Challenges abound in the modern education system, which emphasizes accommodating students from all walks of life. Marginalized individuals have long struggled to get the access, support, and respect they deserve, but this is quickly changing — and innovative frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) deserve much of the credit.
Reflecting today’s awareness that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in education, UDL encourages us to rethink the tenets of ‘traditional’ learning and adopt a more inclusive and, ultimately, impactful approach.
What Is Universal Design for Learning?
UDL provides a valuable framework for teaching and learning, with the intention of eliminating barriers for a variety of people. Drawing on cognitive neuroscience, this approach is based on the architectural concept of Universal Design (UD).
Centered around principles such as equitable and intuitive use, UD has transformed architecture and product design. When successful, UD makes a variety of buildings and environments accessible to all people, regardless of age, cognitive abilities, or mobility limitations. Now, its tenets promise to revitalize our schools.
Applied to education, UDL brings a greater degree of agility into the classroom environment, incorporating several means of engagement, along with accommodations for all types of students.
Harvard’s David Rose (one of the UDL movement’s most prominent and public figures) sums up the framework’s philosophy as centering around “tight goals, flexible means, as opposed to the tight goals and tight means that schools tend to have.”
Why Is Universal Design Important?
A growing body of research suggests that traditional classrooms and other learning environments have exacerbated learning difficulties for a wide array of students. UDL aims to correct this by ensuring that all learning experiences are created with the diverse needs of learners in mind.
The core assumption of this approach is that individual learners are incredibly variable in how they respond to virtually every aspect of instruction. As such, many are harmed by accessibility barriers that may not be evident to educational professionals. UDL shines a light on these challenges and encourages active efforts to address and correct these problems.
This concerted effort is imperative given the huge gaps in current learning outcomes — and the ongoing disparities that these gaps can produce in students’ careers and well-being. If we fail to close this achievement gap, yet another generation of students will find themselves stuck in an endless cycle of inequality.
What Are the Three Principles of Universal Design for Learning?
UDL involves three main principles that coalesce to deliver an inclusive and effective academic environment. These are outlined in detail in the official UDL Guidelines from CAST (initially known as the Center for Applied Special Technology).
- Representation. According to UDL, no two learners will perceive or comprehend information in the exact same manner. As such, information should be presented in different ways and via multiple formats, with the recognition that students find different approaches compelling or accessible. Furthermore, these various representations help students make stronger connections between concepts.
- Action and expression. In addition to exhibiting stark differences in comprehension, students differ considerably in expressing what they have learned or already know. For example, some may excel with the written word but struggle with speech — or vice versa. Others may need language accommodation as they master second languages. Students should have many opportunities to share what they have learned in a way they find accessible and compelling.
- Engagement. Positive learning outcomes are difficult to achieve when students feel bored or disconnected. What motivates students will vary according to their culture, background knowledge, and numerous other factors. Some love routine, while others prefer spontaneity. Some make leaps and bounds while working alone, but others gain the most through collaboration.
How Does UDL Impact Student Learning?
While research regarding the long-term impact of UDL remains limited, early signs suggest that this approach has already made a considerable difference in classrooms nationwide. As CAST points out, more research will be available as “full-scale curricular applications and system-wide implementations are developed.”
At this point, a broad spectrum of supplemental research backs up the value of universal design for learning principles. CAST has compiled a collection of studies that support each of the principles and specific checkpoints. Advocates believe that UDL reaches students where they are rather than forcing them to adapt to a system that may be out of reach.
How Does UDL Benefit Students and Teachers?
Students should love learning, but this passion has all too frequently been absent in traditional classrooms. UDL aims to resolve this by building learning environments that truly spark joy and intrigue in students of all types. Every learner should be able to find something compelling about the modern UDL classroom.
While the UDL’s value for students is easy to identify, advocates also believe this framework is hugely beneficial for today’s hardworking teachers. While the one-size-fits-all approaches of yesteryear hampered their ability to reach diverse learners, teachers now have the ability to adjust their strategy to fit the unique needs of each student and classroom. Teachers especially appreciate the added flexibility that UDL provides, and greater autonomy lends them more confidence in their work.
Regarding the value of respect and autonomy within the UDL framework, CAST research director Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann explains, “Everyone is expected to question everything and contribute big ideas. Everyone’s thinking is considered at the same level.”
Classroom management, in particular, becomes more inviting when students’ needs can be met creatively. Under this approach, students are less inclined to act out, as their needs are already met through each curated lesson and learning environment.
Embrace the Educational Opportunities of Tomorrow
At Post University, we are pleased to provide a wonderful opportunity to explore impactful options such as Universal Design for Learning. Our online Learning Design and Technology Graduate Certificate provides a thorough overview of today’s most noteworthy models and processes for instructional design. Additionally, Post’s online Master of Education degree program seeks to inform and expose our students to educational practices, to apply their learning to achieve successful outcomes for all students, and to impact their field as professionals. Contact us today to learn more about the many excellent offerings from Post University’s .
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