Universal design for learning – A lens for better learning and

Universal design for learning – A lens for better learning
and instruction in higher education
Dr. Frances (Fran) G. Smith, CVE is an adjunct professor with the
Department of Special Education and Disability Studies at George
Washington University, Washington, DC, USA and an
Independent Education Consultant based in Richmond, VA. Dr.
Smith was a 2011-12 Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Fellow
with CAST and Boston College Lynch School of Education. She has
offered numerous presentations on UDL throughout the US and
internationally since 2002. She has taught graduate coursework
in UDL at GW University since 2003. In her previous employment she has worked as a
vocational evaluation practitioner, assistive technology trainer and practitioner, and
college instructor. Previously, Dr. Smith worked at Virginia Commonwealth University
(VCU) in Richmond, VA, and shared her UDL expertise through VCU’s Centers for
Teaching Excellence and with faculty, staff, and technology experts to raise awareness
and understanding. Her current research and consulting interests focus on UDL in
higher education, college classrooms, online learning and secondary transition.
What does universal design for learning in higher education mean for you?
I was first introduced to universal design for learning (UDL) in 2001 while attending a
summer training institute sponsored by CAST in Boston, MA. At that point in my career, I
was directing a faculty instructional technology lab for the School of Education at
Virginia Commonwealth University. When I returned from the CAST institute, I began to
infuse information about UDL into faculty trainings and conference presentations. I
continued delving deeper into the importance of UDL in higher education in my doctoral
studies that began in 2003.
Gaining an understanding of the UDL principles and practices made perfect sense to me
as this approach focused on the key ingredients to any successful learning situation;
what is being taught, how the information is shared, and why the information is [or is
not] engaging to the learner. According to the Center for Applied Special Technology
(http://www.cast.org), UDL offers a framework where instructional strategies and
technologies are infused to support varied learning and assessment approaches.
Principle 1:
Principle 2:
Action and
Principle 3:
Three principles guide the UDL approach: (a) providing multiple, flexible methods of
presentation that give students various ways to acquire information, (b) providing
multiple, flexible methods of expression that offer students alternatives for
demonstrating what they know, and (c) providing multiple, flexible options for
engagement to help students get interested, and be challenged. UDL is an appealing
framework as it encourages a wide variety of technology and instructional approaches
that can reach all students, regardless of their cultural or language backgrounds,
learning styles, or preferences.
Evolving research from the learning sciences confirms that learner variability is now
more the norm than the exception (National Center on Universal Design for Learning,
2013a). Learners often vary across a number of dimensions including their prior
experiences, the context of the learning situation, and their individual capabilities.
Through a UDL lens, we can design learning situations that anticipate this variability,
maximize opportunities for learner variability, and offer more instances for learner
Why focus on universal design for learning (UDL)?
The UDL framework encourages three key principles (1) provide multiple
representations of content, (2) provide multiple means for the learner’s action and
expression, and (3) provide multiple means for learner engagement (National Center on
Universal Design for Learning, 2012b). Since 2008, these principles have been
broadened and enriched with nine specific guidelines and 32 checkpoints that offer
more specifics on how to strengthen the instructional process. As an instructional
framework, UDL encourages growth in learning expertise towards learners who are
more resourceful, strategic and motivated. I think we all strive towards learning
expertise in most tasks and UDL offers a lens that better assures that success.
Provide Multiple Means of
Provide Multiple Means of
Action and Expression
Provide Multiple Means of
Physical action
Recruiting interest
Language, expressions and
Expression and
Sustaining effort and
Executive function
Which student / situation has surprised you?
In the earlier days of my vocational evaluation
(VE) practice, technology innovations did not
exist and our current understandings from
research in the neurosciences had not yet
evolved. However, repeatedly, I recognized
that many of the individuals I assessed
required a different way to demonstrate what
and how they understood the information.
Many of these individuals had experienced
numerous failures in traditional academic
settings. I began to rely on the multiple
assessment approaches that were germane to
our VE practice and that allowed me to
observe the variety of ways these individuals
could communicate, understand, and learn.
Throughout my career as a practitioner and educator, I’ve had the distinct privilege of
working with many diverse individuals who have dealt with adversity in their lives. I’ve
often relied on a variety of non-traditional measures and situations to craft workable
environments for student success. In the early 1990’s, I worked with a young man who
was losing his vision. Bob (a pseudonym) had mastered the use of Morse Code
communication and Apple desktop computers for his ability to communicate with
others and expand his knowledge and understanding. He was in the process of
considering career and education opportunities for his postsecondary future; an
environment predominately dependent on personal computer (PC) technology. In those
days, few assistive technologies were available for the PC computer. We were able to
tap his amazing gift for auditory memory and recall and allow him to learn a new suite
of assistive tools that he could use in the PC world of technology. We focused on the
strength of his auditory learning and provided opportunities where he could
demonstrate his knowledge through these means. The results were amazing and
revealed his capacity to easily transfer his knowledge
from using an Apple computer to the requirements of a
PC; his ability to retain large amounts of information in
his memory to allow an ability to interact and
communicate with others; and his ability to quickly learn
the instructional sequences of new assistive technologies
(such as Job Accommodation with Speech – JAWS) that
would be required in future employment environments.
The use of technology, flexible assessment approaches,
and a focus on this student’s strengths provided an
opportunity to showcase his capabilities. While the
definition of UDL had yet to be introduced, we were
crafting a UDL experience through offering multiple opportunities for his action and
expression and uncovering options that showcased his success through offering multiple
ways to engage his learning.
Suzie (pseudonym name) was another student where again, the use of non-traditional
assessment and training approaches allowed her to flourish and experience success.
This student was also at a pivotal point in her secondary transition training and one year
from graduation. Unfortunately, she had experienced a lifetime of failures that were
exacerbated by repeated childhood traumas and chronic mental illness. Yet, her
capabilities were amazing. She demonstrated a superior clerical aptitude and attention
to detail, which served her well in the numerous office-based tasks she completed. She
had an exceptional capacity to “catch on” to new knowledge and routines and could
learn any software program or office task. Her initial interactions with other staff and
personnel were very guarded and required measured steps of induction. We focused on
positive approaches and multiple opportunities where she could demonstrate her
abilities and engage her learning. In this
situation, a priority on the third UDL principle,
Providing Multiple Means for Engagement,
was critical to promoting her success as we
offered strategies to minimize threats in the
environment, optimize challenges that
engaged her superior capabilities, and foster
an environment that offered ongoing
feedback to support her learning growth and
success. Suzie received her high school
diploma and acquired a full-time position with
our department in office support.
Do you know of situations in higher education where UDL has been
considered with success?
Universal design for learning (UDL) offers a framework for a college instructor that can
maximize the design and delivery of course instruction. Utilizing multiple and varied
instructional formats, and maximizing the flexible features of digital technologies
enhances learning opportunities for all students. The inclusion of specific UDL language
in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA, 2008) in the U. S. makes this an
especially important conversation for faculty in teacher education. Efforts to strengthen
the understanding of UDL in teacher education programs throughout the US have been
growing and point towards a model for the future. Some of these are highlighted on the
National UDL Center and demonstrate some of the ways UDL is being considered in
higher education in the U. S. from classroom to campus-wide initiatives (National Center
on Universal Design for Learning, 2012c). Some of us have been teaching and
promoting UDL for some time but it is great to have more promoting this work
nationally and internationally.
Can you share a concrete example where universal design for learning in
higher education is successful?
For the past ten years, I have taught a graduate course in UDL through the Graduate
School of Education and Human Development at GW University in Washington, DC. This
course often enrolls students from a variety of disciplines including special education,
career transition, rehabilitation, secondary instruction, adult learning, and studies in
acquired brain injury. Students are at the masters and doctoral levels. The course is
designed as a blended model with a full week of face-to-face instruction and the
remainder taught online. All instructional materials are posted online in the Blackboard
learning management system (LMS) to offer multiple representations of content and
include course goals and instructional plans, PowerPoint presentations, links to audio
and video clips, class notes, and links to resources. By design, the course offers a flexible
format that includes numerous digital resources, materials, and representations of
content. The course also includes several projects that are designed to offer students
options in how they are completed. So, in some instances, students can elect to write a
formal paper, develop a website around the content, or build a movie. Sample papers
and rubrics are provided to give students a lens to evaluate where they wish to land
with a course grade. Rigor is still important but the means to get there are multiple and
Between 2009-2011, I had the opportunity to work closely with a faculty as she
redesigned her research methods course through a UDL lens (Smith, 2012) at another
university in the southeastern U. S.. This course is required of all education majors and
often avoided due to the content. This course is typically taught using print-based
materials and a lecture-based format. Over four semesters, this faculty explored the
why, what and how of her course materials through the UDL principles and guidelines.
She built a companion course in the Blackboard LMS with contemporary podcasts and
videos to expand content understanding; infused
multiple activities to reinforce concepts and anchor
understanding; and offered multiple options for students
to sustain interest, engagement, and relevance of the
course materials. She redesigned the format to highlight
clear goals and guiding questions for each weekly
session. Over these semesters, student enrollment
increased and evaluations were very positive. Students
expressed an interest in having more courses developed
in a similar UDL way and the faculty honed a course that
provided content that was better aligned with goals,
objectives and pertinent content.
Do you have tips or advice for higher education about considering UDL to
promote best practices for student?
Institutions of higher education are challenged with finding effective ways to consider
the learning needs of all students. The UDL framework provides a contemporary lens for
the design of instruction in today’s college classroom. The increasing reliance on digital
access and mobile learning tools expands the flexibility in learning opportunities that
UDL promotes. Many of the assistive technologies that we have used in the past are
now embedded within many software programs and web browsers. The growth of open
education shifts the design of instruction to a more digital means. These trends are
wonderful opportunities to embed UDL strategies and technologies.
I’m excited about the promise of UDL in higher education. As an instructor, I leverage
the digital tools and platforms that allow me to be a more creative designer of
instruction. I find that students appreciate these options and often demonstrate
additional skills when presenting their work through these mediums. UDL also helps me
to focus on my curriculum – goals, methods, materials and assessments. It encourages
me to be a better instructor and to engage my students in a richer learning experience.
I think the first step in considering UDL in college instruction is to begin with your
curriculum. Evaluate how it is written. Are the goals and objectives clear and attainable?
Do they provide multiple means to reach those goals for full participation by my
students? When I began teaching with UDL, I started first with the three principles. As
the years have evolved I’ve found that the design of the curriculum is foundational as an
important first step. Once that is clarified, the rest can be sewn together to offer a full
palate of options for a richer learning experience for all students.
Higher Education Opportunity Act. (2008). PL 110–315, 122 §3079.
National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2012a). What is UDL? Retrieved from
National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2012b). The three principles of UDL.
Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl/3principles
National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2012c). Postsecondary education and UDL.
Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl/3principles
Smith, F. G. (2012). Analyzing a college course that adheres to the Universal Design for Learning
(UDL) framework. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(3), 31-61.