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Universal Design for Learning

Updated: Jul 13, 2021


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an inclusive framework that focuses on the improvement of teaching and learning for all individuals. It is rooted in scientific research regarding effective strategies we can implement to help humans learn. As a program manager for an EFL professional development program, I have found the UDL framework quite interesting and it has really made me think about equity and inclusion for my cross-cultural students.


Why is UDL Important for University Instructors?


CAST created the Universal Design for Learning framework, and it truly makes teaching and learning much more inclusive and life-changing. The UDL guidelines have a clearly outlines set of suggestions that you can apply to your classroom, course, and lesson planning. The three main domains within the UDL framework are Engagement, Representation, as well as Action and Expression. I will summarize each section briefly as it relates to teaching effectiveness and the reasoning behind each domain in the framework.

Engagement


This part of the framework has to do with the motivation to learn. It is very interesting because in my SLS and Leadership courses I always speak about motivating factors and how they affect decision-making. I like to create many classroom discussions, where we can all hear one another and explore what motivating factors exist for my students. I have learned that as a professor, it is very important for me to be a good listener. This was I can best serve my students, because I will know who they are. Engagement is strongly connected to learning and students all have differing motivators to learn. Many things can actually affect someone's desire to learn and grow; their culture, if the subject feels relevant to them, their existing background knowledge on the subject, and many other factors. In my own experience as a professor, I have noticed many of my students enjoy the spontaneity of group work and exciting class discussions, while others seem to enjoy a more concrete routine with less social interaction. Not all students are even motivated to learn in the same manner, whether they are domestic or international students. There isn't one form of engagement that is applicable to all learners in every context, therefore, according to the UDL framework, it is vital to create an atmosphere where multiple options for engagement are available to your students.


Representation


In my nine years of teaching in universities as well as colleges, I have noticed that learners also differ in the ways they comprehend information that is presented to them. Some of my students have had certain sensory disabilities such as deafness or learning disabilities such as dyslexia. I have also taught many students from different countries from all over the world with language and cultural differences. Given the broad spectrum of differences that exist within my students, even all within the same class at times, it is clear that there will be a multiple of ways in which my students interact with the information being taught and they may have different ways of approaching the course content. Some of my students understand material quite quickly with visual or auditory techniques rather than solely printed text. In this part of the three domains for UDL, it focuses on how the transfer of learning occurs when multiple representations are used to accommodate varying students. There is no one means of representation for all students, so providing various options for representation is a priority.


Action and Expression


Another domain within the UDL framework is Action and Expression. This domain focuses on how learners are different in how they navigate a learning environment and express what they understand. In my personal experience, students who are language learners may at times be able to express themselves well in written assignments but not so much during classroom discussions or oral presentations. When I worked at LindaMood Bell Learning, I taught international students of all ages how to effectively read and speak the English language via individualized instruction, including students previously diagnosed with dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, and general learning challenges. I know first-hand how different strategies are necessary for increasing verbalization skills for language comprehension, thinking, and expression and how Socratic questioning method aid students in the development of language and literacy skills. Students with significant movement impairments such as cerebral palsy, or those who struggle with executive function disorders differ in their expression of learned material. According to the UDL framework, there is not one means of action and expression that will be perfect for all learners and providing different options for my students to navigate the learning environment and express their mastery of knowledge is essential.


Of course the framework goes deeper into how to create diverse environments for learning. Perhaps I will write a UDL Part 2 blog that goes into more detail regarding these techniques. Overall, I absolutely love this framework and I highly enjoy how the UDL framework allows for customization of instructional goals, assessments, methods, and materials to meet individual student needs. As a professor who specializes in diverse populations, I love how it honors differences and makes diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority in the classroom.



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