The WHY and HOW of Universal Design for Learning : Part 3 of 3

UDL Tools

When introducing and encouraging the use of UDL concepts in the classroom; specifically methodology and tools to embed into curriculum and lessons, I think, just as we do with students, we need to begin with tools that will likely entice and excite teachers and achieve positive results.  By respecting the amount of time that teachers spend in and outside of the classroom to help educate our students, we are more likely to engage the teacher and create a motivation for using UDL tools.

But first, we must determine the individual teacher’s goals and identify their perceived challenges.  Questions like; Do you feel overwhelmed with the amount of one on one assistance you spend with individual students? Do you find that students lack motivation? Are students performing well on tests? What are the current methods used for assessment? Etc. These questions can be asked to help assess where the teacher is coming from, what supports they are willing to accept help with, and what tools may best serve the needs of the students and the teacher.

One method that may prove beneficial when introducing UDL to teachers and attempting to get their “buy in” is to have them visit the CAST website and the Curriculum Barriers Tutorial. I believe that often times, teachers don’t see the barriers that students may face, or they only see that barriers that students identified as having disabilities may face and don’t realize that these barriers may exist for all learners in one way or the other.  CAST Curriculum Barriers Tutorial is available at the above link as well as directly at:

One challenge that I see all teachers face with students as they begin their (usually) senior year at our school, is that they are not accustomed to learning.  What I mean by this, is they have often learned to regurgitate information for a test or a culminating project. (i.e. memorizing dates, names, places for a test, spewing it out for the test, erasing it from memory, and moving on to the next chapter). I’ve talked about this in past blogs.  For the first time, many students need to really engage in their learning and to learn for lasting memory.  (No longer short term, rote memorization, but learning to apply, to use, to retrieve down the road). When teachers consider how to shift the students way of learning, they will see that UDL tools can assist them in reaching this goal. Remember, long term learning occurs in the Pre-Frontal Cortex where the executive functioning occurs (Willis, 2012). And, the pathways to reach long term memory are strengthened by the release of dopamine and reinforced by active, repetitive use (Willis, 2012).

Below are a list of tools and strategies that I would like to introduce to the teachers and staff at the school where I teach, addressing the most basic concerns that teachers have expressed.  This is a list of beginning tools; those that may produce the most immediate results, take the least amount of time on the teacher’s part, and reduce the greatest barriers to learning, to better serve all students in the classroom.

Addressing problems of boredom, lack of student motivation, students not engaged in learning or class participation

  • Begin lessons with humor (verbal, visual, video, song)
  • Add technology to the delivery of the lesson (video clips, powerpoint, itunes, photos, youtube, etc.)
  • use quick response systems (anonymous methods of assessing students and engaging students) – ipods, texting, web-based.
  • Add personal stories to lectures.
  • Provide copies of powerpoints/notes so students can follow along, fill in, add to, pay attention to auditory format, etc.
  • Use interactive whiteboards
  • Encourage the use of livescribe pens for students who will benefit from listening to lecture at a later date.
  • Use QR Codes (scan codes) for students to access notes, powerpoints, videos, lecture, etc. at a later time ( , )
  • Supplement lecture/theory with examples and stories.
  • Allow student/s to “teach” or “introduce” a lesson.
  • Use whiteboard paddles or dry erase board to respond to questions (others cant see but students respond and teacher can quickly assess and involved students):
  • Create emails to encourage students to correspond with you when they have questions.
  • Use collaborative seating arrangements (U-shape, Grouped, etc.)
  • Provide opportunities for choice in project/assignments examples: wordles, i-movies, etc.
  • Provide examples of previously completed projects for reference.
  • Provide easy to understand rubrics in advance of assignments (
  • Allow for peer and small group work.
  • Provide visual references for multi-step tasks.
  • Allow use of highlighters and colored folders or paper.
  • USE DVD/CD/Text website provided with most texts to supplement learning,
  • Provide technology to create final projects, encouraging creativity and choice.

Addressing Problems with organization and daily planning and assignment completion (time management) issues.

  • Breakdown assignments into smaller “check in’ chunks (providing opportunities to check in and experience success and receive feedback along the way).
  • Use technology to build in alarm clocks, buzzers, reminders, etc.
  • Have students document and graph their time on tasks.
  • Use color to code types of materials, assignments, due dates, etc.
  • Use ipods and outlook for calendar management.
  • Allow students to identify technology that may help them with organization and time management.
  • Use internet/web/email to send out reminders regarding due dates or homework assignments.
  • Consider having digital format of text or material available on the web for students to access if they forget their textbooks.


Willis M.D., J (2012). Neuroscience & the classroom: Strategies for maximizing students’ engagement, memory and potentials. Integrated Learning Conference. November 7, 2012.

The HOW and WHY of UDL Implementation in the Classroom and School-Wide: Part 2 of 3


As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I began this blog as part of a requirement for a UDL course at George Washington University. As such, this week’s assignment is to discuss how to approach UDL systemic change. One of the questions posed is “What UDL tools might be used to evaluate barriers and opportunities in my particular setting?”  Since I am a learning support teacher and support students in a variety of different ways (within their career & technical education programs, with transition related activities, in math or English, etc.), I am approaching this question in a very broad way.

I would like to see UDL implemented across the school setting.  However, I know that systemic change (school-wide change) cannot occur overnight. It must be carefully planned out to create “buy-in” across the board. Additionally, it must have the infrastructure of technology and staff support.  I will talk more about that in a bit.

Because many people do not like change, and many teachers feel possessive of their classes or program, introducing change too quickly can be problematic. And, yet, we know that administrators are aware that educational systems need change to keep pace with our global society (Anderson, 1993). I believe, for this reason, that change must come from a variety of directions; administratively it must be supported, teachers need to see the value of this new approach, students need to understand how they learn and why they will benefit, and in my case, the sending districts must support the change, as they can provide further resources and direction.

Administrative support and direction is paramount.  The previously mentioned brain research can help support and defend this systemic change. Obtaining buy-in from teachers is the biggest challenge that administration may face. Teachers would benefit from hearing from other CTE instructors across the state who have implemented UDL systems. They must hear about the challenges as well as the benefits.  Providing instructional coaches is one method that has worked at other CTCs.  An Instruction Coach is usually a learning support teacher who supports teachers in developing lessons that embed UDL principles and methods into their lesson.  The Instructional coach then supports the teacher and co-teaches for a few lessons until the teacher is comfortable with the UDL tool used.  I think it is crucial that positive support is provided when we ask teachers to “change” what they are doing.

I believe that we already know what barriers students with learning disabilities face in different classrooms. For instance, in the Health Professions Program reading is a huge barrier for students who may struggle with decoding, comprehension, or fluency.  However, I would assert that reading is also a barrier for several students who have not been identified to receive special ed. services. So why not encourage the teacher to embed UDL techniques in the curriculum?  (Examples like this can be found in all 20 programs that we have at our school).

One method to create “buy in” from the teachers, a method that worked in the Concord New Hampshire school system, begun in 1994 (Rose & Meyer, 2002), is to allow the teachers and the students to generate the momentum for the use of UDL.  This is accomplished by approaching teachers in small gropus and sharing excitement for the concept and then showing them the benefits. Instead of a drastic restructuring of the school, I would encourage our administration as well as myself to approach those teachers who are most likely to be open and accepting of UDL strategies and help support them in their use of these tools. I would then encourage them to share with their colleagues the benefits of using these tools. I believe that when teachers talk to other teachers and share ideas, they will listen far more openly than when they are directed to do something by the administration.

Finally, time must be allotted for the implementation; the exploration of ideas, the development of materials, collaboration, and reflection.  This is probably the biggest hurdle in our school. Our teachers don’t even have a planning period. The administration may have to look at grants to be able to offset the costs of hiring substitute teachers to come in and allow teachers planning time.

For additional material; a template for creating systematic change to apply the Concord Model;

Concord Administration describes UDL’s Systemic Implementation:


Anderson, B.L. (1993). The stages of systemic change. Educational Leadership, 51, 14-17.

Rose, D.H. & Meyer, A. (2002).Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASDC.

“Teaching style does matter; you get what you give out.” (Click for an example of how NOT to teach)

The WHY and HOW of UDL: Part I of 3


When we talk about Universal Design for Learning, we are talking about techniques to reduce and remove barriers that students of different learning methods or different abilities may face.  We are not approaching this in the same method that we often approach special education or working with students with disabilities – assessing the deficits of a student and then altering our curriculum or our methods for that particular student –  instead we are approaching our lesson from the perspective of making our lessons accessible to all students.  We are embedding methods of instruction, of delivery, of assessment into our curriculum and lesson plans, in order to reduce barriers that any student may face.

Universal Design for Learning, in essence, can reduce the time spent reacting to the individual students whose barriers to learning became evident AFTER the lesson was taught. We, as teachers, can instruct in ways that may make these barriers less evident, thereby being proactive in our teaching; reaching more students in adequate ways, and even improving the learning of those students who with traditional methods of instruction may have learned adequately, but not to the level that they are capable of.

So, how do we approach Universal Design for Learning?  How do we begin to change our way of thinking; individually or systemically?

I recently attended a conference where the opening speaker was Dr. Judy Willis. Dr. Willis is both a neuroscientist (M.D.) and holds a Master’s in Education. And, yes, she has spent time as a teacher in the classroom as well. She presented a pre-conference session entitle “Neuroscience & the Classroom: Strategies for Maximizing Students’ Engagement, Memory and Potentials”.  The research she talked about serves as an excellent reference for “defending” or “supporting” UDL in the classroom.  When we fully understand how the brain learns (and this is fairly new science), we can promote methods of teaching to achieve the best possible outcomes. When we look at the brain and the methods that we gain information (intake) and move it into long term memory and then are able to demonstrate learning (output), we are better prepared to demonstrate the reason why UDL, from a scientific (data) perspective, makes sense.  Sometimes what drives systemic change (administratively, state wide, or at the federal level) is data, research, “proof”.

For instance, we know, as Dr. Willis points out, that the Prefrontal Cortex of the Brain controls the Executive Functioning. (Video of Dr. Willis’ discussion about Executive Function and the 21st Century Learning: ) We also know that this part of the brain is not yet developed in our students (5 – 25). Furthermore, we know that the way that information is obtained and moved to the Pre-Frontal Cortex (long term memory) is through pathways through the Amygdala.  Stress reduces the ability for this pathway to be “clear”.  However, Dopamine, which occurs with pleasure, increases the strength and speed of this pathway (Willis, 2012).

What does this tell us, as teachers?  This tells us that when we find ways to increase the production of dopamine, we can increase learning!  And, what does this have to do with UDL? Well, some of the best ways to increase the production of dopamine in the brain are to create activities for positive interactions with peers, to incorporate music, being read to, humor, choice, movement, predicting, etc. (Willis, 2012)  And, these are all the same concepts employed by UDL!

Let’s look at another example that Willis shared.  Teens love video games! They will play them for hours. They will lose over and over again, and yet they will continue to play. Why is this?  How many times have kids “quit” when they don’t “get” something in school?  How many times have we felt guilty, as teachers, when a student is continually given a reading test, and we KNOW that they struggle with reading and so they are continually, seemingly, given a test knowing they will not do well? First, we know that video games release dopamine in the brain. They provide predictive actions and they provide feedback. They involve the person and they provide just enough attainable challenge that they will continue to play even when they experience failure.  When we look at implementing UDL in the classroom, we can look at what Willis refers to as the Video Game Model, to justify why we need to use strategies of UDL to reach students; to engage students in their own learning, to build intrinsic motivation, to make learning pleasurable, to reduce barriers to education, and to continue to challenge our students to learn to the highest level possible.

For more information on Dr. Willis’ work:

For a quick reference about your brain by Dr. Willis:  What you should know about your brain.


Willis M.D., J. (2012). Neuroscience & the classroom: Strategies for maximizing students’ engagement, memory and potentials. Integrated Learning Conference, November 7, 2012. Available at

Willis, M.D., J (2002). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Let’s talk about Universal Design for Learning. The course I am taking right now is all about this UDL concept. I had previously thought about it in two forms – Universal Access (Thinking ADA regulations for accessibility), and another term for Differentiated Learning of sorts. I am quickly learning that UDL is SOOOOO very much more! And so much more science based.

In the context of Education, it falls under IDEA regulations…

“…an approach to teaching, learning, curriculum development and assessment that uses new technologies to respond to a variety of individual learner differences.” (IDEA)

This definition is so much broader and more encompassing than what I had initially believed it to be.

What I’ve discovered is that while UDL certainly includes the accessibility component, it also applies to the specifics of the learning methodology…acquiring information, using the information, applying the information, demonstrating knowledge, engaging in the learning.

And more importantly for those educators who believe it is just more differentiated instruction, a term that I think has been overused and sort of lost meaning for many, its foundation is in brain research.

Someone recently said “well why didn’t we know this before? This can’t be new.” And what I have discovered is with new technology comes new research and new knowledge.  Studies of the brain have revealed that we use different parts of our brain to both gain various types of information and to use this information and retrieve this information and interact with this information and apply this information to new contexts.  Our brain is so much more complex and learning is so different than what we once thought. Educators today, if they seek to educate their students, must understand this new concept of learning and understand the importance of implementing methods to UDL into their curriculum, their classrooms, their environment for all the stages of learning.

More on UDL:

Engage Me

I love when I am taking a new course or attending a new workshop and my brain starts to go into overdrive and I start trying to find out more and learn more and then I start thinking: it’s almost uncontrollable how my mind just goes. I think about ways to apply new ideas or how I can find out more, or I go to google and start searching words and phrases. I get energized and excited! I WANT to learn.  This is how learning should be for all subjects and for all students.

I, of course, am not naive enough to think that if you put me into a course about chemical engineering, I would somehow jump with excitement.  But, if the content was delivered in an interactive way and I could find a way to connect with it in someway, I think I might at least be slightly curious.

Isn’t that the feeling we want for all students? Wouldn’t teaching be so much more rewarding?

And, youth don’t just need this, but adults too!  When we sit in an in-service with someone lecturing to us about this or that, we doodle – we think about all the things we need to be doing – we sort of fade in and out of paying attention. If they turn out the lights to flip through a powerpoint, it’s worse, isn’t it?


I want to shout out: ENGAGE ME!!!

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