on explicitly stating learning outcomes, giving students multiple ways to acquire the information in the course, providing student choice, and offering prompt feedback on assignments (Boothe et al. 2018). It is important in UDL to not only align your learning outcomes to the assignments and assessments in the course, but also to share these learning objectives with students. By sharing the learning objectives, students have a better idea of what they will be learning and what they will need to do with the content. In addition to the learning objectives being explicitly stated, having multiple formats (videos, podcasts, written notes, additional readings, etc.) for the content allows students the opportunity to interact with the information in many ways (Boothe et al. 2018). Thus, increasing the likelihood that they will find a method that works best for their learning. Furthermore, assignments can be designed to allow students choices when selecting the topic or another aspect of the assignment to increase student autonomy and promote student interests. And finally, any assignment that is assigned to students should be returned promptly with feedback. However, the form of the feedback does not need to be written as multiple mean of representation can be extended to the methods used to provide feedback (Boothe et al. 2018).

For multiple means of expression, the key is having different ways for students to show their learning of the course materials. This can occur for both formative and summative assessments, can incorporate aspects of student choice, and should include prompt feedback (Boothe et al. 2018). Often, these types of assessments allow students to select from a list of possible products to show their learning (see example assignment sheet). When creating assessments with opportunities for multiple methods of expression, it is critical that the assignment be well defined with details on what is required as well as examples and grading rubrics provided (Boothe et al. 2018). Also, any aspect of student choice incorporated into the assessment should be a real choice with all possible choices graded equitably using the rubric (and not requiring students to guess at which choice is preferred by the instructor).


Research Supporting Universal Design for Learning

By incorporating these three pillars of UDL into college courses, studies have shown increases in student learning and student perceptions of course accessibility. In a meta-analysis of nine studies using pre- and post-surveys to assess learning, courses that offered multiple ways for students to interact with the content (multiple means of representation) showed increased student retention of content (Capp 2017).  In another study, four additional tools (PowerPoints slides, lecture notes, clickers, and MindTap) were incorporated into traditional lectures in a large introductory business course (with 600 students) to increase the methods of representation of the topics covered in the course (Dean et al. 2017). The results showed that students perceived these additional resources as highly effective for their learning and the use of MindTap (an optional online program used outside of class) showed higher levels of student learning than clickers (used in class), but MindTap was less likely to be used by minorities (Dean et al. 2017). In a smaller nursing course (with 50 students), the redesign of the course to incorporate all three principles of UDL resulted in students reporting increased interactions with course materials, increased feelings of control over their own learning, lower perceived levels of stress, and increased sense of social presence (students felt their instructor was available and benefited from interactions with the instructor; Kumar and Wideman 2014). Although more quantitative studies are needed to assess the different aspects of UDL, these studies and other like them are strong indicators that UDL can benefit all students especially those from minority or marginalized backgrounds.


Implementing UDL in College Classes

I have been modifying my courses over the last two years to incorporate many of the aspects of UDL. First, let me stress that when you decide to create courses using the guidelines of UDL, it is best to focus on adding a few aspects and then slowly over time incorporating more items. It can be extremely overwhelming if you try to completely change any course to have all aspects of UDL. Be patient with yourself, ask students what is working for them, keep these aspects and then modify those that do not seem to be as helpful to student learning, and then add new aspects until you have created a UDL course.

The first step in the UDL process is to revisit, and if necessary, revise your course learning objectives. Once you have a list of the learning objective (which can also be called learning outcomes), you need to assess each topic, activity, and assessment through the lens of these objectives to ensure that your activities have purpose and that your assessments (both formative and summative) are measuring student learning with regards to the learning objectives. For my courses, which are taught by different instructors depending on the semester, the learning objectives are well formulated, so I only needed to ensure that my activities, assignments, and assessments aligned (which is not a small task) with these objectives. During this process, it is important to evaluate all activities, assignments, and assessments without bias. We often have fun activities that we want to keep, but if these activities do not align with the learning objectives, then these activities need to be eliminated or redesigned to make them more relevant for the course.

Next, determine which aspect of UDL you feel the most comfortable incorporating into your class. For some, this may be adding new methods for delivery of content (multiple means of representation) while for others redesigning your assessments (multiple means of expression) may feel like a better starting point. Because my courses already contained many methods for presenting and representing the content (interactive lectures, multiple types of active learning strategies, lab activities, etc.), I focused on incorporating multiple means of expression into my courses. I evaluated the major assignments in my courses and determined methods for increasing the ways students could demonstrate their learning. Many of these assignments already incorporated student choice regarding the topic students selected for the project, but I want to expand the number of ways students could show what they had learned on the topic. So, in addition to the traditional research paper, I add two other types of products that students could create to show their learning: video presentation and artwork (see example assignment sheet). Over time the requirements for these products have been refined to provide more structure (including a single rubric that explicitly states how different aspects of the assignments are graded) and students have stated that they enjoy having the opportunity to use different methods for showing their learning on these assignments. And an unintended outcome has been my own increased interest and pleasure when grading these projects. I have had many outstanding projects turned in especially in the video presentation and artwork categories.

More recently, I have begun to add additional resources to my courses to aid in student learning. I know offer my lectures as videos and provide students with access to the PowerPoint slides as well as guided notes (fill-in the blank notes) to aid in understanding the content in the lecture videos. (Students have the option to use these resources but are not required to use them as many students already have a system for note taking.) I have also incorporated options in homework assignments that allows students to select the sections of the homework that best align with their learning. For each homework assignment, students select two of the three section to complete. Depending on the content topics, the homework assignments usually include one section with study guide type questions, another section that incorporates a drawing or other visual-based assignment, and the third section consists of a case study or other applied type of assignment.

And last, whatever you decide to change, have a way (formally or informally) to assess how students feel about this change and how it influences their learning. I often provide students with multiple opportunities during a semester to evaluate the assignments and different aspects of the course. These surveys are anonymous, but all students that turn-in a survey are given extra credit as an incentive for their participation. It is critical to review the feedback students give in these types of surveys quickly and to report back to students on the results of the survey and your responses to their constructive criticism of the course. Students have reported that this process makes them feel heard and aids in creating a positive classroom climate.

Overall, the research and personal experiences has shown that incorporating Universal Design for Learning into course design can positively influence student learning. And although UDL is often cited as helping underrepresented or marginalized students, the methods that are incorporated into your course design can aid all students in their learning. Using the ideas and practices of UDL has made my courses more equitable, increased my students interests in the course, and created more opportunities for student engagement and learning.



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Chandler, R., J. A. Zaloudek, and K. Carlson (2017). How do you Intentionally Design to Maximize Success in the Academically Diverse Classroom? New Directions for Teaching and Learning DOI 10.1002/tl.20254.

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Dean, T., A. Lee-Post, and H. Hapke (2017). Universal design for learning in teaching large lecture classes. Journal of Marketing Education 39:5-16.

Krupnick, M. (2014). Colleges respond to growing ranks of learning disabled. The Hechinger Report.

Kumar, K. L. and M. Wideman (2014). Accessible by design: applying UDL principles in a first year undergraduate course. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 44:125-147.

Rose, D. H., W. S. Harbour, C. S. Johnston, S. G. Daley, L. Abarbanell (2006). Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 19:135-151.