universal design for learning tips for educators

Making Small Changes: Practical Faculty Advice in UDL at Goodwin University

Making Small Changes: Practical Faculty Advice in UDL at Goodwin University
by Amy Beauchemin, Associate Professor, Sociology; Matt Connell, Assistant Professor and Program Director, Business Administration; and Phillip Fox, Associate Professor and Director, English — Goodwin University

At Goodwin University, the context of everyday faculty life can be intimidating. Teaching load, service to the University, and scholarship in one’s field play substantial roles. Thus, when curriculum and pedagogical shifts brought on by Universal Design for Learning (UDL) arrived at Goodwin, we often found ourselves wondering: Do I have time for this? How can I achieve this with everything else going on?

What we found is that approaches to UDL don’t have to be huge undertakings to make a significant difference.

Perspective from English (Phillip Fox)

In the summer of 2020, I graduated from the Magnet Schools cohort of UDL and became a Teaching Fellow. In my role as an associate professor and the director of English, I started to think of ways to use UDL. What’s that saying? Go big or go home? I thought the faculty and I would redesign every course and assessment in English, simultaneously, in one semester. It would be a great adventure, and there would be all kinds of time for it.

In fact, there was little time for it, but my passion for UDL continued; I saw its benefits to students and faculty. I knew it would work in composition courses. During a faculty preparation week, I found myself looking at the course goals for Literature and Composition and thinking about UDL’s principle of Engagement. There were five to six outcomes overall, but my eyes immediately went to: “Write a paper that applies a literary theory to ‘The Lottery.’”

In my experience, I think this goal is standard for a literature course. On its face, it’s a worthwhile goal, and it certainly is specific enough to measure. However, when I looked at the goal with UDL in mind, I had a few questions: What about the students who weren’t engaged by “The Lottery” (sorry, Shirley Jackson fans)? What about the students who are anxious about writing? The heart of this goal is the application of a literary theory.

So, accounting for UDL principles in “recruiting interest” by “optimizing individual choice and autonomy,” could I change “The Lottery” to “a text of your choice”? Accounting for UDL principles in Action and Expression, specifically “expression and communication,” could I change “write a paper” to “apply”?

As it turns out, the answer was yes to both. There wasn’t anyone standing in my way. So, one of the goals of Composition and Literature became: “Apply a literary theory to a text of your choice.”

It’s hard for a writing instructor to delete the word “write” from anything, and there are times where an assignment must be written. But, if I am honest with myself, “apply” is a better verb, mostly because it provides students with the opportunity to choose different delivery media. Students could apply a literary theory in a PowerPoint, or a video, or a blog.

There are also times when specific works and readings need to be the focus. But again, if I am honest with myself, students can apply a literary theory to almost any text.

As faculty, when we use UDL to make small changes in courses, we empower ourselves to apply UDL in manageable ways, and more importantly, we empower students to learn more effectively with choice.

Perspective from Business Administration (Matt Connell)

As a graduate of the third UDL cohort at Goodwin, I echo my colleague’s feelings about UDL. As I have used UDL principles in my classrooms, my passion and understanding of UDL have expanded vastly. My initial thoughts and understanding about UDL and how to bring it to the classroom focused solely on me as the instructor looking at ways that I create and present barriers to my students’ understanding of content knowledge, and how I can remove those barriers to make learning more accessible to my students.

I now look at UDL from a global perspective — what exists within the organizational structure and system that may present a barrier to students’ accessing content knowledge. These challenges could include the way a student is handed off to a colleague in Admissions or the Registrar’s Office, or a student’s lack of access to technology, or insufficient technology skills.

As the director and faculty member of the Business Administration program at Goodwin University, I have been fortunate enough to work on a grant-funded program for individuals who are, or have been, justice involved. Within this program, faculty and I have worked to incorporate the concepts of UDL — specifically guidelines related to action and expression; options for physical action, options for expression and communication, and options for executive function — into each classroom as well as the overall program structure.

What that looks like from an implementation standpoint is that we have developed a relationship with Admissions so that the students receive extra support to ensure a smooth transition into the program. The Admissions team has been trained in some of the nuances of working with and handling expectations of individuals in this program. This partnership reduces the number of students dropping off before even enrolling.

When students do not have a computer or access to one, we have provided loaner laptops so they could access assignments on the school’s Learning Management System. We have provided groceries to students, so that they do not need to choose between coming to class or taking extra hours at work. We have allowed students to access classes in various ways — virtually, live (in person), and through recordings — so that if an unexpected life event happens, they can still receive the information and content. We have built in mentoring aspects to support students with life struggles, as well as workshops on time management, anger reduction, and other topics that hopefully better prepare students for the commitment of higher education.

Looking at these from a UDL standpoint, in the classroom we provide students with the ability to address options of expression in how they turn in work: via email, Blackboard, or in some cases verbally to the instructor. We have looked at the guidelines for communication and allowed students to access class in person, via Zoom, or through recorded notes. We address the need for physical action by allowing students to stand during class, walk around, or take breaks. We work to create the classroom with these guidelines in mind to remove barriers to access.

What UDL has shown me, what I have learned, is that there are numerous barriers to students receiving the content we as instructors try to provide. These barriers are not just classroom or instruction based. If we do not work to meet our students where they are, and to empathize and find compassion for the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to come to class, stay in class, or get their work done, then we are not going far enough to remove the barriers that exist when it comes to our students accessing classroom content.

Perspective from Sociology (Amy Beauchemin)

I was first introduced to UDL many years ago when I attended a workshop on its basics. I must admit I was skeptical; the concept was promising, but I was not sure how it would apply to my courses. When the opportunity arose to join a more intense training of UDL, I was intrigued and signed up. I am a member of the first UDL cohort at Goodwin University. Through the training, I learned the nuances of the UDL framework and how they can be applied to my courses. When I started teaching an Introduction to Sociology course, UDL principles were incorporated in the curriculum, but I was able to reflect on the course and identify areas that would further benefit from UDL.

One assignment, which was completed multiple times throughout the semester, required students to find a current article about the sociological topic of the week. Then, they completed a worksheet by summarizing the article, analyzing why the article was important, and identifying how it connected to the topic. The assignment seemed straightforward, but after reviewing the students’ first attempts, I detected a disconnect. I thought the directions were clear; I explained the assignment in class and provided a scoring guide, but the work was not completed as expected. I looked to UDL to help identify and resolve any barriers to students. The main barriers I identified were knowing how to: (1) find an article or identify if it was appropriate, (2) analyze the article to explain why it was important, and (3) make connections to the text.

I found that the UDL Principle of Representation could provide me with guidance to reduce the barriers students were facing. Within the principle of representation is the guideline of comprehension, which concentrates on the “proper design and presentation of information” to “ensure learners have access to knowledge.” I utilized different elements of this guideline when addressing the barriers my students were facing.

First, I reviewed the directions and worksheet to simplify confusing text, streamline the structure, and focus on plain language. I also emphasized key elements and included multiple examples to increase student comprehension. Then, I decided that I needed to provide students with more directions before they even attempted the assignment. By supplying background knowledge on how to complete the assignment, my hope was that students would better understand the expectations and produce higher quality work. The next time I introduced the assignment, I gave students a sample worksheet, the corresponding article, and a blank scoring guide. Each student scored the sample worksheet; then, the class separated into small groups and discussed the score they gave and why. Finally, each group shared their results with the class. Directing information processing enabled students to build new understanding and prepared them to complete the assignment individually. Finally, I pre-taught needed skills by showing students how to search the Internet for multiple news sources and identifying articles that connected to the topic of the week.

After the assignment was submitted, I met with each student individually and reviewed their work with them. This provided customized feedback to assist students’ ability to process what they did well and how to continue to improve for the next week. By providing multiple means of representation, students were more confident and produced a higher quality of work. Ultimately, UDL has provided me with tools to improve how I develop curriculum and teach to increase student learning and engagement.

Closing Remarks

Like water on a hot summer day, UDL is the exigent behind smart teaching changes at Goodwin University. We encourage you to take an hour to think about one class you teach. Think about one course goal. Think about one assignment. Think about these things from a student’s perspective. Good changes can be small and powerful when done in the right context and for the right reasons.

Click to learn more about Universal Design for Learning at Goodwin University.

Amy J. Beauchemin is Teaching Fellow and an associate professor of Sociology at Goodwin University. More than 10 years ago, she left her career in the corporate world to focus on becoming an educator. She started in higher education teaching computer applications courses and eventually taught First-Year Experience, Communications, and Sociology courses. She is passionate about students and their success and focuses her research on curriculum development and Universal Design for Learning.

Matt Connell is an assistant professor in the Business Administration program at Goodwin University and currently serves as the program director. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business from Evergreen State College, a master’s degree in Special Education from St. Joseph College, a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Hartford, and an MBA from the University of Connecticut. His doctoral studies focused on Group Emotional Intelligence and its effect on organizations.

Phillip J. Fox is Teaching Fellow and an associate professor and director of English at Goodwin University. With 15 years of experience in education, he primarily teaches first-year composition and developmental English courses. He is the author of A Majority of One: A New Historicist Reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles” and Discover the Writer in You.