Design and deliver all course elements for maximum accessibility to give every student equitable opportunities for success.
What is UDL?
Developed by the CAST organization, 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.” UDL evolved from an attempt to remove environmental barriers that obstruct any person’s ability to fully participate in society.
In education, UDL promotes and designs for accessibility and equity, accommodating all teaching and learning styles and preferences. Its framework “guides teachers to heighten the salience of goals and objectives in order to design engaging, challenging learning experiences that allow all students to become knowledgeable, strategic, and motivated” (Novak, 2022). UDL recognizes that there is no single way to learn, whether receiving, processing, or expressing knowledge. UDL is a supportive, inclusive practice that helps all students learn.
Recognizing that students have a diverse range of abilities, environments, and experiences, equitable course development incorporates multiple means of learning and expression for these students. By prioritizing accessibility in a course, instructors design their course from the vantage point of multiple perspectives, creating learning experiences that can engage a diverse group of students.
UDL Serves All Students
UDL serves all students, not just students with accommodations. Instructors who practice UDL understand “[v]ariability is the rule, not the exception. Learners may need to learn in different ways, using different materials to reach the same goals” (Novak, 2022).
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, all people are affected by changes to their environment, be it social or academic. Practicing UDL in courses means maximizing opportunities to learn by making room for a range of abilities and methods of expression. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to deaf or hard of hearing students, is also a benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to those watching the video in a noisy environment. Delivering content in redundant ways can improve instruction for students with a variety of learning preferences and cultural backgrounds. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on a website benefits students with disabilities and everyone else.
At the same time, employing UDL does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. For example, the University may need to provide a sign language interpreter for a student who is deaf. However, applying UDL concepts in course planning ensures full access to the content for most students and minimizes the need for special accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class (partially adapted from “DO-IT” by University of Washington under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 License).
The UDL Framework
CAST’s guidelines concern providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. UDL considers three main forms of learning: recognition learning, strategic learning, and affective learning, as detailed in the graphic below and this more detailed, downloadable resource from CAST:
Research on student learning demonstrates that multi-modal access helps to improve learning outcomes for all students. Multi-modal access essentially means providing several pathways to access course material. UDL also advocates multi-model means of expression for students to demonstrate their learning.
Implementing UDL in Your Course
The University of Washington’s “DO-IT” project explains: “To apply UDL, instructors should consider the potential variation in individual skills, learning styles and preferences, age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, abilities, and disabilities as they select appropriate content and strategies for the delivery of instruction and then apply universal design to all course activities and resources.”
Katie Novak (2022, p.26) asks instructors to consider these essential questions as they implement UDL in their courses:
- What do all students need to know or be able to do?
- What barriers to learning might students face?
- How can I design the course and assessments so that all students can learn and demonstrate their learning?
Elaine Gerber, Montclair anthropology professor, shares her strategies for implementing UDL in her classroom, benefiting all her students.
Planning Your Course
- Select accessible materials from the start where possible, including software, apps, and tools that supplement the delivery of course content.
- Make course materials accessible. For text-based documents, such as PDFs, ensure they are accessible to screen readers, and use clear fonts and spacing, using built-in Accessibility checkers in Canvas, Microsoft Word, or Adobe Acrobat. Use captions for all instructional images, video, and audio content. Provide alternative information for any visual content (for example, audio or text-based descriptions of visual elements).
- Consult the Digital Accessibility FAQs, from Montclair’s Digital Accessibility Initiative.
- Offer options for demonstrating knowledge, allowing choice in topics and format when designing assignments. Instructors define what students need to demonstrate knowledge of or ability in, but individual students exercise flexibility in how to demonstrate their knowledge or abilities by choosing preferred mediums of expression.
- Consider utilizing a range of options across the duration of your course for students to demonstrate course mastery. Avoid bias towards only one mode of expression (i.e., only accepting written work). Consider oral submissions, video submissions, class presentations, and other modes of demonstrating learning mastery.
- Consider the variety of students in your course, and plan with them in mind. Penn State World Campus developed a set of personas and their needs that may be useful to consult.
During the Course
- Begin class with goal setting: List on the board and audibly state the what (purpose) and how (tasks) of each session. This reduces cognitive load, while modeling transparency, time management, and organizing ideas at the micro and macro levels.
- Engage responsively and respectfully with official accommodations by working with students to support their needs for student success. Most accommodations provided (e.g., 2x time on tests) set a minimum standard for instructors and should prompt instructors to engage directly with learners about their needs.
- Read and describe the information that is on your slidedeck or written on the board during class or a recorded lecture; don’t assume everyone can see it clearly.
- Use a mix of peer-to-peer and self-evaluation through reflection writing, conferencing, question-based criteria sheets and checklists, and samples of graded assignments with your feedback. This allows students to understand how they will be evaluated prior to starting an assignment, and develop self-assessment and prosocial techniques for constructive feedback.
- Provide regular, specific feedback on student progress, delivering this in multiple modes.
- Use visualizations of concepts. Get ideas for how to choose or create visualizations to accompany a dense lecture: Making a Ted-Ed Lesson: Visualizing Complex Ideas.
- Examine the physical space for learning for accessibility. Can students see and hear clearly? Can they move around freely? Is there proper lighting/temperature? Combine individual/autonomous work, collaborative small and large group work, and forward-facing lecture-based work by reconfiguring the space. While it may be impossible to create the ideal classroom climate due to factors outside your control, simple strategies like closing blinds in the front of the room and turning off any lights that shine on the screen if you are projecting material may be possible. Make sure you write largely enough on the board to be seen from the back (move back there and check); make sure your whiteboard marker is a clear, dark color. Ask students: Can you read this? Can you see that?
- Seek student input on teaching strategies through surveys or other methods to discover individual strengths and needs, preferences for expression and engagement, and responses with the activities and assessments that you employ.
- Provide accessible presentation materials and instruct students in creating their own. Here are a few resources focused on font size, color, and contrast:
- How to Meet WCAG (Quick Reference) from W3C: provides detailed breakdown and examples of issues in web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) (section 1.4 is about color, contrast, and text size)
- AccessiBE: performs free audit of websites for ADA and WCAG compliance
- Contrast Grid: provides chart with color and font size combinations that are WCAG compliant
- W3C: Accessibility fundamentals for website (provides very detailed overview with links about different components of web design and accessibility)
- Presentation guidelines from James Madison University: discusses font size and contrast for PowerPoints
Resources and References
- Promote anti-ableism. Ableism is prejudice that privileges able-bodied people. That is, develop the habit of questioning aloud with your students whether the ideas, concepts or beliefs reflect an assumption that being nondisabled is inherently better.
- Work with the Montclair Instructional Technology and Design Services (ITDS), Disability Resource Center (DRC), and other campus entities to stay current on assistive technologies and accessible formats. UDL strategies and technologies are constantly evolving.
- Promote the use of American Sign Language (ASL), Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and Audio Description (AD) in all Montclair sponsored presentations, events, activities.
Audio description example, Bridge Multimedia example
Digital Accessibility FAQs, from Montclair’s Digital Accessibility Initiative
Mapping Access – strategies for simply and effectively designing for accessible learning.
Explore Access – disability community recommended tools for promoting disability and inclusion.
Humanizing Online Teaching – teaching practices for equity and social justice and our collective experiences of online and hybrid teaching. It is not centered on the technical aspects of online teaching but rather pedagogical practices that promote care for the whole student and class collective.
Universal Design for Learning – guidelines, lesson plans, and rubrics for designing for accessibility.
Creating Accessible Educational Resources – the National Center for AERs has a host of guidelines, resources for teaching and rubrics.
All Technology is Assistive — Sarah Hendren makes the case that designing for disabilities actually is a way to create better designs for everyone in this thoughtful essay on object design that has implications for teaching design.
Applications of Universal Design – University of Washington, DO-IT program.
Baglieri, S., and Lalvani, P. (2020). Undoing Ableism: Teaching about Disability in K-12 Classrooms (2020). Routledge. * Montclair State University authors.
Chtena, N. (2016, Dec. 13). Teaching Tips For an UDL-Friendly Classroom: Advice for implementing strategies based on Universal Design for Learning. Inside Higher Education.
Doyle, N. (2020, April 29). “We Have Been Disabled: How The Pandemic Has Proven The Social Model Of Disability.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/drnancydoyle/2020/04/29/we-have-been-disabled-how-the-pandemic-has-proven-the-social-model-of-disability/#49b0e4912b1d
Edelberg, E. (2019, June). “Deep Dive: How Audio Description Benefits Everyone.” 3playermedia.com. https://www.3playmedia.com/blog/deep-dive-how-audio-description-benefits-everyone/#:~:text=Audio%20description%20also%20provides%20a,tied%20down%20in%20one%20place.
Guest, K. R. P. & Jack, J. (2017, Nov. 27). When You Talk about Banning Laptops, You Throw Disabled Students under the Bus. Huffpost. Retrieved 2 August 2022 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-you-talk-about-banning-laptops-you-throw-disabled_b_5a1ccb4ee4b07bcab2c6997d?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004
Kleege, G. & Wallen, S. (2015). “Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool.” Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2). https://ezproxy.montclair.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsdoj&AN=edsdoj.14b646439cc0449d92befd32d1ec9656&site=eds-live&scope=site
Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.
Novak, K. (2022). UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning. (3rd edition). CAST Professional Publishing.
Womack, A., Blanchard, A., Wang, C., & Jessee, M. (2015). Accessible syllabus. Retrieved March 18, 2021, from https://www.accessiblesyllabus.com/
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