Universal Design for Learning removes all barriers

How Universal Design for Learning provides flexibility for students and educators in achieving their goals

Universal Design for Learning might sound like a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. But it’s just the opposite.

UDL recognizes that variability is the norm when it comes to how students learn. The approach guides administrators and teachers in designing a flexible system of instruction that will appeal to every child in a classroom, says Jennifer Levine, senior director of professional learning at CAST, the nonprofit organization that developed UDL.

“Shifting to UDL means that instead of saying, ‘Little Suzy couldn’t learn a lesson because she wouldn’t sit still,’ you’re saying, ‘Little Suzy didn’t do well today because my lesson today required her to sit still,’” Levine says. “It’s a profound change in thinking for many teachers.”

CAST breaks down UDL into three overriding principles: Students are motivated when they see purpose in learning, educators present content in a variety of ways, and students use a range of methods to express knowledge.

CAST also offers a checklist educators can use to anticipate some of the learning variability they will encounter.

The mission is to empower students to overcome individual academic and social-emotional hurdles, such as language barriers, reading difficulties and accessibility, says James Basham, founder of the UDL Implementation & Research Network, which is now part CAST.

“The goal is to develop what we call ‘expert learners,’” says Basham, co-author of “Blueprint for UDL Implementation.” “These are students who understand the learning process and how they learn most effectively, and who can support their own learning through a self-determined manner.”

Universal design for learning is ‘more rewarding and more fun’

Since the School District of Sheboygan Falls (1,700 students) in Wisconsin began transitioning to UDL a few years ago, state test scores have shown that the achievement gap is closing between general education students and learners who come from low-income families or who have learning disabilities.

The change requires teachers to front-load their lesson plans. They must know how each student learns best and design instruction to accommodate the various styles, says Mark Thompson, a high school UDL instructional coach and social studies teacher.

“You’re not focused on the test or on a specific project,” Thompson says. “You’re focused on an idea and letting kids demonstrate that idea in multiple ways.”

Read more: How Universal Design for Learning resets school systems

In an algebra class, for example, a group of Sheboygan Falls students explained “unit circles” with a narrated slideshow. In other classes, students have designed websites and produced stop-animation videos.

When students leverage their unique interests and skills, they also develop a sense of purpose and ownership that leads to deeper engagement and persistence, Thompson says.

Student achievement gaps have narrowed since the School District of Sheboygan Falls shifted to Universal Design for Learning a few years ago.
Student achievement gaps have narrowed since the School District of Sheboygan Falls shifted to Universal Design for Learning a few years ago.

Teachers don’t have to give up all control. Students still need guidance, particularly when they set learning goals that don’t aim high enough—such as reading books below their grade level.

UDL coaches are in place at the elementary, middle and high school levels to assist teachers. And last year, teachers created online resources that let students practice skills anytime, anywhere.

Teachers have added narration to sample math problems and highlighted key vocabulary for reading assignments to help struggling learners.

And back in the classroom, teachers no longer expect students to sit in traditional, ordered rows. Sheboygan Falls students move around to collaborate and choose tools and

“As a teacher, you’re guiding choices and helping kids individually instead of saying, ‘I will lecture to all of you, and you will all learn the same way,’” Thompson says. “As a teacher, it’s more rewarding and more fun.”

‘Variability is the norm’

Fewer students have been referred for special education services since the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (11,500 students) broke K-12 ground when it shifted to UDL more than a decade ago.

Educators in the diverse Indiana district have eliminated some of the conditions that in the past would have required an IEP, says Director of Special Education George Van Horn, who designs UDL-based instruction and professional development across the district.

“For example, textbooks in audio or digital formats are available to everyone,” Van Horn says. “What students would’ve gotten in special education in the past is now a part of the general classroom.”

Nearly 90% of district students with disabilities now spend more than 80% of the day in a general classroom.

Beyond special education, UDL drives all curricular and instructional decisions made in the district. Administrators choose digital and print resources that have the potential to engage students on multiple levels and that allow students to express themselves in different ways, Van Horn says.

Students in Sheboygan Falls don't always sit in rows of desks since the district adopted Universal Design for Learning.
Students in Sheboygan Falls don’t always sit in rows of desks since the district adopted Universal Design for Learning.

For example, some students might still take the traditional written unit test. The teacher will also allow learners to take an oral exam, or work in groups to design a PowerPoint presentation or produce a video.

“Often, the focus tends to be on the students; the students can do this and the students can’t do that,” he says. “The way we view it as educators is that we are the ones who have to change if there’s a student who’s not learning.”

The district also has e-learning days for students to work remotely. Teachers post instructional videos and check in with students through Google Hangouts and other tools, says Nick Williams, the district’s director of technology.

New teachers get a crash course on UDL during orientation and have access to instructional coaches and to ongoing online and in-person PD. The district also hosts a UDL institute every summer.

Between 2009 and 2014, students in all subgroups—including English language learners and students from low-income families—increased their pass rates on an Indiana state assessment. (The district uses 2014 as a cutoff because Indiana has changed its assessment twice since then.)

In Advanced Placement courses, which are open to all students, test scores increased by 17 points above the state average in 2018. The district also exceeded state averages in the numbers of students going to and staying in college.

“Our staff now understands that variability is the norm,” Van Horn says. “We are using students’ interests and prior knowledge to hook them and get them excited about what they’re doing.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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