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Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Typically, providing equal access in class means providing individual accommodations to every student with a disability. Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which originated from the architectural concept referring to designing environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptations or specialized design, allows instructors to design courses with every student in mind.

Implementing UDL makes your class accessible to all students, including those with disabilities as well as other students who experience other challenges in courses (for example, students who get the flu, sustain an injury, report terrible test anxiety, speak English as a second language, or have a weaker academic background).

UDL Implementation

UDL is based on brain research indicating that everyone has different strengths in taking in information, expressing knowledge, and engaging in learning. Implementing UDL is an ongoing process that is ultimately about identifying and removing potential barriers to learning for all students in both the physical and virtual learning environment.

One of the most effective ways to implement UDL is, whenever possible, to offer options for taking in information (e.g., text books, audio books, supplemental videos), expressing what has been learned (e.g., writing papers, giving presentations, recording video), and engaging in learning (e.g., showing videos, creating experiential learning opportunities). Another is to build common disability accommodations into the class. For example, providing class notes to all students, choosing books available in a digital format, showing videos with closed captioning, and designing take home exams. Although most people tend to focus on UDL’s benefits for people with disabilities, reducing barriers by offering options creates better learning environments and opportunities for all.

General UDL strategies

The following list is by no means all-inclusive. Northwestern faculty from our UDL pilot in summer 2017 (NUDL), made possible with a gift from the Alumnae of Northwestern University, have shared some of their UDL strategies in addition to those that appear below.

Syllabus

  • Make available a detailed course syllabus prior to registration. Essential requirements of the course should be clearly stated, and reading selections finalized early to allow time for any necessary conversion to alternate format.
  • Set a welcoming tone by including a personal statement about your respect for diversity of all types. Also, ask students what they would like you to know about them that may impact participation in the course.
  • Write down any important announcements or changes to the syllabus. Ideally, post these to Canvas or whatever written format you use to communicate with your students.
  • Examples

Consult

  • Share your course materials with your school's academic technology specialists in advance so that documents can be tagged for accessibility and will be available to all students at the same time. Build flexibility around assignment due dates into your syllabus.
  • AccessibleNU's Assistive Technology Director can assist if you are unsure whom to contact.

Content Delivery

  • Select texts that are available in a digital format so that all students can access them in their preferred format (print, digital, audio, etc.)
  • Share your notes in advance of class to allow students the opportunity to review the material and have better comprehension coming into class, which also promotes more meaningful class discussion. Consider designating a volunteer to serve as the class note-taker--in other words, notes will be shared with the class--in every course. 
  • If uncomfortable sharing your notes in advance, share them afterward and let students know you are doing so to allow them to focus on the additional information presented.
  • Start each lecture with an outline of material to be covered. At the conclusion of class, briefly summarize key points.
  • Face the class speaking. Wear a microphone even if you think it isn't needed. Repeat questions or comments made by students before responding to them. Teach in a multi-modal format to reach all learning styles. Combine thoroughly explained visual elements and captioned auditory materials when presenting lecture material, and then create experiential learning through group work and hands-on application of the material.
  • If an interpreter is present, look at and speak to the student, not the interpreter. Speak normally, i.e., without over-articulating (which hampers lip-reading) or shouting.
  • Assess if students are understanding you by observing their facial expressions or through other indicators; if not, try rephrasing or demonstrating the information in a different way.

Assessment

  • Along with demonstrating an example of multiple means of expression of learning, the instructions for the Community Interview Project in Production in Context shows how the project is broken up into steps so that students can obtain and react to feedback throughout the process of the project as opposed to only receiving feedback once the project is complete.
  • Provide study guides or review sheets for exams at the beginning of the quarter and  regular opportunities for questions and answers including review sessions.
  • Vary the types of questions (multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, essay and short answer, etc.) on your exams. Students with different strengths prefer different types of exams. Varying the types of questions benefits the variety of strengths in your class.
  • Give take-home exams to allow students to take extra time if needed.
  • Provide students with options (essay, presentation, video, etc.) for turning in assignments. This will allow students to use their strengths to best demonstrate learning.
  • When in doubt about how to assist students, ask them. Query the class via anonymous survey or other means at midterm to request feedback and identify lingering misunderstandings. Use this information to inform how and what material you cover in the second half of your course.

More information

UDL Guidelines

NUDL - Northwestern Universal Design for Learning project