Would you want to be a learner in your classroom? That’s not a trick question—think about it. Perhaps some of the activities and lessons wouldn’t resonate if you were sitting behind a desk listening to them yourself. This may be especially true in classrooms where material is presented in a one-size-fits-all format. After all, the more options students are given to complete assignments, the more likely it is they’ll find one that interests them.
Such an approach is nothing new. Many educators know it as the building blocks behind Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. Developed by CAST, UDL is comprised of three guiding principles that seek to increase engagement and accessibility: Providing learners with multiple means of engagement; representation; and action and expression.
What does that mean: engagement, representation and action and expression? First, engagement looks at ways the learner regulates their learning while sustaining interest, effort and motivation. Representation is focused on how the information is presented to the learner, in order to to promote understanding. Finally, action and expression focuses on the ways the learner can demonstrate their mastery of the subject and respond to the activity.
UDL is not a special ed thing or even a general ed thing. It’s just an ed thing. It is a way to connect every student to the learning experience, and a way at looking at learning that is fully inclusive and promotes success for all learners, regardless of ability.
According to educator and author Todd Rose (watch his TEDtalk The Myth of Average), everyone has a “jagged learning profile.” That is, we have both strengths and weaknesses. Educators who employ UDL principles in their classroom are taking a proactive approach to learning and working to ensure that every learner has the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and use their strengths to be successful. Every student can be an expert in something, and the UDL principles can help them show it.
That’s because the ultimate goal of UDL is to develop expert learners, which CAST defines as “purposeful and motivated; resourceful and knowledgeable; and, strategic and goal directed.”
Intrigued? Let’s dig deeper into the three principles and discuss some real world classroom applications to lead to a more inclusive learning experience for all students.
Let’s start with engagement, or finding ways to motivate learners and promote persistence as they move through the learning activities. Getting students to help design the learning experience can also increase engagement—as can strategies that help them become more invested in what’s being taught.
One tool that demonstrates this idea of engagement is Flipgrid. This free video response tool, recently acquired by Microsoft, allows students to respond to questions through video. Students who may not be comfortable participating in whole-group activities may be more inclined to participate via pre-recorded video. Students can also leave video comments for classmates and engage in deeper discussions.
It’s not all high-tech tools, though. Some no-tech examples of engagement could include using sticky notes as an exit ticket to check for understanding, a daily reflection journal and classroom expectation checklists.
One important thing to remember about engagement is that it’s OK for a learner to disengage during an activity. Think about it: you do that throughout your day, right? You stop an activity to check email or perform another task. The critical component here is fostering an environment that promotes re-engagement. How can I bring a learner back to the activity and provide support to facilitate success?
For many students who learn differently, their days are filed with worksheets and other print materials that they are unable to read. Why not provide some options beyond text to promote understanding?
Providing text in a digital format will increase opportunities for accessibility and flexibility for all learners. Apps like Seeing AI, Claro Scan Pen and Prizmo Go use the camera on your mobile device to take a picture of text and then read it aloud. (Check out this YouTube playlist to see how these tools look in action.)
How about providing an audio recording of the materials? Any audio recording app will work. Look around your school and find an old tape recorder. Make this a classroom job for students to read materials into the recorder and produce audio clips. I have worked in schools where volunteers have created audio materials for students to use. (Would you prefer to listen to this article read by the author? Follow this link to listen to the audio version of the article, which was recorded using Anchor. This free app/web tool can provide a platform for audio recording and podcasting.)
Low-to-no tech examples of representation include teachers posting infographics around the classroom that share important information and using a graphic novel instead of a text-heavy work of fiction. The pictures below show Moby Dick in two very different formats. Both share the same information but each format offers an opportunity to connect with different learners.
Want to create your own digital versions of print materials? One of the most powerful digital creation tools is Book Creator. Available as an iOS app or web-based tool (which works well on Chromebooks), educators or students can create engaging digital books that can feature text, pictures and embedded multimedia through the use of audio and video clips.
Other great tools include KWL charts (a form of graphic organizer), as well as visuals posted in the classroom for vocabulary and writing strategies and manipulatives for math equations.
Action & Expression
As we move into this last focus area of UDL, note that many of the tools and strategies mentioned above can also be used by students to provide options for action and expression. Students can use video as a response to an assignment instead of writing, create a comic strip using a tool like StoryboardThat to complete a writing task or produce an audio podcast. Presentations can be a powerful way for students to share their voice. From Pages to Google Slides to Microsoft Sway, there are plenty of edtech tools available in our classrooms to amplify student voice.
As with the other areas of UDL, technology is not necessary to provide options. Students can draw their own comic strip for a writing task or use a word wall (with words/pictures) to compile work.
These are just some examples of learning options the can be integrated into our learning environments to support all students. There are so many other options we can use to promote inclusive learning environments. Do you have an idea you used in your classroom? Share it via this Flipgrid. Like our students, we all get better when we share.
What are some immediate steps you can take to promote an inclusive UDL learning environment? Be intentional as you design learning experiences. Ask yourself: Am I providing options during this learning experience? You won’t be able to infuse all areas of UDL into every lesson. That’s OK. Start small. Find ways to infuse UDL into learning activities. Build on your successes. And keep moving in a positive direction and watch your students succeed.