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.

I just made a new Voki. See it here:

Writing a Classroom Instruction Goal that Lends Itself to Flexibility for Diverse Populations (UDL)

As Rose and Meyer point out in Chapter 5 of “Teaching every student in the digital age, universal design for learning”, “Well-designed standards focus primarily on ‘learning how to learn’, calling for students to gain knowledge, skills, and understanding.”  So often, however, standards may be too specific – including methods of instruction or specifics that don’t allow for flexibility of instruction or assessment.  Other times, teachers themselves, may become too wrapped up in “teaching to the test” or get caught up in the misperception that they need to create very structured goals and objectives that end up becoming very limiting and putting unnecessary constraints on the educational process in their classrooms.

A traditional goal that a teacher may use could be “Students will use the web to research a health related career and complete a PowerPoint presentation to provide information about this career to present to the students.”  Thinking about the purpose of this goal – learn about a health related career, this is using the Recognition Network, I believe this goal can be made more flexible by realizing that the methods of gaining the information can be varied as well as the demonstration of the knowledge gained.  A better statement of goal may be “Using a variety of methods (interview, web, text, etc.), students will present information about a health related career”.  This allows for a variety of methods of gaining the information about the career and offers flexibility in method of presenting; PowerPoint, YouTube video, brochure, report, poster, videotape, etc.

By creating goals that allow individual thought and creative problem solving for students, we are preparing them for employment and post-school success.  Employers often state that they want workers who can problem solve and think creatively.  This is exactly what we are encouraging of our students when we take the time to recognize the real purpose of the lesson and then set a goal that is not limiting and instead, encourages flexibility and appropriate challenge and support.

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning.

Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning in My Life

The suggestion was made to look around my place of employment to discover examples of Universal Design.  Next I was asked to look for examples or opportunities for Universal Design for Learning.  The difference between these two suggestions is the term learning.  The first, Universal Design is thought of in terms of accessibility for all individuals.  The second – specifically to the learning environment.

(If you missed my previous post explaining UDL…check it out here: )


I work at a school.  A school that also houses a dental office (open to the public), a small student-run restaurant (open to the public), and a cosmetology clinic (open to the public). So, looking at Universal Access is something we’ve done many times in the past.  Many modifications have been made just in the 10 years that I’ve worked at my school…additional modifications would be wonderful, but funding is usually an issue.

Examples of Universal Design:

  • ADA regulations are met as required by law (ramp entrances, lowered sinks in the restrooms, wider door entrances, and the like)
  • Strobe lights for fire-alarms are in effect (for Deaf)
  • Yellow reflective tape mark door frames that may be opened to the cafeteria, etc. as cautions to prevent injuries.
  • Flourescent lights have been replaced by energy efficient and less harsh lighting.

Needs for improvements:

  • Doors to some rooms (office, resource room, guidance) are heavy and no automated doors are found
  • Some of our “theory” rooms are on the second floor of the classroom (if we were to have a student with a physical disability, there is space to move a theory room to another location, however, this is a concern that is routinely discussed with our JOC who makes financial decisions).

The next part of the suggestion/directive was to look at opportunities or examples of Universal Design for Learning in our school  This is exciting for me…I work at a Career & Technical Center…by definition we tend to teach students in a combination of methods that include theory (lecture type format), demonstrations, and application to build skills.  While some believe this is, in itself Universal Design…I don’t believe that is true. If we teach in the same methods we have always taught, and we teach in the same method each day…we continue to teach to the same students.  Those who learn in that method will learn and those who don’t won’t.  So, I looked at the various programs and in our school in general and looked at methods of teaching, arrangements of classrooms, and technology availability and use.  I reviewed the 9 Principles of Universal Design for Instruction and made the following observations (in part…this list could be never ending).

Principle 1: Equitable Use: Instruction is designed to be useful & accessible by all &  Principle 2: Flexibility in Use: Instruction Designed to accommodate a wide range of abilities

  • Books on CD and downloadable to auditory format
  • Various simulation programs that allow those who for instance, can’t solder due to physical limitations, but who could complete the curriculum of the Electronics Technology Program, to use the computer to simulate soldering and demonstrate an understanding of the concept of soldering.
  • Availability of LiveScribe Pens (technology allowing students who struggle with taking notes to record lecture/theory)
  • Some teachers provide copies of powerpoints used in lecture so that students can add any of their own notes and listen during theory.
  • Some teachers use skelotal notes.
  • Some teachers have replaced diagrams and drawing of equipment with photos or actually have moved to using the actual equipment and tools for testing instead of drawings.

Principle 3: Simple & Intuitive: Instruction is designed to be straightforward & predictable

  • Some teachers write the daily schedule on the board each day so that students know what time different activites will occur throughout the day. They can plan and predict and prepare for transition time.
  • Some teachers have a board listing the deadlines for upcoming assignments and the test dates coming up.
  • Some teachers use and provide rubrics for grading.
  • Students at our school get daily grades…these grades are based on uniform, following safety requirements/procedures, work ethic, homework completion, behavior, etc.  Some teachers use a very clear rubric that clearly shows where their daily grade comes from.

Principle 4:  Perceptible Information: Intsruction is communicated effectively regardless of sensory abilities

  • Because we are a public school, students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, have vision impairments, etc. have the necessary technologies and supports provided.  This year we don’t have any students who fit into these categories.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error: Instruction anticipates variation in student learning

  • This concept varies by program and program expectations…and teacher style…
  • Some teachers have students check in between steps of projects before they continue on to next step…this allows an opportunity to prevent an entire project from being wrong because of one missed step.
  • We have paraeducators who provide support for students and instructors to help anticipate difficulties and we attempt to modify instruction to gain the skill.
  • Many opportunities for practice naturally occur (welding techniques must be completed three times before grading – mastery, students take vitals in the health class each day when they start the day…eventually students will “get it” whether on the first or tenth of 15th try because of continual practice).
  • Use of smartboards, ipads, video, youtube, internet, project-based learning, etc.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort: Instruction designed to minimize physical effort for maximum learning

  • The opportunity for this varies by program area as we have some very physical programs and students must be able to become physically involved, however…
  • Ipad use of voice technology to record notes, live scribe pen use, computer use for typing out questions.
  • We have paired up some students with a good notetaker in the class to provide a copy of the notes or with a para-educator to provide notes if required.
  • Calculator use for math work.

Principle 7: Size and Space approach and use: Instruction designed for appropriate reach, approach, etc. & Principle 8: A community of learners: Environment promotes interaction & communication

  • Some classrooms have the desks arranged in a u shape with the teacher between them to help facilitate
  • Often students are paired or teamed together to complete assignments that mimic the work place.
  • Students will practice skills with each other (health professions, dental technology).
  • When working on the hands-on portions of the tasks (skills, projects, etc.) students are encouraged to use ‘natural supports’ (i.e. other students) to share knowledge and work together.
  • Some programs use email between or have a shared drive on the network system to share assignment lists, files, etc.

Principle 9: Instructional Climate: Instruction is designed to be welcoming & inclusive

  • We have a handbook that outlines our lack of tolerance for bullying, harrassment, etc.
  • Our resource staff who are assigned mainly to support students who have IEPs, actually enter each program that they work in (classroom) and work with any student who has difficulty. By doing this, it is clear that we are not pointing out any one student who has special needs but that we are including everyone in the learning supports provided.
  • Student photos are posted throughout the school showing their work in the programs…so students see their classmates and visitors see students working.
  • Examples of student work are displayed throughout the school.

Finally…areas for improvement….

  • We do not, that I know of, have a statement about inclusion or inclusive practices or accessibility.
  • I don’t believe individual teachers discuss or provide information about how to disclose disabilities to the teacher. (However we do provide all teachers with an IEP and all teachers attend their IEP meetings before the start of the school year).
  • Some teachers need more ideas, suggestions, tools to improve predictability, climate, etc.
  • Some teachers need more understanding of tolerance of learning differences.
  • Some instructors need to change old methods of doing things (writing in cursive, or providing tests that are hand written)

This is a long blog, and for that I apologize, but I encourage everyone to look around their place of employment…discover where there may be accessibility issues.  If you work in education, explore the 9 principles and see if there are places for improvement to help reach all learners in ways that perhaps you haven’t thought of before!

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:

The Experience of Learning

I love to learn! I love to experience new things and to take in all that is around me and all that I can…well about things I am interested in at least. As a student in elementary school, I loved to learn! I loved my teachers; I loved to help my teachers. I was the girl who sometimes stayed in at recess to help my teachers make extra credit crossword puzzles on the ditto machine! In middle school, we were “tracked”…meaning, kids were grouped into classes by their IQ test results. I didn’t exactly understand all of this at the time, but I knew which group I was in because the “gifted” students were intermingled with my group (the “almost gifted”) and were selected on Wednesdays to be pulled from the class to participated in special “gifted activities”, while those remaining participated in the SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) cards that were conveniently color-coded so that you could see what levels others in the class had achieved. I don’t believe I ever reached teal.

In high school I fell in love with art. My art teacher was my saving grace. When I struggled in World Cultures or Chemistry, I could escape to the art room. When I didn’t have money to go out for lunch like the others, and didn’t want to sit in the cafeteria by myself, I went to the art room. By my Junior year, I actually began to recognize my artistic talent.  And, I learned that Algebra and I were not friends, but the art room offered me opportunities to feel good and escape the drama of high school!

Throughout undergraduate college I struggled with classes, but did “well enough”.  Again, art classes were no problem…academics were more of a struggle, or perhaps, as I realize now, the academics weren’t as much of the problem as my own knowledge of how to learn. It wasn’t until I returned to college 9 years later to become a special education teacher (a dream I had always had, but in high school didn’t enjoy academics a lot), that I began to recognize how I learned.  It was during the first semester of my first year of graduate school, when I was placed “out of sync” in classes related to earning my Masters in Exceptionalities, when I sat in a class with words and acronyms being thrown around like “IEP”, “ER”, “IDEA”, “NOREP”…that I began to realize that I needed to not only raise my hand and ask questions, but I needed to talk with other students and collaborate in order to learn. It was through the modeling of the professors and their methods of not only teaching, but evaluating, that I began to realize how I truly learn best and how teachers really need to teach.

It was during the two years of graduate school, that I became acutely aware of the method of delivery of information and more importantly HOW I learned this information best.  (And, therefore how to teach others.) For instance, when material was delivered in ways that actively, physically involved me, whether we moved our desks into small groups, walked around the room, or created something, I learned information quicker.  Perhaps this was the method of instruction or the content and application, or maybe just the dialogue that occurred to reinforce the content…whatever, it worked.  When studying for tests, we did this in a small group of graduate students…sitting and talking about the content. Again the dialogue that occurred, hearing myself say the words, talking about the information, reinforced it in my head.  What I wouldn’t have done to have known this in high school or under graduate school!

As a teacher, I find myself often forgetting to reflect on my own learning.  I focus so much on helping students “get” the information – teaching them to navigate a text or helping them learn how they best learn, that when I am learning something new I simply think about the content instead of being aware of the process of learning. (Which, in fact, may be MORE important that what I am actually learning!) But, I think this is something that is VERY necessary for teachers and really all people to be aware of…HOW do we learn best?

Recently, I participated in a free webinar on ADHD in families. I was interested in the topic because I have a family member who has ADHD and I often think that I probably have ADHD as well, and of course, also because I am a teacher of several students who have ADHD. I have a lot of basic knowledge about ADHD and how it affects students in the classroom, but I hadn’t thought about it from the parent or family perspective or how it may manifest itself at home or outside of school. So I found myself listening to this “new” information and sometimes getting distracted when it was information that I already knew (medications, classroom strategies, etc.).  The PowerPoint was presented for us to look at during the session, but was not provided ahead of time to print out. This made it frustrating for me, because I am someone who enjoys taking notes and then being able to look back…having the PowerPoint would have helped me write the notes next to the slides and recall the information. This is the same reason I still prefer paper books over e-books. I want to physically turn the page or turn it back. The delivery format was auditory and visual which was fine, but wasn’t quite engaging enough for me. Because the topic was something I was interested in, the links provided during the session sparked me to continue after the webinar in search of more information.  Furthermore, I shared this information with others.  But, mostly I became very aware of my inability to focus (interesting since it was a presentation on ADHD)!

I think, as teachers, it is vitally important that we take time to be aware of our own learning styles, how we engage others. I do many presentations at conferences across the state. I have done very interactive presentations engaging the audience, and I have, admittedly, done some presentations that lacked engagement. In almost all of my presentations I do offer additional resources to find more information on the topics for those who want to learn more. But, it is easy to forget that adults need the same teaching methods as youth!

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