UDL: Altering the Curriculum to Advance Student Comprehension
by Amy Beauchemin, Ed.D, Associate Professor of Sociology, Teaching Fellow, School of Applied Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Introduction to Sociology is a one-hundred-level class that many students take during their first year at Goodwin University. A diverse student population takes this course as required by many of our academic programs, including Nursing and Health Sciences. When I started teaching Introduction to Sociology, the University provided me with a standard curriculum to help me become familiar with the course. However, I quickly identified a barrier to student learning in the course’s final project.
I noticed that the design and presentation of the final project did not allow students to turn accessible information into usable knowledge, one of the many critical components of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — an academic framework focused on innovative instruction and learner inclusivity. In particular, the final project incorporated several impediments to UDL’s Representation: Comprehension guideline.
As a Goodwin University Institute for Learning Innovation (GUILI) teaching fellow, I knew I had to alter the assignment so that students could obtain the information they needed and enhance their overall learning outcomes.
Analyzing obstacles in the assignment
Originally, the final project required students to watch a few episodes of a television show and analyze them through the lens of sociology. Students had to select three sociological concepts discussed throughout the course and explain how the concepts connected to the television show of their choice. By integrating the TV show themes with sociological views, the intent was that students would ultimately “synthesize” their understanding of the course content.
The original project also tried to incorporate scaffolding (a teaching method that supports learning by systematically building on student experiences and knowledge as they acquire new skills) by having students complete two worksheets. Attempting to anchor instruction and provide students with an “advanced organization tool,” the first worksheet focused on details of the television show, while the second centered on sociological concepts. The worksheets were rather detailed, but the purpose was to bridge ideas by helping students organize their thoughts and receive feedback as they prepared to write a paper on the project.
Before I even assigned the task, students questioned what to do if they didn’t watch television. Through the UDL Representation: Comprehension checkpoint 3.3, the framework’s recommendation to provide multiple entry points to a lesson and optimal pathways through content further demonstrated a shortfall in the original project.
Students also struggled when selecting the three sociological concepts; they were unsure if they needed to choose book chapters or other topics from the text. Synthesizing the three sociological approaches seemed to be the most significant barrier; students were unfamiliar with the terminology and did not understand the expectation of the assignment.
When correcting the projects, I also noticed that students did not entirely apply what they had learned throughout the course. They provided basic connections but did not fully align the sociological concepts to examples in the television show. Consequently, the assignment did not prime, activate, or provide learners the background knowledge or relevance they needed to make a more extensive connection.
Leading the way by adjusting the assignment
To help students, I took a critical look at the project to remove the barriers and make it more approachable. First, I thought, Why are students limited to a television show? Would the project work with other options? Then I wondered, What is the purpose of the assignment? If the goal was for students to demonstrate knowledge of sociology through the lens of multimedia, then I needed to find ways to guide exploration and support information processing strategies.
I wanted the class to easily turn accessible information into sound knowledge, so I made meaningful changes to the project.
- To set clear expectations, I updated the project to focus on the three main theories in sociology: Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism. Focusing on these three theories allowed students to revisit critical ideas and generalize learning in new situations.
- To offer optimal pathways through content, I gave the students the flexibility to compare the sociological theories through the mediums of their choice, either a television show, movie, or graphic novel.
- To highlight patterns, guide understanding, and provide apparent cues and prompts, I introduced students to the three theories at the start of the class. Learners were given various assignments to define the theories, explain the views, and connect them to their lives.
- To provide accessible scaffolding, I consolidated the two worksheets that students previously completed to prepare for the final paper into one. The worksheet prompts were made more explicit, guiding the students’ information processing.
- Students were given helpful examples and models to empathize critical elements of the project through course announcements, videos, tutorials, and exemplars to support new understanding.
- To assist with the transfer of knowledge, I provided students with feedback, enabling them to think critically about applying the information in different settings.
- Lastly, I revised the rubric to focus on the project’s content and added cross-curricular connections by incorporating writing and formatting parameters to ensure clarity of expectations.
Strengthening understanding through UDL supports
According to the developers of UDL, Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), “All learners can benefit from assistance in how to transfer the information they have to other situations… and students need multiple representations for this to occur.”
By removing the barriers to learning, students could demonstrate their knowledge of sociology through the lens of a relatable medium. Once I removed the barriers, queries about the project decreased, understanding of the expectations of the project increased, and the quality of student work improved. Modifying the assignment and applying UDL guidelines to the Introduction to Sociology final project improved student learning and made learning more meaningful.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.