Designing for Accessibility
What is universal design for learning?
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn” (CAST Institute). The goal of UDL is to design instruction in such a way as to reach the widest possible audience.
UDL provides a framework for designing and teaching all aspects of your course - including the materials you present (representation), the opportunities you offer students to demonstrate their knowledge (expression), and the classroom learning environment that you foster to encourage motivation (engagement) (CAST, 2011). UDL recognizes that individual variability in learning is the norm rather than the exception and offers strategies to tailor teaching practices and develop flexible learning activities for all students.
At The Center for Teaching Excellence, we promote the use of Universal Design for Learning as a best practice in teaching. The following outlines UDL-informed teaching methods, resources, and instructional technologies to guide you as you develop and teach your courses.
What you present
Representation refers to the ways that you present content to your students. This can include formal methods including lectures and class discussions, but can be particularly important for less traditional methods like flipping the classroom for active learning.
Flexible presentation of materials
Teaching from a UDL framework invites instructors to present materials in flexible ways and calls faculty to ask, “How can I make this material easy for students to use in another format?” Below are some quick strategies for making course materials more flexible using instructional technology and other software:
- Develop graphic organizers and improve your lecture presentations (like PowerPoint) to visually present your ideas.
- Make your scanned text PDFs readable and searchable using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology with Adobe Acrobat, and create Pages that are friendly to screen-readers.
- Add subtitles or even use YouTube’s speech-recognition technology to develop subtitles automatically. When recording videos, provide a transcript of the audio presented.
- Provide audio files of class videos so students can listen on-the-go.
- Improve the accessibility of your Canvas site to be friendly to screen readers and review how your Canvas site looks on a mobile device to ensure students using tablets and smartphones can participate online.
Making content flexible is particularly important for students with disabilities. Review the Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) website to learn more about how you can make your content accessible to students with disabilities.
Action and expression
What students demonstrate
Action and expression refers to how students demonstrate what they have learned in your course.
Much of student action and expression takes place in the classroom. Consider the following UDL-informed strategies you might implement in your course, with links to instructional technologies that can support your teaching:
- Provide multiple means for student participation. For example, encourage classroom discussion through the use of personal response systems, small group activities, pair-share, 1-minute papers, or other activities that give students more than one way to interact in class.
- Use a variety of media and tools to facilitate instruction. For example, offer lecture capture to help students review and playback your in-class lectures, or develop a MediaKron site to guide students through curated materials in the digital humanities.
- Scaffold your course materials using graphic organizers or modules in a Canvas site to help students organize their knowledge.
Watch this video on UDL and Assessment from UDL On Campus.
When developing assessments in your course, it’s important to remember that variability is the norm in teaching - in other words, not everybody learns, interacts, participates, and thinks in the same way. Consider the following example:
A student in an American History course has dyslexia. The assessment requires students to respond in essay format to describe the factors that led to the American Civil War.
The key in this example is the concept of construct relevance, which refers to tailoring assessments to evaluate student progress only on their progress toward learning the construct and not evaluating non-construct activities. In the above example, the course assessment measures not only the historical content knowledge, but also measures abilities related to organization, style, spelling, and other writing-related activities that may be challenging for a student with dyslexia. For instructors, it’s important to distinguish between construct-relevant and non-construct-relevant activities in assessments - or in this example, determining whether the writing skills required for the assessment are relevant to the learning outcomes of the course.
Drawing from a UDL framework, an instructor might provide opportunities for the student to express their ideas about the factors leading to the American Civil War through storytelling, a podcast, an oral exam, or a class presentation rather than responding in writing. This allows the student to assess the student’s knowledge of historical content independent of writing skills. If developing writing skills were a core learning outcome of the course, the instructor could work with the student and the Connors Family Learning Center to develop a modified writing activity that appropriately scaffolds the assessment and takes into consideration the student’s specific needs.
What motivates students
UDL encourages the inclusion of multiple means of engagement in course materials. There are many ways to encourage student engagement and motivation in your courses. The following includes ways in which you can use instructional technologies to encourage engagement in course activities:
Voice & Choice. When possible, provide students opportunities to make decisions about their learning. For example, you could offer students the choice of more than one essay prompt for an assignment or give students the option of working in groups to complete an in-class exercise. Incorporate student opinions by polling with a personal response system in lecture courses or developing online discussions in Canvas.
Relevance. Make course activities relevant by linking class activities to student interests and life outside the classroom. Some instructors have incorporated service-learning, volunteer, and internship experiences directly into classroom teaching. You can also consider teaching tools including virtual communications to bring a leader in your field to your classroom from a distance, or incorporating peer instruction methods into your teaching.
- Universal Design for Learning at Boston College
- Accessibility Resources at Boston College
- CAST Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education
- National Center for Accessible Instructional Materials
CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA:
Hall, T., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2012). Universal Design for Learning in the classroom: Practical applications. New York: Guilford Press.