Q&A: Universal Design for Learning

February 5, 2019 BY JACLYN LEDUC
Updated: June 3, 2019

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for creating interactions that afford people multiple ways to get and stay engaged, to take in information, and to demonstrate skills and share ideas.

In the book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, authors Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling discuss how inclusive design is currently being used at institutions. However, when it comes to universal design, it’s difficult to cover everything in just one book.

To delve further into the world of universal design, Thomas Tobin covers the topics that didn’t make it into the book. In the webinar, Universal Design for Learning: The Hidden Chapters, he answers some key question about universal design for learning environments and discusses ways to get traction for UDL at your institution.

Below is a transcript of the Q&A portion of the webinar.

You talked a little bit about the learning style responses. Could you tell us a little bit more?

THOMAS TOBIN: Learning styles don’t exist. Yes, I said that with a period at the end. Learning styles don’t exist.

Learning styles as fixed characteristics– if you have a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, does that mean that, if I’m a visual learner that I can’t learn anything by listening to it, or I’ll be poor at learning by listening? Probably not. We have 50 years of neuroscience studies.

And I’ll point you to my colleague, Michelle Miller, who’s a cognitive neuroscience at Northern Arizona University. She has written persuasively on trying to bust this neurological myth. What we have is learning preferences.

[Learning preferences] change from moment to moment based on how we would prefer to engage with something or by circumstances.

And those change from moment to moment based on how we would prefer to engage with something or by circumstances. If there’s only one way to do it, we kind of buckle down and do it. And that learning preference is really an underpinning for universal design for learning.

Universal design for learning assumes that there is variability among all of our learners. We don’t teach to the middle. We don’t say, I’m going to just give this information in one way, and the people who need a hand, or need to see it differently, or are way beyond it, well, they’ll just be bored or frustrated.

Everybody is a diverse learner. Some people, they learn within narrower limits of diversity than other people. But everybody takes in information. Everybody demonstrates information in more than one way. And so that’s actually one of the reasons why, with universal design for learning, we should give students choices in individual interactions.

One function of UDL is facilitating teacher collaboration for the purpose of vertical and horizontal articulation of curriculum, instruction, and assessments. Can you speak to that process?

THOMAS TOBIN: Universal design for learning takes place at three different levels if we’re speaking simply. It takes place at the level of individual interaction. So anytime that students are interacting with the materials that they need to read, or watch, or otherwise take in, that’s one level of interaction.

The other level that we can talk about is the level of interaction that takes place in a classroom, or with somebody at the tutoring center, or even at the registrar’s desk. Those kinds of interactions, if we’re offering plus-1 on how those happen, we can give people more than one way to stay engaged– so giving them reasons for why the conversation should happen and how it has an impact on their real lives out in the real world. We can give people more than one way to take in information.

Giving our learners choices about how they report back and demonstrate their skills is the most powerful part of the universal design for learning.

When there’s that long line at the registrar’s office at the end of every semester when it’s registering for the new semester, have– on those rope lines, you have those little pillars– have a printed sign that says, here are the three pieces of paper that you’re going to need when you get up to the desk. And then a little further down, have a little video playing on an iPad that says the same thing. And give people choices about how they take in that information and how they get prepared. And you’re going to have fewer people walk up to the desk and be very mad, because they don’t have what they need, or they’re not ready to have the interaction. So being able to prepare that way is a way that we can think, even outside of curriculum and classes, about UDL.

And that third level of interaction is, how do our learners interact with each other and interact with the wider world? When we’re asking them to go out and do authentic learning by checking in with local business people or working with others in the industry in order to see about applying what they know, that’s actually really good UDL. Because they’re going to have choices about how they demonstrate their skills and how they report back on what they’ve learned. And giving our learners choices about how they report back and demonstrate their skills is the most powerful part of the universal design for learning.

Some have criticized UDL as moving the teachers’ focus to the average. How would you respond to that criticism?

THOMAS TOBIN: I’d actually say that’s a gross misunderstanding of universal design for learning. Moving the focus to the average– I think we’ve had the focus on the average for far too long– that, if we are trying to teach to this mythical, average student, we’re actually only teaching in one way. And we’re not really reaching out across the curve of abilities and preferences that our students have.

So universal design for learning– I would say to that critic, go back, and take a look at how making some changes– ask that colleague. Where do your students always ask you the same question every semester 700 times? What’s that topic? That’s a great place to do a little plus-1 thinking, and save yourself some work.

Where do your students get things wrong on the tests or the quizzes, and you end up having to reteach? That’s a great place to go back, and do a little plus-1 design, offer them some choice, offer them a study guide in another format. And that will save you– faculty member, instructor– some work and some fuss.

Watch the webinar: Universal Design for Learning: The Hidden Chapters

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