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What is Universal Design for Learning?

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

It is possible to create a universal design for learning that works for each student in a classroom regardless of their individual needs. In this lesson you will learn how UDL accomplishes this goal.

Universal Design for Learning

Imagine you are married and going mattress shopping with your spouse. Your back needs a firm mattress while your spouse needs something softer. If you purchase a firm mattress, your spouse will be uncomfortable and not sleep well. If you purchase a mattress that is too soft, you will wake up with a sore back. What do you do?

You could compromise and choose a mattress that is somewhere in between the level of firmness you each prefer. Unfortunately, this might create a situation in which neither of you sleeps well. The best answer is a mattress that allows each of you to adjust the firmness on your side of the mattress, providing each of you with the right comfort level.

Choosing a learning curriculum for students has many similarities to the mattress scenario. Each student approaches new material with different learning styles and abilities. The most effective curriculum will meet the needs of all students by using flexible approaches that can be adjusted to meet the needs of each individual. While it may sound daunting, guidelines for developing such a curriculum do exist.

The universal design for learning or UDL is a plan for the creation of instructional goals, materials, and methods that provide an equal learning opportunity for all individuals. It provides a framework for guiding classroom education that responds to individual student learning styles and interests. UDL also removes barriers to learning by providing accommodations, support, and additional challenges when needed.

The Importance of Flexibility

The primary barrier to successful learning in most situations is the lack of flexibility. When the curriculum is designed to meet the needs of an imaginary 'average' student, it fails to address the variation that exists in the classroom. Average is the exception. Students have a variety of different abilities, backgrounds, and interests that influence learning. When this variability is not addressed, students learn less effectively. It may even prevent some students from being provided with the opportunity to learn. Students who are gifted and those who have learning disabilities suffer the most from an inflexible curriculum.

A curriculum designed using the UDL framework provides customizable options from the start of instruction. Variability exists in the instructional goals, methods of instructions, materials used, and types of assessment. This empowers teachers with choices to meet varied needs.

What, How, and Why

As we have been discussing, the universal design for learning addresses the unique differences that each student brings with them to the classroom. How does it do this? UDL accomplishes this goal by utilizing the processes involved in three different brain networks during learning. These different brain processes answer the questions of what, how, and why.

The brain's recognition networks involve processing the information we hear, see, or read. The brain then takes the information and categorizes it. This allows students to understand what they are learning. UDL allows educators to assist this process by providing different ways of presenting information to students. Visual learners need visual aids, auditory learners may understand through listening, process learners may prefer hands-on experiences, and so on.

The strategic networks of the brain help students express themselves. These networks are used to plan or develop strategies for completing tasks. These processes determine how students accomplish something. UDL provides more than one way for a student to demonstrate their knowledge or more than one strategy to use for problem-solving. Let's look at an example: one student may able to express their knowledge of an ecosystem through writing an essay, but another student with the same degree of knowledge might express this more effectively by building a model of the ecosystem.

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