While UDL is a common phrase in many schools today, it can be difficult to implement practically in the classroom. To help with this, I’ve put together a list of 7 Universal Design for Learning strategies and examples for the classroom.
All students are unique, and the way they learn best can be as individual as a fingerprint. Some students learn best by reading and working independently, while others excel by watching videos and working in groups. The goal is to understand their strengths and barriers, and to use that when designing lessons.
Determining strengths and barriers can be as simple as asking students their learning preferences, or observing them over time and keeping notes on which methods work best for which students. There are also many surveys that can help you learn more about individual strengths and barriers. One caveat is that asking students their preference doesn’t always equate to what’s best for them. For example, just because a student says he prefers watching videos doesn’t mean that is actually how he learns best.
You should also be prepared to create an individual education plan for students requiring specific accommodations.
Although things are changing, I find that many classrooms still use paper-based materials. I’m not opposed to paper (I still buy real books from Amazon), but digital materials can make implementing UDL in a classroom much easier.
With digital content you can increase font size, easily look up definitions, use text-to-speech to read text aloud, and link out to more detailed information on almost any topic imaginable. This is particularly useful for students needing dyslexia-friendly reading tools, or translation.
If your current classroom materials are not in a digital format, consider ways you can change this. For example, you could replace outdated content with more up-to-date, digital content available online, or use tools like OrbitNote to convert paper-based materials to digital, accessible materials.
In addition to having content available in a digital format, it’s also important to share that content in a variety of ways. This can help ensure it fits with students’ strengths and barriers discussed above.
For example, if you’re teaching a unit on area and perimeter, you may know that some students will do well simply reading the textbook, while others would benefit from watching a video or listening to a hiphop version of the lesson on Flocabulary. Once they’ve got the concept down, let everyone get their hands dirty by working with manipulatives on their own or in a group to solve a real-life problem.
Offering multiple means of representation (UDL’s first principle) helps to ensure that students who struggle in one area do not automatically fall behind their peers.
Sharing content in a variety of ways is only half the battle. Engaging students by giving them access to audio, video, digital text, and interactive sites, only then to hand out a paper and pencil quiz at the end of the day isn’t ideal.
Obviously some of this is out of your control as standardized testing is a necessary part of education. When possible however, do your best to give students options for how they share their knowledge. This could be a demonstration, slideshow, speech, essay or video. Even using simple free tools like Google Forms provides an upgrade to standard multiple choice tests by making it digital and helping you to streamline grading.
Technology plays an important role in supporting Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The number of apps, extensions, sites, and built-in supports available to students today is nearly infinite. If you have a student who needs support with reading, writing, math, history, chemistry, or any other subject, chances are, software exists to help.
Allowing students to take advantage of these supports is critical. Not only does it give them the ability to succeed independently both inside and outside of the classroom, but it also frees up your valuable time to help even more students.
A great example of a support from Texthelp that’s helping millions of students worldwide is Read&Write. Our handy extension for the Google Chrome web browser allows anyone with a Google account to have access to reading and writing supports on the web, in Google Docs, Slides, Forms and more.
Watch the video below to see how one district is benefiting from Read&Write.
As you can see, tools like Read&Write are a great way to provide on-demand support when and where students need it. And one of the great things about modern apps and extensions is their ease of use. Many times students simply discover these apps on their own after they are deployed. If not, usually a quick overview at the beginning of a class is all that’s needed.
Even though I’ve been talking about the importance of digital content, software supports, and other technology-related tools, it’s important to know that technology is not required to implement UDL. Sure, it can help, but if you’re in a classroom with little to no technology, that doesn’t mean you can’t implement UDL.
UDL is all about removing barriers. As mentioned, one way to do this is by providing a range of options when presenting content or asking students to demonstrate their knowledge. Instead of using technology you can still offer multiple means of representation with things like graphic organizers and handheld whiteboards that students can use as response cards. The goal is just to make sure that all students have a way to participate and learn.
Universal Design for Learning isn’t new. There are loads of resources available online that can help you get started. You can start by heading over to the UDL Center’s website to learn more about the topic and the research behind it. You can check out our dedicated UDL guide for educators which can help you determine each learner's needs and create a personalized learning environment in your classroom.
Just remember to start small. Implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning doesn’t happen overnight. For example, begin by taking one lesson and consider ways to represent the content in multiple ways to reduce barriers and help increase student comprehension. Then for another lesson, offer students multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge. Or maybe create a short quiz in Google Docs instead of paper and demonstrate how students can use a tool like Read&Write to help with reading and responding to the questions.
By tackling UDL one step at a time, you can see what works and what doesn’t for your unique students and classroom.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2017 and was updated in December 2022.
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