Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum development that takes into account learner variability or jaggedness (Rose, 2016). Jaggedness is the idea that strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and preferences exist in a distribution, across many domains for all learners. For instance, one learner may have strength in verbal reasoning and mathematical reasoning while showing a moderate struggle with working memory capacity which another learner could show strength in verbal reasoning, working memory, and show weakness in mechanical reasoning. Further, these strengths and weaknesses are contextual – they are bound to the expectations, assessments, and interest in particular areas of interest. If you’ve heard the expression that all learners are different, that expression refers to jaggedness.
Designing for multiple pathways through the learning process.
At its core, UDL was created to eliminate the inequities created through educational systems. UDL is an inclusive pedagogy because it seeks to identify and address barriers to learning for all students, and through curriculum design, support student choice and agency which in turn supports the growth of expert learning. Through UDL, we have the opportunity to ensure that all students have voice and visibility, and to become motivated, purposeful, resourceful, and strategic learners. In this way, UDL supports social justice by promoting equity and uncovering both explicit and hidden curricula (Chardin & Novak, 2021). Unlike traditional delivery models of curriculum development that starts with a corpus of content that learners come to, UDL starts by acknowledging and accounting for the ways that people vary and how a curriculum can be designed with flexibility, choice, and agency to include as many learners as possible.
In a traditional delivery model of curriculum, where learners are expected to work towards externally imposed goals, at roughly the same pace, meeting milestones, and completing assessments at regular intervals, barriers or challenges are more likely perceived as deficits. Learning differences that can stem from endless variation in language, culture, educational experience, disability, interest, time, or resources can often mean learners are understood in terms of a lack of readiness, lack of ability, or simply “not cut out for” learning the course content.
UDL turns this thinking on its head and starts from the point of variability. UDL relies on decades of psychological and neuroscientific research to acknowledge that human variability is a beautiful rule. Designing learning experiences that are authentic and meaningful, where learners are given both voice and choice pushes pedagogy beyond access to embrace deep learning.
“Instead of asking if the learner is ready for the lesson, UDL asks if the lesson is ready for the learner”
~ Michael McSheehan
There are several guiding principles to Universal Design for Learning that can be used as checkpoints when instructors seek to develop curriculum.
Teaching to the margins
Teaching to the margins means that as instructors we account for the students who might be left out of conventional instruction (for any number of reasons) and targeting curriculum design at those students first. Whose voices are centered in the content and learning activities? Who is left out? What role is there for difference? If instructors or students are taken by surprise by variability, can the design of the curriculum be modified to account for it? These questions can help us reflect on who our typical students might be and who may experience barriers. Often students at the margin take us by surprise or create a sense of concern of overwhelm. Many teachers meet students at the margins with individualized learning support. Is there a role that course design can play in meeting these students? Is there a way that designing multiple means can bring students together?
Proactive vs. reactive
When we embark upon a design process, we are thinking ahead about what kind of curriculum features would be most inclusive rather than addressing accessibility problems as they crop up. As instructors, have we planned for variation in advance of the course design? Have we brought previous teaching experience forward into the course design? Are we waiting for accommodation letters or anticipating the barriers students are likely to experience? A key aspect of UDL is anticipating variation and planning for it through design in advance of the course.
Designing curriculum with a UDL framework means that we are mindful of enabling access as a first step. Are we canvassing students regularly for accessibility? Are we having regular conversations with students to gauge access? Are we partnering with IT, Accessibility Services, and Teaching and Learning staff to ensure access in terms of pacing, captioning, and assistive technology? Course and content access are contextual and variable. The UDL framework holds that accessibility should be defined by continual check-ins and development.
Supporting the development of Expert Learners
Expert learners are those who: understand and can acknowledge the ways they best learn, prefer to engage with content and each other, seek help, and persist in the face of challenges. Instructors can ask: have we built in ways for students to develop their own goal structure? Have we built in ways for students to offer feedback and support each other? Is there a place for students to speak openly and explicitly about cultural experience and cultural similarity and difference? Are we offering proactive access and recognizing difference in your course design?
Providing flexibility in getting to learning outcomes
The UDL framework centres flexibility as a design feature in supporting learning. Learning outcomes describe the specific skills and knowledges that students should gain over the course of an activity, assignment, or class. Traditionally, instructors provide one pathway for students to meet outcomes. For example, if the outcome is being able to articulate and support a clear argument, many instructors will employ an essay assignment as a way for students to gain and showcase their skills. Students who face barriers when writing might end up failing this assignment even if they understand how to make and support an argument. Universal Design for Learning asks instructors to consider multiple pathways to meet outcomes. For example, in the case above, the student might be able to make an argument verbally. Instructors who are designing with UDL will want to regularly revisit their outcomes and check to see that they are providing options for reaching them.
Explicitly addressing expectations and structure
As addressed elsewhere in this book, courses often have a “hidden curriculum” — a implicit knowledges or implicit expectations — that act as a foundation. UDL seeks to address hidden curriculum by making expectations and outcomes explicit and providing transparent pathways through courses. Faculty should think carefully about what they assume students already know and work to make those expectations clear. For example, is it assumed that a student understands how to cite sources or access peer-reviewed research? If so, make that known, and let students know what can be done to gain that knowledge if they don’t already have it.
Frequent, varied assessment
Regular feedback ensures students know if they are meeting expectations and it provides a way for faculty to provide individual guidance and (if appropriate) additional resources that might benefit student learning. As such, assessment and feedback should be offered early in the semester and should continue regularly throughout a course. Additionally, assessment should take different forms to give students opportunities to share their knowledge in multiple ways.
Connection to Intercultural Teaching
Both intercultural pedagogies and Universal Design for Learning invite instructors to de-center their worldviews and to recognize that there are multiple ways to know, learn, and share. This means engaging in practices of self-reflection, taking intentional and active steps to include diverse voices and methodologies, and providing multiple pathways that honour individual learner’s experience and agency. Both frameworks also position these different ways of knowing, understanding, and expressing as assets rather than deficits.
Both UDL and intercultural practices also invite instructors to think deeply about systemic barriers that students might face as a result of their identities, abilities, or circumstances, and to work to reduce them. This means focusing on structural challenges rather than student deficits; instead of looking at what a student may not understand and assuming the student has failed to do the work or lacks the necessary skills, both UDL and intercultural teaching invite instructors to think about why a student might not understand. Is the student able to access the materials? Is there a hidden curriculum that assumes cultural knowledge or unstated academic skills? Does the structure of the course or assignment make it difficult for the student to share their knowledge in a meaningful way? What changes can be made to course or assignment design to reduce structural barriers and improve learning?
Within both UDL and intercultural frameworks, the answers to these questions are found through ongoing communication between students and faculty. UDL and intercultural pedagogies work best when faculty and students can communicate about their expectations, concerns, limitations, and approaches, and work to find solutions to challenges together.
There are three aspects of the Universal Design for Framework. You can find the full framework here: https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
The three aspects of the framework are grounded in the three networks involved in learning actively. In terms of mobilizing a UDL framework to support intercultural awareness, there are a number of ways of orienting pedagogy.
The WHY of learning
Can diverse voices make content meaningful?
Can we use different cultural frames to understand challenge and persistence?
The WHAT of learning
What context for content can culture offer?
Can diverse perspectives shed light on the ways that we approach content and develop communities of knowledge?
Action and Expression
The HOW of learning
Can cultural variation offer alternatives to the way knowledge is expressed?
Can diverse perspectives support the value of different assessment methods?
Consensus vs. Debate
By Jennifer Hardwick
As a settler Writing Centre instructor in the Aboriginal Leadership Opportunity Year (ALOY) bridging program at the Royal Military College, I often liaised with faculty about student challenges. One spring, a history professor approached the ALOY support team, expressing concern about the number of ALOY students who were failing a debate assignment.
The professor had asked students to write a position paper on a specific topic using academic sources, and then split the class into groups for a class debate. The debates had gone very poorly, with the students ignoring the assigned structure and talking amongst themselves about their ideas casually. The professor said, “They seem incapable of critiquing one another and engaging in critical thought. I have never had a problem teaching students to debate before.”
I suspected the challenge was not the students’ critical thinking skills (which had been evident in their previous work), but their understanding of the assignment. I consulted with Kanonhsyonne Janice Hill, Mohawk Clan Mother and Director of Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s University, who was able to articulate why the implicit cultural understanding at the core of the assignment acted as a barrier. She explained to me that within many Indigenous nations, building consensus is a more important skill than debate. She noted that young people who grew up in traditional environments would have been trained to listen carefully to those with opposing points of view, and to look for strengths, commonalities, and compromises rather than weaknesses in their colleagues’ arguments. Engaging in open critique would not only be seen as disrespectful and arrogant, but unhelpful given that the goal of any conflict is to build relationships and work together to solve problems.
With Jan’s permission to share her knowledge, I was able to work with the history professor on redesigning the assignment. He was able to identify critical thinking, analysis, the use of evidence, and clear verbal communication as outcomes for the assignment, and we were able use intercultural teaching and Universal Design for Learning principles to redesign the assignment and rubric. Instead of a formal debate, the students were given an option of working to reach consensus as a unit; building consensus would meet the same outcomes, with a slightly different structure. The students unanimously approved of the change, and the class was very successful in meeting the outcomes.
The original assignment unintentionally and implicitly employed Western cultural values about debate and argument, and only provided one pathway for students to meet outcomes. The re-designed assignment employed intercultural pedagogies and Universal Design for Learning to take cultural approaches into account, and to provide students with several pathways to share their knowledge. The new approach didn’t only reduce barriers for students, it made the assignment stronger by calling attention to cultural understandings of debate, encouraging greater communication between the instructor and students, and inviting each person in the classroom community to think critically about how they approach information and dialogue and why.
Language Variation in a Reading Psychology Course
By Seanna Takacs
I taught a practicum course to undergraduate students who had ambitions of being teachers. The course was divided into two parts. For the first six weeks of the course, students learned about the psychological research behind reading (phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, comprehension processes). After the six weeks, students were assigned to work with a child in the community for whom they developed a personalized reading intervention plan. The students worked one-on-one with the child every day for three weeks. Once the intervention was completed, students wrote a report on the aims, activities, and outcomes of the instruction.
A component to the course that bears special attention is that students were expected to write using language that would be found in a psychological report. Specifically, language was meant to be neutral, refer explicitly to the method in developing the intervention based on an initial interview and testing protocol, and measure results of the intervention “objectively”. Any subjective evaluation had to be acknowledged as such and grounded in one of the theoretical frameworks that had been discussed in the first six weeks of the course.
I taught the course for about six years, in different iterations and each time the final report was the hardest part. It was hard to write for the students and it was hard to mark for me. In the psychological speak that I was teaching students to use, and after which this section is named, language variation was the main source of this difficulty.
So, what did I see in terms of language variation? There was a broad variation, broad jaggedness, in the variation of languages that had to do with subject area, language background, and preference for the voice used to describe the teaching and learning experience. Language variation was students who had a background in writing English; writing adhered more to the structure of the novel or short story. It was students who were English language learners, who spoke global Englishes, who insisted on ungrounded subjective evaluations of student work and character. Language variation was also students who simply didn’t like the psychological report voice because it didn’t do justice to their students, their learning, or themselves.
As I gained confidence in teaching the course and gained the trust of my supervisors and students to implement changes that made sense, I started checking in about language variation. I asked questions about what was meaningful to report on, why a storytelling voice was helpful, what role metaphors play, and which aspects of the psychological reporting voice could be valuable. In the language of Universal Design for Learning, I started attending to and evaluating student variation; I began to investigate jaggedness. I began to appreciate that shoehorning student reports into report language meant that the relationships that students had developed with the children were not captured. For many students, the trust and care that emerged in the learning setting could not be reflected in the report. Leaving behind so much meaningfulness and voice meant that students struggled with anything they wanted to say.
In the end, I changed the expectations for the report. I kept the skeleton of report language – rationale, method, and two outcomes, tied to empirical research. In discussion with students, we added stories, anecdotes, examples, metaphors, and future directions. Students wrote what they would change if they were to do it again, the advice they’d give to reading teachers, and what their favourite part of their three weeks of tutoring was. Student commented on how they learned to read, and how approaches to reading instruction varied by culture and by language.
In the last years of teaching the program, I gained an intercultural and experiential lens on the course. By developing multiple pathways to report writing, and embracing language variation, report writing became richer, more descriptive, more interesting to write, and truly wonderful to mark. Before I called it Universal Design for Learning, voice and choice were key.
Chardin, M. & Novak, K. (2021). Equity by Design. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
Rose, L.T. (2016). The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. Toronto: Harper Collins.