Universal Design for Learning: Feedback Requested

I’ve had 2 workshop proposals accepted at the second Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I’m excited to be co-designing and co-presenting with two students who are extremely knowledgeable about disability rights and disability-based accommodations in educational institutions.  I’m going to use this post to brainstorm two workshops:

  • Student-Designed Curriculum
  • Student-Designed Assessment

Comic showing a worker shovelling stairs. He says: "All these other kids are waiting to use the stairs. When I get through shoveling them off, then I will clear the ramp for you." A wheelchair user replies, "But if you shovel the ramp, we can all get in!"If you’re not familiar with UDL, it emerged in the 90s, inspired by universal design in architecture.  In the architectural world, the goal is to design systems that are as broadly usable as possible, rather than creating “alternatives” to systems that create barriers for some users.  The classic example is about a ramp vs. stairs.  If you build stairs, you’ll need a ramp or an elevator or some other method for wheelchair users to bypass the stairs; but if you build a ramp, both walkers and wheelers can use it (along with those pushing strollers, hauling carts, using crutches, etc.).

Like any educational philosophy, people use it in lots of ways to mean lots of things, some of which contradict each other. One of the main proponents is the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning, which publishes guidelines recommending

  • Multiple means of engagement (i.e. many possible answers to “why am I learning this”)
  • Multiple means of representation (i.e. many possible ways I can access information)
  • Multiple means of action and expression (i.e. many possible ways to show what I know and can do)

I’m simplifying here, and the guidelines have evolved to include more complex ideas about executive function, self-regulation, etc.  You can see a comparison of the three version of the guidelines as they have evolved. It looks to me like the vocabulary has gotten more complex and the order has changed, but the ideas mostly have not.  I think they intend to shift away from assuming that learners need changing, to assuming that curriculum needs to be more accessible… I’m not totally sold that this infographic does justice to that idea.  But that’s ok.  A lot of things have gotten lumped under this umbrella, and I’m interested in a specific subset: creating learning environments where students have as much control as possible.

UDL Vs. Differentiation

Differentiated Instruction vs. Universal Design for LearningThis, for me, is what distinguishes UDL from a “differentiation” approach. Differentiation often focuses on being responsive to student difficulties caused by inaccessible materials, like a print handout; teachers have to create alternate materials (maybe providing an electronic copy) tailored to that student, and someone (probably the student) has to justify the increased work by submitting a documented diagnosis, or everyone would want it…

UDL focuses on removing barriers in the first place.  The vision that excites me is of choosing the most flexible options that inherently afford students to differentiate for themselves.  To give a slightly trivial example, if I provide electronic copies of everything to everyone, those who want print copies can have them; those who use screen readers can use them; those who use a tablet to magnify the document can do that.   That doesn’t mean the instructor no longer needs pay attention; students will still experience barriers that we haven’t anticipated or that aren’t in our power to change (in this example, I’ll have to notice who has high-speed internet access at home and who doesn’t; who has a tablet; etc).  But there should be fewer of them. And it should no longer depend on “proving” that you’re “needy” enough to “deserve” accommodations.  Unlike differentiation, UDL is already there before you show up, before you ask for it.  It becomes a flexibility that benefits everyone.

Standards-based grading is of course a part of that.  I  allow students to decide when they will reassess (within a certain window), in what format, and with what specific example.  They are welcome to write a quiz, but just as welcome to submit a paper, a screencast, a blog post, or a video; the subject can be an experiment, some research, an interview, etc., as long as it demonstrates their mastery of the skill in question.

Loose Means, Tight Goals… But How to Choose the Goals?

To realize the promise of UDL, I have to choose the skills with extreme care, and disaggregate them as much as possible.  Because I teach electronics circuits courses, the skills I have chosen are things like “interpret voltmeter measurements”, and “analyze a capacitor circuit”.  I have carefully removed the format from the skill; it’s not “write a lab report about a capacitor circuit.”  Should my students be required to know how to write a lab report?  Maybe.  But it’s not an outcome in my course, so it’s not a requirement in my assessment.

Can Students Decide What we Study?

I have also experimented with ways to allow students to design the curriculum.  I sometimes call this “emergent curriculum”, since it emerges from interests the students identify. But instructors often use that term to mean that the instructor inquires into the students’ learning and interests, then designs the curriculum accordingly.  I’m interested in pushing the locus of control as far toward the students as makes sense.

At the beginning of the year, I run a bunch of activities to find out what students know, what they wonder, and what they want to learn.  We make play-dough circuits, while they record and pass in a log sheet of ideas they had during the activity.  Another activity is a research prompt: “learn something about atoms you didn’t know before.”  I encourage them to record their questions as well as ideas.  All the question go into a question bank, where I tag them according to student, topic, whether they require research or experimentation, etc.  You can see a sample below; click through to make it bigger.

Spreadsheet sample showing questions students have asked

In the next class, I bring the list of questions; everyone’s assignment is to pick one and research it.  When we head to the shop for our lab period, I bring the same list of questions but filtered for testable questions; everyone’s job is to test one.  Or make up a new one.  I’ll ask them to run it by me, but I’ve never vetoed one; at most, I might insist on special safety precautions, or if the question is going to take all month to test, I might ask them to tackle a small piece of it.

Since the standard they are trying to meet is “interpret voltmeter measurements”, it really doesn’t matter what they measure.  Later standards in the same course are about Ohm’s Law, the voltage divider rule, etc, and it might seem that, at some point, they’d have to stop playing around and turn to Chapter 3.  But that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t matter what you measure.  Ohm’s law will be there.  That’s why it’s called a law.  In the humanities, maybe you would say “it doesn’t matter what you read, it will have a metaphor in it.” Or “it doesn’t matter what you listen to — it will have chord progressions and cadences.”

Obviously, I triage the questions.  That goes back to the skills I’ve chosen; some of them students must master in order to pass, and some of them are optional extras.  I split the questions up accordingly, and ask people to choose from the “required” section before they choose from the “optional” section.  You can also imagine that there’s some direct instruction going on too — specific instructions on how to use a voltmeter, and required safety precautions.  Those become our class “Best Practices.”  After that, they can measure anything they want, as long as they do it “in accordance with best practices.”

One they’ve generated data, either research or measurement, on their chosen topics, I photocopy a class set of everyone’s results, they break into groups, and see what conclusions they can draw.  That brings up more questions, and off we go again.

In this system, it doesn’t matter what experiments they run, so long as they are about circuits.  I constrain the domain by providing batteries and lightbulbs (DC sources and resistive loads), so that we don’t end up trying to deal with topics from next semester.  Although, sometimes those come up, which is great.  The students can “interpret voltmeter measurements” about that as well.  You wouldn’t believe the extreme examples of heating effects this year’s students discovered!  Never seen anything like it.  And it didn’t matter.

My job does not spiral out of control trying to prepare lessons about every wacky topic they come up with.  My job is to provide a limited set of materials; if a question isn’t testable with those materials, they’ll pick another one.  My job is to photocopy their results; doesn’t matter what the results are about.  My job is to ask questions during their “peer review” sessions, to make sure they notice contradictions.  No matter what they investigate, my job doesn’t change, and the workload doesn’t get any heavier.

Why Present This at a UDL Conference?

I approached two students who are knowledgeable about disability accomodations in educational systems, and they agreed to work with me to design the workshops.  We had a wide-ranging brainstorming session, and these are the topics they thought were most important.

UDL talks about providing multiple ways for students to get motivated.  Rather than “providing” a limited set of motivations designed by me, I’m interested in supporting the infinite range of motivations students already have, based on their pre-existing interests and experience, by letting them build on any topic that relates to the course.

UDL talks about providing multiple ways for students to express their learning.  I’m interested in the infinite variety of ways they will come up with.   Because we have classroom Best Practices about measuring well and thinking well, I don’t have to make up a separate rubric for every different format a student wants to use. The same rubric applies to everything: safety, clarity, precision, causality, coherence with the evidence.


My workshop proposals are below.

  • If you only had 50 minutes to make sense of these ideas, what would you highlight?
  • What do I need to pay attention to so this doesn’t come across as only being useful if you teach science or engineering?
  • How can the format of the workshop itself be informed by UDL?
  • What does this make you wonder about?

Student-Designed Curriculum, With Rigour and Without Instructor Burnout

Can a group of students collaboratively design their own curriculum?  We say yes. One community college instructor and two students, both registered with Disability Services, will present techniques we have worked on together for four semesters. These include activities and record-keeping systems an instructor can use to map student interests and turn significant control of course content over to students.  There will be time for participants to create their own mapping format, or adapt an activity to increase its ability to help students design their path of inquiry.

UDL often focuses on the instructor’s ability to “provide” multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression.  We propose to frame our conversation around students’ power to “determine” those means, and then choose among them.  This vision of UDL puts real control over both format and content of a course into the hands of students.  It means that both instructors and students work explicitly to discover and value students’ pre-existing knowledge and outside-of-class experience, and dove-tails with practices of culturally responsive pedagogy.  We will discuss our experiences of working with class groups who are taking on this responsibility, and share techniques that increase the accessibility of this practice for both students and teachers. This includes design of classroom activities, record-keeping systems for large amounts of unstructured student data, and how to do this even in institutions with conventional expectations about course outlines, etc.  Our work is partly informed by David Hammer’s ideas of “Discovery Learning and Discovery Teaching” (Cognition and Instruction, Vol 15, No. 4, 1997).  We will invite participants to explore where and how these techniques could work in their courses.

Relevant UDL guidelines:

  • Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation
  • Heighten salience of goals and objectives
  • Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge
  • Foster collaboration and community
  • Optimize individual choice and autonomy
  • Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity
  • Activate or supply background knowledge
  • Offer ways of customizing the display of information
  • Offer alternatives for auditory information
  • Offer alternatives for visual information
  • Guide appropriate goal-setting
  • Use multiple media for communication
  • Use multiple tools for construction and composition
  • Vary the methods for response and navigation

How Student-Designed Assessment Can Make UDL Easier for Students and Teachers

Standards-based grading is an assessment system focused on self-assessment and strategic improvement. It encourages everyone to make low-stakes mistakes while experimenting with many formats, and to learn from these mistakes about the content and about themselves. As a team of two community college students and one instructor who have worked together for four semesters, we will describe how this system can increase both rigour and accessibility. We will also provide participants with templates to use in experimenting with SBG in their own courses.

Two students and one instructor, all of whom have struggled with and at times left post-secondary institutions, come together to discuss assessment techniques that transform our experience of formal education.  Standards-based grading (SBG) is not one single system; it is a philosophy that can encompass a variety of strategies, including student-controlled due dates, recognition of prior learning, and most importantly student-designed assessments. We describe how we use SBG to create the greatest possible freedom for ourselves and others in our classroom community.  We also discuss when self-advocacy can decrease accessibility, and what to do instead.  We will invite participants to evaluate their course outcomes, experiment with writing new ones using a rubric for SBG and UDL, and test their choices against imagined alternative assessments.

Relevant UDL Guidelines:

  • Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies
  • Develop self-assessment and reflection
  • Increase mastery-oriented feedback
  • Optimize individual choice and autonomy
  • Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity
  • Minimize threats and distractions
  • Offer ways of customizing the display of information
  • Guide appropriate goal-setting
  • Support planning and strategy development
  • Enhance capacity for monitoring progress
  • Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance
  • Vary the methods for response and navigation


  1. […] We hope to take UDL’s “multiple means” to a new level: how much of the curriculum can students design themselves?  Beyond letting students choose how they engage, to what extent can we empower students to choose what they engage with? For a more detailed exploration of how this connects to UDL philosophy, see my previous post. […]

  2. […] We hope to take UDL’s “multiple means” to a new level: how much of the assessment strategy can students design themselves?  We’ll explore how Standards-Based Grading can be used to turn over that control, by letting students apply for reassessment when they’re ready, as often as they are ready (up to once per week), and in the format that they choose. For a more detailed exploration of how this connects to UDL philosophy, see my previous post. […]

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