Universal Design for Learning: The Metaphorical Ramp to Curricular Content

Teachers in elementary schools, high schools, and college classrooms alike constantly ask themselves similar questions:

  • Why aren’t my students performing well on tests?
  • Why aren’t my students understanding the concepts I am teaching them?
  • Why aren’t my students meeting the requisite benchmarks?
  • What disability does my student have that is preventing them from accessing my curriculum?

These questions vex many educators and lead to many different diagnoses and accommodations in classrooms for specific students to help them gain access to curricular content.  However, the question we should really be asking ourselves is: what is wrong with my curriculum that is preventing my students from learning?

The field of education has been moving more and more toward a model of inclusion, the idea that every student, regardless of cognition or performance level, belongs in the general education classroom.  With this concept, though, there come many different ideas on how to execute and ensure that all students are learning.  An early model that gained a great deal of traction and success was Differentiated Instruction.

Differentiated Instruction is the idea that teachers must respond to the individual needs of the students in their classroom and differentiate their curricular contact to cater to the individual student.  The focus is on differentiating content, process, products, and the learning environment.  Though this is a great step in the right direction, we are still not addressing the original question about what the teacher can do to ensure the success of all of their students.

The answer to that question lies in curriculum development, and the principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  While based in similar ideals — most notably responding to and appreciating the differences that all students bring to the classroom — UDL focuses on a fundamental shift away from “fixing the student” to “fixing the curriculum”.

UDL, while born of similar principles as Differentiated Instruction, took root as a spin-off of concepts of Universal Design for product and architecture (think ramps as opposed to stairs, curb cut-outs, wide door frames, levers instead of twisting knobs, closed captioning, etc.).  In all of these design examples note the conceptual shift away from fixing the individual or the disability and toward making the environment more accommodating and accessible.

It is this concept that we bring into the classroom with Universal Design for Learning.  UDL serves to shift from our factory-minded schools and curriculums (standardized textbooks, standardized lesson plans and curricula, standardized desks, etc.) and move toward an approach of curriculum design that works for all students and provides access to instruction and learning for many different types of learning styles.  It is a step further back, allowing one to see the entire learning landscape and make conceptual and fundamental shifts in the way that it is designed and laid out.

UDL is also deeply rooted in brain science and seeks to engage the following three networks of the brain in its methodology:

  • The Recognition Networks: the WHAT of learning
  • The Strategic Networks: the HOW of learning
  • The Affective Networks: the WHY of learning

The fundamental principles of UDL are designed to coincide with the networks of the brain that the technique seeks to address and are as follows:

  • Provide multiple means of representation (recognition networks): the curriculum must be designed in such a way as to provide for learners a multitude of ways to acquire information and content knowledge (lectures, small group discussions, workshops, large group discussion, student-led discussions and presentations, etc.).
  • Provide multiple means of expression (strategic networks): the curriculum should provide learners with choices and alternatives for demonstrating what they have learned (essays, presentations, slideshows, videos, audio recordings, posters, skits, etc.).
  • Provide multiple means of engagement (affective networks): the curriculum should be designed to tap into learners’ various, unique, and wide-ranging interests, offer appropriate challenges, be designed to meet students where they are, and increase motivation.

Okay, fair.  Right?  These concepts make sense in theory.  But how do we actually design our curriculum in this way?  What might a “UDL” classroom look like?

UDL classrooms come in all shapes and sizes, though most have a number of identifying features.  These include posted lesson goals so that the students know exactly what the teacher is intending to teach.  Why would we “secretly” teach our students something?  When our students know what the learning goals are, they are better able to engage with the material in a way that will lead to successful outcomes.  A UDL classroom also provides a multitude of options in any given assignment, allowing students to demonstrate their learning in the way that makes most sense for them and their learning style.  The most important outcome is for a student to LEARN what we are trying to teach them, and not for them to be confined to a specific product that doesn’t align with the goals of the lesson.  A UDL classroom will also have flexible work spaces, allowing students to shift the learning environment to meet their needs, and will also include regular and specific feedback for students so that they know whether or not they are on target with the learning goals.

The research has shown that not only does UDL improve learning outcomes for diverse learners, but it also improves learning outcomes for ALL students in the classroom.  After all, we are all diverse in our approach to learning, and a classroom that takes a universal approach and is designed in a way that will meet the needs of all students in the classroom will just serve to provide better outcomes across the board.  UDL encourages teachers and instructors to move away from the idea of figuring out “how to teach students with disabilities” and focus more acutely on how to design a curriculum that works for all students, and it is this broader approach that helps us reach all of our students in new ways.

While UDL is taking a stronger and stronger foothold in public schools and in K-12 education, the shift to the college level has only just begun.  The possibilities are endless, and I believe very strongly that applying these principles in college classrooms can drastically improve learning outcomes for college students and will provide better and better opportunities for college students who may not have otherwise had these opportunities.  The work before us is vast and exciting!