When presented with the daunting task of coming up with lesson plans for an entire school year, teachers can understandably focus on what they plan to teach rather than how they plan on teaching it. Preparing classes takes time, and there are only so many hours in the day.
Considering the methodology you'll use to teach any given subject matter can be a timesaver in the long run. By helping students better absorb the information they need early on, you can spend less time repeating information and even rely on students to help each other. We recently looked at the classical Socratic Method as a learning strategy, and here we look at a contemporary approach called Universal Design for Learning.
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
Universal Design for Learning is a teaching framework developed by Massachusetts-based education nonprofit CAST that caters to all students regardless of their personality type or academic ability. Based on scientific insights into the learning process, UDL provides guidelines for all forms of learning, both inside and outside the classroom.
So what is UDL about? At its core, the framework has three main principles:
- Engagement: Attempting to generate interest by providing organic ways for learners to get involved while establishing authentic connections between the subject matter and the students’ own lives.
- Representation: Presenting the information in different ways to suit different personalities. For example, teaching that involves a combination of paper materials, spoken instruction, video, and hands-on activities.
- Action & Expression: Allowing the learners to demonstrate their newfound skills and knowledge in a variety of ways, such as writing assignments, multimedia presentations, performances, or group projects.
Advocates believe that teachers can optimize the learning experience by planning their lesson content around the Universal Design for Learning principles.
Where Does UDL Fit in the Classroom?
Universal Design for Learning is a framework that is theoretically applicable to all kinds of learning environments, from university research programs to work training courses. However, its guiding principles are particularly suited to the classroom. Because each student is so unique, a focus on universality—teaching that speaks to everyone—could yield more engagement, retention of information, and opportunity amongst students.
Some students may be able to absorb and retain information from a classic lecture style, and others have specific issues that make them less receptive to certain forms of teaching. One in five children in the U.S. has a learning impediment such as dyslexia or ADHD. By varying classroom teaching methods, educators can significantly help this portion of students keep up with their peers.
The UDL approach can be utilized by all the key players involved in a student’s development. That includes curriculum developers, educators, and even parents while they supervise homework. In the classroom, however, it is primarily the educator who is responsible for creating an environment that stimulates learning for all students. UDL can help nurture that environment.
In practice, UDL strategies can assist teachers by offering a blueprint for structuring lessons and conveying information. It can assist students by providing a range of learning experiences, from basic reading exercises to hands-on activities, allowing each student to discover and take advantage of their individual strengths.
UDL Tips and Strategies
We’ve gone over the basic principles of Universal Design for Learning, but how can educators implement this philosophy when they step into the classroom? Below are some tips, strategies, and Universal Design for Learning examples that can help create a more dynamic and inclusive learning environment.
Create Clear Goals
Engagement starts with the setting of clear goals for the class. Since UDL encourages variation in terms of information and tasks, it is vitally important that students understand how everything ties together. Keeping lesson goals easily accessible, like on a whiteboard or at the top of a worksheet, will help anchor the learning experience.
Present Ideas in Different Formats
Universality posits that learners benefit from educators conveying information in a variety of forms. This might mean that worksheets are accompanied by spoken explanations, videos, or hands-on demonstrations of key concepts.
From a teacher’s perspective, this might seem overwhelming, but a varied approach doesn’t have to mean a vastly increased workload! In fact, devising a mixed-format lesson plan can often be easier than writing up a long worksheet that covers every relevant detail.
Use Digital Tools Where Possible
Not all classrooms have the luxury of modern technology to augment the learning experience. However, representation can be improved when tools like computers, projectors, and tablets are used. The use of video and audio can stimulate students who prefer visual and auditory learning, and the ability to adjust font size or color can be particularly helpful to dyslexic learners.
Offer Flexible Assignments
In addition to presenting information through a variety of media, teachers should be receptive to receiving assignments in different formats.
In practice, this could mean allowing students to choose how they complete their task in the form of an essay, presentation, or performance—anything that allows the student to genuinely demonstrate their acquired skills or knowledge. Within STEM subjects in particular, an assignment might involve conducting an experiment, programming some software, or building a robot.
Get to Know Students’ Strengths and Preferences
By implementing a variety of teaching strategies in the classroom, teachers can gauge how individual students react to different methods. Once familiarized with the students’ strengths, areas for improvement, and preferences, teachers can more efficiently assign tasks to build the confidence of each learner.