Meeting diverse student learning needs with Universal Design for Learning

Students in our classrooms today are increasingly diverse – in all senses of the word. In terms of age, professional experience, cultural and linguistic background, socioeconomic level, and even rationale for obtaining a university degree – students vary in many important ways. Add to this demographic diversity the fact that every student has a unique profile of learning styles, preferences, abilities, and challenges. I’m not sure it has ever been more challenging to be an educator at any level. That said, this challenge can be invigorating as well. When we acknowledge and work to capitalize on this diversity in our classroom, we are challenged to reconsider how we teach in ways that will require us to be creative and innovative in our teaching practice. But where do we begin?

It can be daunting to consider the magnitude of this challenge. Fortunately, like with 21st Century Skills and the 21CLD framework, CAST and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning provide numerous resources on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to help educators at all levels to address student diversity in the classroom. This approach to planning learning experiences encourages educators to plan in advance for different learning styles and preferences to meet the broadest range of learner needs possible in the classroom. The framework is centered on three core principles:

  1. Provide multiple means of representation
  2. Provide multiple means of action and expression
  3. Provide multipole means of engagement

UDL Guidelines from (2009)

CAST provides a handy interactive chart to explore these three principles. They essentially challenge educators to consider how they might present content in multiple modes and formats to students (e.g., lecture, video, animations, simulations, etc.), provide students with multiple ways to express their understanding of course content (e.g., papers, performances, presentations, community outreach), and multiple ways to engage them in the learning process (e.g., to connect course concepts to current events in the community). It is not necessary (or perhaps even possible) to include all this variation in each class session, but the more diversity in learning and assessment during the course of the semester, the more likely you will tap into each students’ individual strengths, while simultaneously challenging them to stretch themselves in other ways.

While initially developed for K-12 education, UDL has been implemented effectively in higher education as well. In recognition of the unique opportunities and challenges of UDL in higher education, CAST has created the UDL on Campus portal for higher ed faculty. There you will find resources on assessment options, policies and legal information, selecting media and technology, course planning, and teaching strategies.

In the next three posts on ProfHacks, I’ll explore each of the three UDL principles. In each post, I will go more in depth on the principle, strategies for implementation, and how digital tools and resources can help you to implement them more efficiently and effectively in your classroom. This is work in progress for me, but something I’m committed to exploring – both to improve my teaching and my students’ learning.

If you have any experience with or questions about UDL in the classroom, please leave a comment to start a conversation.


Digital commenting and grading

Over the last several years, I’ve tried to go as paperless as possible. For the most part I’ve been fairly successful. One area that has always been a challenge for me though is in devising an effective and efficient workflow for providing student comments on their work. There are certainly a number of options – comments and track changes in Microsoft Word, converting to PDF and inking up either on a desktop computer or via a stylus on a tablet. Even with one of these solutions, though, there’s still the extra effort in passing files back and forth, entering grades somewhere, etc. Essentially, no matter what I’ve tried, I feel like I have about 5 steps too many to be really productive.

Screenshot of BlackBoard Inline Grading via Gene Roche

Enter BlackBoard’s Inline Grading tool. While I still haven’t used it in my courses yet, it seems really promising – kind of a one-stop shop for file exchange, commenting, and grading all in one. My good friend Gene Roche, the Director of Academic Information Services at William & Mary did a great post where he outlines the features. I’ll follow up with some screencasts once I get my hands dirty. In the meantime, read through Gene’s great post to see how it might work for you.