Applying Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: An Educator’s Thought Process

Friday, April 21, 2017 -- Winnie O'Leary

I spent years teaching in the classroom and, like every other educator I know, plenty of my free time was spent thinking about how to be a better teacher. Now, I still spend lots of my free time thinking about the classroom, but I’m lucky enough to be able to share all of those insights with educators across the country as a consultant for Edmentum. Every time I peruse the webosphere looking for inspiration, I’m amazed at the thoughts and theories that are out there. There are so many awesome strategies that are based on a strong foundation of understanding how students learn. I love learning about these ideas, but translating them into realistic classroom instruction can be a challenge.

The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a perfect example. Last month, we introduced this approach as one that turns traditional instructional methodologies upside down. The voice in my head is screaming to try this in the classroom. Let me give you a peek inside my brain to share the concrete strategies I’d use to put this theory into practice in the classroom:

1. Focus on setting goals

OK, this seems like something I can do. It’s not too far out of reach of what I do already, right? Goals are learning expectations. I just need to identify what skills, concepts, and general knowledge all students should be able to demonstrate mastery in. These goals should align to my state standards—and I do that already. Now, I just need to focus on sharing them with my students. I can post goals for specific lessons on the whiteboard or bulletin board or make posters. Maybe I can keep a running list and introduce each lesson along with a corresponding goal. Then, by the end of the year, I can point to this list and show the students what they have been doing all year. I could even incorporate this into my daily class meeting and lesson intro. I can set overarching classroom goals and then have regular conferences with students to set individual goals. This, I can do.

2. Offer students multiple options for completing assignments

I‘m no fool (and I like my free time)—technology is the solution here. I just need to be comfortable with students providing me with podcasts, comic strips, videos, infographics, or whatever other artifacts they dream up as an opportunity to show me what they know. And, I need to make sure that these follow the goals and standards that we lay out as a class. Using an essential question could make this a realistic option; I just need to make my questions open-ended, and engaging, and they need to enable student inquiry. This will allow my students to follow their own personal passion, and take advantage of technology to facilitate exploration, engage in inquiry, and unleash their creativity. I can even use technology to get to cross-disciplinary questioning and help my students connect learning across subjects and activities. This, I can do.

3. Make the classroom a flexible learning environment

The UDL framework is all about creating flexible solutions for learning, so shouldn’t my classroom reflect all kinds of learning styles? This means that I should have a classroom that respects various needs of students in their learning process. I’ve already committed to adopting a flexible approach to allow students to demonstrate understanding and prove mastery; it only makes sense that my classroom should support multiple modalities that students may use to arrive at answers to essential questions and meet goals. This is going to mean that I need flexible spaces and materials to meet the needs of all of my learners. I need quiet, inviting spaces for individual work, so maybe I can set up a couple areas with comfortable seating, headphones, and lots of table space to spread out. I’ll also need space dedicated to group work and instruction, so I’ll set up large tables with different seating options, whiteboards, plenty of materials, and maybe even a couple of computer or tablet stations. I could even think about creating a makerspace within my classroom. My goal is to support the curriculum with a classroom design that helps students customize their own learning, move through content on their own terms, and engage in these different kinds of interactions. This, I can do.

4. Give plenty of feedback

Within the UDL model, feedback is critical, and it needs to be given frequently. It’s a good thing that I’m already prioritizing goal setting, both for my class and individual students, so I’ll always have something to refer back to. I want my students to think critically about their goals, choices, and progress. Maybe I can have students keep detailed logs of their process on various projects, so, if students don’t meet their goals, they can reflect on what they could have done differently for a better outcome. Maybe there is technology that can help with this. Or, maybe I can set up regular time for conferencing and peer review. I’m not afraid of failing, and I want to teach my students that same ability, so I’ll always focus on asking “What did I learn from that?” instead of only thinking about successful outcomes. This, I can do.

5. Provide all types of materials for all types of learners

Once again, I need to take advantage of technology here. All materials should be accessible to all learners in a UDL classroom. This means that standard classroom supplies, like glitter, glue, and paper need to be within easy reach, but it also means that I need to be aware of other media that students may choose. For example, if students want to demonstrate mastery of a recent history lesson by creating a podcast, I need to make sure that the technology they need to do so is available. I can always keep the unconventional in mind and make sure that my students have the options they need to open the gates to creativity. This, I can do. 

The goal of the UDL framework is to create an environment in which every child is an important contributor. UDL classrooms are safe places where all students can become and demonstrate the expert learners they inherently are, accentuate their strengths and build up their shortcomings, and explore their natural curiosity. By creating a flexible, but student-focused classroom environment, you can do this too.

Looking for an online tool that can help as you work through your own process to make universal design for learning a reality in the classroom? Check out Edmentum’s brand new Exact Path solution for K-8 individualized learning!