People sitting around a table working together using different note taking devices.

UDL in Student Voices

Author: Michael Ralph;

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a powerful framework that emphasizes the importance of empowering students to be the owners and leaders of their learning. UDL leads us to ask what are students needing from higher education institutions to help them reach their goals? The Student Voice survey study from Inside Higher Education and College Pulse has given us new insight into what students are asking for, and what role UDL can play in helping all students succeed in their postsecondary careers. The study received responses from 3,004 responses from students at 128 two- and four-year institutions of higher education. Students from around the world are clearly asking for what UDL has been recommending for years!

No Single Teaching Approach Will Work for All

The study authors identify the #1 barrier to student success to be misalignment of instructor “teaching style” and what students need for their learning. 55% of students overall say they have struggled in class due to teaching style. What’s more, that number increases to 67% for students with disabilities and 60% for LGBTQIA students. Those numbers are striking, which underscores the urgency of adopting pedagogies that are more inclusive and accessible for students. This is an issue that affects most students.

The survey items are not specifically calling out direct instruction (ex: lectures) – even though the student comments on the survey certainly highlight the issues with a lecture-focused teaching approach also. The survey results indicate that any single teaching approach is not the right choice for some students. Instead, UDL guides instructional designers to create options for students to engage in a way that makes sense for them. Students could instead choose from multiple teaching styles, which can remove this substantial barrier to success for them.

Students Are Asking for Flexibility

The majority of students are also asking for more flexibility in class design. That flexibility touches many components of class design. A top request is for more flexibility in task deadlines: 72% of students are asking for flexibility when they encounter issues like family emergencies or health issues. This kind of flexibility has implications for gender equity in higher education, as this request was even more common among women compared to men (75% v. 67%). However, structure and flexibility can and must co-exist. Most students also said they want instructors to break large tasks down into more manageable deadlines, which is consistent with scholarship that shows systems and deadlines play a role in designing for neurodiversity. Within this survey, half of students acknowledged they rely on deadlines for motivation and maintaining the pace of their coursework.

UDL emphasizes flexibility throughout every phase of the instructional design and delivery process, so it is no surprise that UDL can be a valuable framework for integrating more of the flexibility students are requesting. Approaches like humanizing syllabus language and frequent informal-but-consistent student check-ins can help students effectively communicate when they might need flexibility the instructor had not anticipated. That gives the instructor an opportunity to dialogue with students (revealing more of the hidden curriculum of higher education) and practice responsiveness to the student’s needs.

Students Have Lives Beyond Academics

47% of students in the survey said school-life balance was a concern related to their ability to succeed in school. An interesting addition to this number is that there was not an increase in concern for students who also hold a job. Every student is a complete person; we are balancing our family (which includes extended family and community relationships), health (both physical and mental), and all the other things that make us human. Students may or may not choose to share all the things they are balancing outside the classroom with us as instructors, but we can proactively design for flexibility that provides students options for when and how they can achieve that school-life balance.

 One key strategy is considering how to incorporate more hybrid elements into course design. 44% of student respondents said they want more flexibility in attendance policies. How can instructors provide high-quality options for students who are unable to attend on-site class meetings? How can instructors provide asynchronous resources for students to engage where and how they are able? Even as institutions are increasing the amount of on-site programming they are expecting from departments, instructors can find ways to include flexible participation options for students who may be balancing more than we know in their lives outside of school.

Join the Conversation

How else can we design higher education coursework that is both productive and accessible for what students are telling us they need? Share what you are hearing from your students and what your strategies are for meeting their needs in the comments! We’d love to discuss this with you in our community!