Fall in Love with Universal Design for Learning
An educational framework designed to outline opportunities for all
Lost in the Lesson Plan
Most people know how it feels to sit in a classroom, completely lost. We’ve all at one point shuffled through our notes, squinted our eyes towards the front of the room, and asked the person next to us, “What did the teacher just say?”
For students who love to learn, especially those encountering a new subject for the first time, this situation can leave them feeling out of the “learning loop,” hesitant, pressured to catch up, and even as if they don’t belong in the classroom environment at all.
Dive into Educational Diversity
Many higher education institutions preach the interconnectedness of their academic communities, but rarely commit sufficient effort and resources into putting inclusivity initiatives into practice. It’s one thing to be “accepting,” but it’s another to honor student diversity authentically in the everyday school setting.
Teachers today encounter students with a broad spectrum of gifts, challenges, and circumstances. Some may be first generation students, while others may have extensive educational experience. They reflect differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, family history, and socio-economic background. They may bring with them the baggage of past experiences related to learning disabilities, trauma, motivation, or trust issues.
How are teachers even to attempt ensuring that their students leave the classroom, having absorbed the material covered?
A Student-Centered Syllabus
Based on cognitive neuroscience research, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a scholastic framework, centers around the awareness that everyone has a unique set of capabilities and short-comings, and that a syllabus is either abled or disabled — not the student. By accepting and anticipating the assortment of all learning preferences, the standardization of students that has long controlled school systems across America comes to a screeching halt.
Connect the Dots at its Core: The Science Behind the Syllabus
The core principles of UDL center around three networks in the brain that light up while learning: the brain’s recognition network in the occipital and temporal lobes (as seen in UDL’s representation principle), the brain’s strategic network in the frontal lobes (conveyed in UDL’s action and expression principle), and the brain’s affective network in the center of the brain (expressed in UDL’s engagement principle).
The brain’s recognition network helps to gather and store information for identification and analysis. Influencing the representation principle of UDL, this recognition network values the importance of presenting lessons in different ways, and is a standard that caters to culturally responsive teaching (representing various people and perspectives). By representing a collection of information through mixed media, students with varied learning styles soak up the curriculum coursework and discover the ways in which they learn best.
The brain’s strategic network is accountable for the execution and evaluation of our actions. This network intertwines with the action and expression principle of UDL that highlights the effectiveness of giving students options to relay back what they’ve learned. By students able to personally pick the way they present academic information, accountability of the project, communication of its content, and appreciation of the material prosper.
The brain’s affective network places importance on the “why” of learning and proves the engagement principle of UDL. The affective network of the brain is in charge of the stimulation of student interests and the meaning behind the many motivations of learning. When students can look at their own interests and what makes them tick, they are able to reflect and self-regulate while processing information.
But what does Universal Design for Learning look like in practice?
Through UDL strategies, varied teaching techniques are communicated with metacognition activities as the motif of the academic world. For teachers, this means pointing out the specific potential of individual pupils, informing them exactly what they’re doing well, and why. Through Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT), UDL instructors give their learners clear-cut expectations, provide advice, release resources, and give students self-help strategies to succeed.
The Importance of Assortment in Academia
UDL lessons are administered verbally, visually, and/or through interactive, formal, and informal discussions. Students may work independently, paired, or in small or large groups. Learning spaces and environments may vary, depending on the task at hand. Writing in real time may be seen on a physical white board or an online discussion board. Innovative in nature, instructors informed by the UDL framework utilize technology to teach the room. In this day and age of inattention and immediacy, students instructed by UDL standards are acquainted with collaborative SMART boards and are encouraged to use cell phones as part of lesson plans.
Put the Fun in UDL Fundamentals
An array of assessment techniques are also in play under the UDL agenda. In opposition to only one rigid, concrete task, students who learn through UDL have a wide range of options to demonstrate their knowledge. To show that they’ve acquired the material, students can choose to write an essay, make a movie, craft a comic strip, or even create a song to show that what they learned has been retained.
Off-the-cuff Conversations Convert Classrooms
Because UDL is innovative and differs greatly from what has been done in the past, it all may seem a bit overwhelming. But for UDL instructors, there’s good news. Lecturers don’t have to know everything about their students to make Universal Design for Learning a success. By way of organic everyday conversations, teachers can become data collectors of their classroom, picking up on cues and hints to help their students thrive. And it is with those very inklings and indications that teachers design their lessons to complement their students’ needs, and integrate broad structural changes over time to make their classes that much more engaging.
What we do within the walls of our schools is a small-scale version of how our society treats and reacts to large scale issues like social justice. By practicing principles of UDL, educational institutions can embrace inclusivity as if to say, “Let’s do better for everyone involved.” By being deliberate about diversity, educators enact teaching methods that move beyond the marginalization and minimization of once-disadvantaged groups and optimize high-level learning for all. By addressing the long-standing barriers in academics head-on, UDL instructors widen the doors of possibility to justly welcome all of the students they serve. UDL empowers expert learners across myriad majors and subjects that help build a community within the classroom that thrives.
Many educational institutions speak from a soapbox to encourage inclusivity, but fall short on this upright initiative. To support the true spirit of diversity in learning styles, in 2019, Goodwin established the Goodwin University Institute of Learning Innovation (GUILI) to develop, implement, and evaluate UDL practices for students and faculty — showing that when they stand on their soapbox to shout, “Be You, At GU,” they are not only excited for what students will bring to the classroom, they are readily equipped to ensure their success as well.
Interested in learning more about UDL? Visit: www.goodwin.edu/guili
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.