Universal Design for Learning Blog Series: Part 4

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. In 2017, with support from the Davis Educational Foundation, Goodwin College established its first cohort of instructors to re-examine their teaching methods and to stretch themselves creatively in working with students of wide-ranging learning differences and educational experiences. Several of those instructors have agreed to be contributors to the Goodwin College blog.

The Professor’s New Groove

by Kieasha S. Goods

A former colleague once asked me if I was trained in Universal Design for Learning, commenting that my teaching style was much like UDL. I was not trained in UDL, nor did I know anything about it. Fast forward to three years ago: the same colleague asked me if Goodwin College was considering incorporating UDL, as some other universities were. I told her I hadn’t heard anything about Goodwin’s using this method of teaching.

My “K-12 style” is eclectic: I teach wholeheartedly from a Common Core perspective with a student/teacher-driven model. I encourage participating in class, going to the board, and actually reading the textbook (oh, the horror!) as an excellent resource for improving math skills. I want my students to discover, experience, and embrace how math works best in their lives and careers.

At my initial Goodwin interview, I had been my authentic self. Over time, though, I found myself operating in a mode that wasn’t really me. I was limiting myself to others’ perceptions that professors “should” teach by lecture only (so dull). I was moving away from using the book and more toward graphic organizers for topics in which students experienced significant difficulty.

I knew things could be better…

Then came the announcement that Goodwin was adopting UDL, along with an invitation to attend a facilitated orientation. By the end of that session, I wanted to know more about how UDL could help me provide the best possible experience for my students in mathematics.

I LOVE UDL! It is an excellent reflection of the way I like to teach. Because I always want to deliver the best in the classroom, I use student feedback, self-reflection, and other suggestions and observations to adjust or rewrite lessons. UDL provides principles and guidelines for my K-12 teaching style and challenges me to integrate more interactive lessons with technology. I know it works! Math is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be defeating. How math is experienced makes all the difference to a student.

I joined the UDL cohort with an open mind. I chose to “UDL-ize” two courses: Contemporary Mathematics (Math 135) and Mathematics for the Health Sciences (Math 125). The changes I incorporated first were to the syllabi. I added pictures of the types of calculators students could buy, a 3-D pie graph for the breakdown of percentages for grades, and updated the Student Learning Outcomes. I added A.C.E. (Application, Challenge/Communication, Extension) questions and graphic organizers based on CRISS (Creating Independence through Student-Owned Strategies).

The most significant leap of faith involved math assessments, which had previously focused on multiple choice, short answers to small word problems, and simple calculations requiring students to show their work. Assessments now became performance based. I used performance-based learning tasks and assessments with Connected Math using Georgia Performance Standards. I had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to integrate this concept. Thanks to UDL, the door has been opened for our students to experience math at a higher level. They are synthesizing concepts and trying more challenging problems with no complaints — giving positive feedback.

At Goodwin College, our Summer Bridge Academy “bridges students who have just completed high school into a collegiate setting while helping them transition into lifelong learners personally, emotionally, and academically.” I first implemented the UDL changes to Contemporary Mathematics during our Summer Bridge courses, after consulting with the program’s other math instructor. An ambitious four-classes per week schedule replaced the standard one-class model.

“The approach that I worked on collectively with Kieasha to UDL-ize encouraged more involvement from the students,” my colleague reported. “The final exam was set up as five tasks, each with four or five sub-questions, which helped relax those students who always focus on how many questions there will be. There was a less stressed environment when it came to studying for the final and a considerably improved performance than on the previous tests with 40+ questions.”

Feedback from the Summer Bridge students encouraged me to make further changes. Many students fear class participation because they might have the wrong answer. My question is, why is it so bad to have the wrong answer? That allows us to learn and grow. The conditioning of the math student is sometimes a challenge. My most heartfelt comment from a Summer Bridge student was, “You make math worth coming to an 8 o’clock class!”

When I explained the changes, especially the performance task, to my supervisor, he was very excited, stating, “That’s the way I taught in high school.” An administrator’s response to the change in assessments was, “I think the approach is fantastic. It’s a great way for students to develop confidence.”

As of this writing, we have full implementation for Contemporary Mathematics and are slowly bringing new concepts into Mathematics for the Health Sciences. I explained to my students that they are my UDL guinea pigs for the next 15 weeks, asked them to let me know what is working, and assured them of my flexibility. To prepare them for their first performance style exam, we did a group review on Padlet using similar style questions. During this time, one student suggested we should have spent more time on dimensional analysis. Another commented, “This was challenging. Can this just be our exam grade?” Still another offered, “If this like the exam, may we take it in small groups?”

Many students express their fear of testing. One had mentioned how he struggled with taking math exams. I promised him this would be different. During the performance task, I saw how stressed he was, so I told him to relax and just do his best. After he saw his grade on the performance task, he sent me an email, and the last line was, “You have made math as stress-free as possible, and I really appreciate it. ”

UDL has not only provided our students with a positive and eye-opening experience, but also has given professors and instructors a renewed purpose behind how we teach and why we teach.

Kieasha S. Goods, M.Ed. is an assistant professor of Mathematics at Goodwin College. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi International Honors Society in Education and an alumna of InRoads Greater Hartford-Springfield.

The grant was received from the Davis Educational Foundation established by Stanton and Elizabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’ retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.