Thursday, September 10, 2015

Universal Design for Learning: Access for All

By Cynthia Lardner, J.D., M.A.,  and Linda Hannon, M.A.
“My son is not keeping up with the reading in his English class. I don’t understand, as he is just so articulate. What do you suggest?”
“Well, Mrs. Jones, we could bring a CD player that Mark can use to listen to the book while the other students work during silent reading.”
“Hmm. I think Mark is worried that he will stand out from the other 7th graders.”
“Let me talk to my supervisor about what else we might change for your son.”
“Someone mentioned something about Universal Design for Learning. Are you familiar with that?”
What is the Universal Design for Learning?
Many administrators and educators, when asked about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), immediately link it to assistive technology. While assistive technology for students with learning differences was the first application of UDL in public education, today UDL’s application is much broader. UDL taps into the entire learning process for all learners and, while doing so, maximizes the use of technology. In fact, a master teacher could teach an entire course designed using UDL on just about any subject, excepting technology, without any technology!
The definition of UDL, according to its designers, is “...a research-based framework for designing curricula – that is, educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments — that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously providing rich supports for learning and reducing barriers to the curriculum, while maintaining high achievement standards for all students.”
UDL was developed by CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit organization founded by researchers Drs. David Rose and Ann Meyer, whose roots are in hospital neuroscience and psychology. Rather than retrofitting education for individual students, UDL designers drew their inspiration from modern architecture, which seeks to make buildings accessible for all users without compromising the design. An architectural retrofit might be to add a wooden ramp with sharp turns to an existing structure for a physically challenged individual. Modern architecture, however, incorporates accessibility for all users into the original building design. Perhaps the best-known example is the aesthetically pleasing and highly accessible Solomon Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, New York City, which has bold, broad, and graceful circular ramps.
According to Meyer and Rose, educators retrofit because the curriculum, not the student, is disabled. If the curriculum were properly designed in the first instance, in their view, then retrofitting would be relegated to retrospection.  
What Factors Does Universal Design Take into Account?
In order to properly design curriculum for all students, Meyer and Rose believe that we must take the following into account:
  • We learn differently. According to CAST, “The way we learn is as individual as DNA or fingerprints.” The four main learning styles are: 
Learning StyleLearner’s Characteristics
Innovative and cooperative
  • Learn from the views of others
  • Clarify and expand upon those views to create a personalized and meaningful understanding with the ultimate goal of benefiting society
Institutional and analytical
  • Learn through books and traditional auditory-sequential pathways
  • Learn through hands-on experience
  • Bring to learning a hefty dose of common sense, practicality, and a need for usefulness
Intuitive and dynamic
  • Synthesize information from a wide variety of sources
  • Often unable to explain how or why they know something despite the fact that they are usually correct
  • When teaching, often skip the textbook and develop their own materials
The innovative and experiential learners are seen as polar opposites, as are institutional and intuitive learners. These learning styles affect familial, professional, and student/teacher relationships. 

Today’s teachers, especially at the secondary level, often teach to the first two groups — the institutional and cooperative learners — groups to which they tend to belong. But, in order to be a master teacher, one must address the learning needs of all four groups. UDL allows for this to transpire. 
Processing Style:
We process differently. The three dominant styles, described at their simplest, are: 

Learner’s Characteristics
Auditory-sequentialThink in words 
Visual-spatialThink in pictures 
Take information in on a visual-spatial basis and process it in later on an auditory-sequential way level
In all populations, approximately 77 percent of all learners are visual-spatial or bi-hemispheric, with the latter encompassing a majority of gifted individuals. Curriculum, especially in secondary schools, targets the auditory-sequential learner. 
  • We have varying strengths and interests. 
  • Our personality traits are varied. For instance, extraverts derive energy through being with others, whereas introverts need quiet time in order to recharge. Statistically, about 77 percent of the U.S. population and 53 percent of all teachers are extraverts. Conversely, 87 percent of highly gifted individuals (IQ of at least 140) are introverts and 60 percent of the remaining gifted individuals (IQ 123 to 140) are introverts. Introverted children may not be perceived by educators to be as bright as extraverted students. 
Taking all of these individual differences into account, CAST identified three primary brain networks and their roles in learning, as shown below:
Is UDL Consistent with Education’s Trajectory?
Speaking at the National Association of Gifted Children’s 2009 annual conference, Dr. Howard Gardner, father of the multiple intelligences theory, indicated that his vision of effective education is compatible with UDL when he discussed what he considers to be hallmarks of effective education:
  • Individuation, to the extent possible teaching individuals in ways they can learn, and allowing them to show what they understand in ways that best suit them, something that technology facilitates
  • Pluralization, teaching content in many different ways, an approach that allows educators to avoid “confusing academics with competencies.
Both Dr. Gardner’s vision and implementation of UDL may sound like a pipe dream for today’s educators who function in an abysmal economic climate. In many states a return to 2009-2010 funding levels is not expected for many years, and increases in funding may be as far out as ten years in some states.
The economy, however, has not halted the passage of increasingly more stringent teaching standards and student assessments. As another federal overhaul of our educational system is expected in the not-too-distant future, we can find hints of the direction new policies and initiatives might take from other recent developments. One clue can be found in the references to “universal design” in the Higher Education Opportunity Act, both before and after its reauthorization in 2008. It now requires that the Universal Design for Learning be taught to pre-service teachers.
Another hint lies in the wide-spread acceptance of the 21st Century Learner model, which emphasizes the ability to think critically, to share our knowledge, and to participate as a productive member of a globalized society. When examined side by side, the 21st Century Learner model and UDL are yin and yang, with the former defining the desired outcome and the latter providing the process. In other words, the 21st Century Learner model defines what a learner should be able to do, and UDL focuses on understanding the individual student first, then devising techniques and strategies to allow the student to show what he or she can do. 
Both models are compatible with the spirit and intent of the traditional differentiation model, in which the teacher modifies content, process, and products to meet a student’s individual needs. The UDL model differs in that it requires changes to the curriculum,  analyzing how instruction can be collectively provided and how assessment is conducted in relation to the individual needs and strengths of the student. UDL looks for ways for the student to access the instruction and demonstrate knowledge in a way that is unique and meaningful to the student.  
How Can Educators Apply UDL in the Classroom?
How might we apply UDL to help ensure that all students are engaged, learning at maximum capacity, and demonstrating their mastery? Let’s look at an example, teaching the solar system. In addition to using traditional teaching tools such as textbooks, pictures, or a movie, a teacher could do the following.
  • Add an exercise in which the students walk out the distances between planets on a football field and then mimic the movement of the planets and their moons. 
  • Provide a rubric of the material that must be mastered. A rubric is an express list of criteria by which performance will be assessed, and it can provide for different levels of assessment for increasingly complex levels of understanding. When we give students crystallized expectations, we can allow them to show their mastery in the way that best reflects their level of understanding. A unit-end project, for example, might then take the form of a research paper, a drawing, a mobile, a model, a PowerPoint presentation, or a computer-animated model. All would be acceptable, with grading based on the rubric. Gifted students whose work reflects their complexity would be graded on par with more simplistic offerings that still complied with the rubric. The use of traditional assessment methods, on the other hand, can fail to accurately reveal student strengths and weaknesses.
One teacher recommends regularly using one-on-one interviews to probe students’ thinking, not only when their answers are wrong but also when they’re right. This strategy gives all students needed experience in communicating how they reason while offering teachers a chance to learn how their students take in, process, and manipulate information. It also allows teachers to spot students who may know the information but, as is common with many twice-exceptional students, are unable to convey their mastery in the manner proscribed. This strategy can be particularly effective when working with a new class or after a test or project.
Here are some additional UDL teaching strategies that can help all children become 21st Century learners:
  • Use varied instructional methods, including augmenting lectures with experiential activities, peer mentoring, technology-based activities, and cooperative learning situations. 
  • Relate a new topic to one already learned or a real-life example. This works especially well when encouraging students who have reading and writing learning differences.
  • After providing a rubric, allow all students opportunities to demonstrate subject matter knowledge through methods other than written tests. This allows every student to show the depth and breadth of their understanding.
  • Permit and encourage the use of technology by all students, including that which previously would have been seen as adaptive. For instance, digital textbooks offer many options for temperament, as well as for each learning and processing style.
In addition to using these strategies, teachers can maximize individual performance by providing students with the following:
  • A comprehensive syllabus identifying course requirements, the nature and timing of meaningful feedback, and due dates
  • Illustrations, handouts, and auditory and visual aids
  • Guided notes, which enable all students to listen for essential concepts without worrying about missing information they’ll need for later study 
  • Notes recorded and/or posted on-line, which allow students to focus their attention on lectures and classroom discussions (In an effort to teach better note-taking, one teacher offered a copy of her notes in exchange for the student’s best effort at taking his or her own notes. Another teacher up-loaded videos of lectures to YouTube.)
  • Easily accessible study guides and rubrics
  • “Off-site” information, such as news about a special exhibit at a museum, a concert or planetarium show, and the more common on-line links to materials. A recently published study companion for a classic novel offers a mind-map, also called a concept map, for its purchasers. Mind maps help visual-spatial learners grasp information traditionally presented in an auditory-sequential manner.
These suggestions are drawn from the UDL Guidelines, 29 pages of well-organized, easy-to-use concepts, including underlying rationale, specific populations impacted and concrete examples (
 How Can Parents Use UDL?
As parents, we are our children’s best and sometimes only advocates. If our children have multiple exceptionalities, advocacy often involves developing a 504 Plan or an Individual Educational Program under IDEA. We can be effective at representing our children by being proactive, educated participants who are current on research and resources. We can help our children’s teachers see that UDL is a box filled with tools of every kind that can help students with gifts, disabilities, or both.
Some UDL Resources
About the Author
Cynthia Lardner, J.D., M.A., was training as a counselor, specializing in learning, giftedness, individuals with disabilities, and gifted individuals with disabilities. Lardner has lectured and conducted in-service training for private and public sector educational institutions and professional organizations across the United States  
How an individual learns impacts every facet of her foreign policy analyses and vast social media platform.
She may be reached at
Reprinted with Permission from the Publisher: 
Lardner, Cynthia and Hannon, Linda, “Universal Design for Learning”, July 2010, 2E Newsletter, as found on the www at and
For additional information on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and 21st Century Learning, see these articles from the November, 2010, issue of 2e Newsletter: 

Linda Hannon, M.A., was the Director of Special Education in the Troy School District . Prior to her retirement, she was responsible for bringing a variety of innovative programs into the district including a Post High Program, focusing on preparing students for life after school in their own community, a Parent Advisory Committee, and Algebraic Thinking, a collaboration between special and general education. 

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