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Supporting Learner Variability: Universal Design for Learning Application and Implication for Teacher Preparation

Author: Ling Zhang

Preparing future educators (e.g., teachers, early childhood interventionists, related service personnel, etc.) to meet the diverse needs of struggling students and those with identified disabilities is complex. Increasingly, educators at colleges and universities are looking to implement critical elements of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework in order to appropriately design and plan effective personnel preparation experiences. To assist educators in their efforts, CIDDL invited a panel of UDL experts, including Drs. Kavita Rao, Alisa Lowrey, James Basham, and Matthew Marino to facilitate an interactive session. Moderated by Dr. Sean Smith, this session discussed practice, research, and policy in relation to the UDL framework and personnel preparation. Watch the video for the full conversation.

Essential elements of Universal Design for Learning implementation

The session started off with the question: What are some essential elements or precursors needed to facilitate adoption and implementation of the UDL framework? Successfully implementing UDL is a complex, iterative design process. Rao said one question she would ask before thinking about and teaching about UDL implementation is “Why inclusion?” Setting up the value of inclusion is critical for applying UDL to support all inclusive practices for all learners. Marino highlighted the importance of designing flexibility in learning environments to meet students where they are. Lowrey also emphasized that understanding learner variability and recognizing diverse learning needs in the classroom are the precursors of adopting UDL. “You don’t do UDL,” Basham said. He also suggested integration of high leverage practices (HLPs) and evidence-based practices (EBPs) into the UDL design process.

Challenges and barriers in Universal Design for Learning implementation

Designing a learning environment that meets a wide range of learning needs is not an easy job. The panelists discussed challenges and barriers they encountered in their teacher preparation classes or they witnessed in research. Marino started off by pointing out that time could be a barrier  when designing flexible assessments for students to have multiple means of demonstrating their learning and understanding. One major challenge Rao discussed is the misconception of UDL as a set of strategies (or a menu as often referred to in other contexts) or UDL merely supporting students with special needs rather than viewed as an inclusive framework that addresses education as a whole.

As an instructional design framework, UDL is about designing a learning environment flexible to support diverse learning needs. The flexibility comes from multiple options for students to engage in learning activities, to perceive information, and to demonstrate understanding. Then, what is the magical number of options, such as options of assessments? “There is no magical number,” said Rao. “It should tie to the learning goal.” Providing opportunities for students to reflect on assessment choices they made and tailor options to their interest is a way to meet their learning needs, suggested by Lowrey. More importantly, UDL is more than providing options in the learning environment.

How can we start?

“How can we start?” This is a question raised by the audience during the panel discussion around essential elements and challenges related to UDL implementation. Specifically, how can we get a baseline understanding of learner variability in the learning environment and support students in learning about variability? Basham suggested UDL implementation should start with identifying the learning goals, keep accessibility in mind, and model the design process so that students could transfer effective practices to their future classrooms. Implementing UDL as an instructional design framework can be overwhelming as it requires ongoing identification of barriers to learning and learner variability in a learning environment. Learning environments change as well. Does UDL implementation look differently across different environments, such as online, blended, or in-person? While we can utilize different tools to support learning across contexts, UDL as a design framework does not change. It is important to start small!

What baby steps can you take towards implementing UDL? What strategies have you used to model UDL implementation in your teacher preparation programs? Join CIDDL Community to share your ideas on these questions and communicate with fellow teacher educators. Moreover, visit our website for Research and Practice Briefs, blogs, Teacher Preparation Map, and sign up for the updates from CIDDL. Additionally, the panelists highlighted a couple of resources that may be of interest. Check out this Padlet to see the full list of shared resources.