Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #26: Universal Design for Learning:
Intentional Design for All

Universal Design for Learning: Start with the Goal 

Distance learning has created new challenges for how educators approach curriculum:

  • Lessons that were once easily adapted “on the fly” become challenging to adapt to learning online. 
  • Learning materials that were critical in face-to-face learning become suddenly not accessible for all students. 
  • Media and activities that were engaging and motivating fall flat when implemented at a distance for some students.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that can help educators design inclusive learning environments for all students, whether they are in remote, hybrid, and/or face-to-face settings. CAST’s UDL Guidelines are specifically designed to help educators anticipate the full variability of their students, in terms of:

  • Engagement (the “why” of learning), 
  • Representation (the “what” of learning), and
  • Action & Expression (the “how” of learning). 

However, there is much more to UDL than the UDL Guidelines! UDL implementation requires intentional consideration of the goal or objective for any part of the lesson. Put another way, when implementing UDL in your lessons, always start with the goal. Ask yourself:

  • What is the most essential content or skill we want our students to learn? 
  • What barriers are preventing students from accessing and engaging in learning? 
  • What instructional strategies can we use to reduce those barriers and engage student interest and participation in learning? 

When you really know the goal of the lesson and what student success looks like, then you can design with flexibility and use the UDL Guidelines to ensure all learners can make progress toward the goal. Goals may be objectives or may be related to standards that include content or skills. Goals could also be connected to IEP priorities, behaviors, or social-emotional learning. 

During distance learning, even your best lesson may need to be reconsidered. For example, you may need to sharpen the focus of your lesson’s essential learning or reduce the number of objectives because distance learning periods may be shorter or may provide fewer opportunities for students to interact with the materials and each other.  

Here are some tips to help you create meaningful learning goals, so you can then design flexible learning pathways for all:

  • Clearly communicate the primary focus of the learning to yourself, your students, families and caregivers, co-teachers, and paraprofessionals in your class. 
  • Provide options for how learners can perceive and understand the goal, which aligns with the UDL Representation Guideline. Make sure the language in the goal statement is clear and students understand what they are working to achieve. 
    • Ask yourself: Have I explained the goal using clear vocabulary to ensure student understanding of the goal? 
    • Ask yourself: Have I presented the goal in multiple formats, such as written on a whiteboard, posted on digital handouts, or represented with images?  Can learners access the goal in multiple ways, such as having them be read aloud or visibly highlighted on PowerPoint slides? 
    • Ask your students: what does this goal mean to you? Assure that every student has the means to express themself so you understand what they understand.
  • Make connections for how the goal is meaningful or relevant for students, which aligns with the UDL Engagement Principle. This is important so students know not only what it is they are working to achieve, but also can contextualize the learning so they care and are invested in the goal.
    • Ask yourself and ask your students: what are the real-world or community-related applications that connect to this goal? Why does this goal matter to you?
  • Separate the “how-to" from the goal, which aligns to the UDL Action & Expression Principle. Often, the way in which we want students to show what they know is fixed. Yet when you analyze your goal and determine which skills or content are most critical for the lesson at hand, then you can be flexible in other ways. For example, we might require students to write an essay about a conflict a character faced in a book. However, if the goal is focused on understanding the conflict, then students could have flexibility in how they share what they learned about the conflict in different ways, such as verbally, in writing, through a recording, or drawing.
    • Ask yourself: how else might a student demonstrate an understanding of a concept?  Could they show understanding through writing, drawing, recording, video, graphic organizers, or even work with partners?  
  • Hold high expectations for all learners, which aligns with all three UDL Principles. UDL encourages fostering the development of expert learners who are resourceful and motivated, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed. Encouraging high expectations and flexible pathways for all students to become expert learners is the cornerstone of UDL.
    • Ask yourself: how can this lesson encourage students to better understand how they learn and make decisions to be the best learner they can?  

Don’t stop there! Once your goal is clearly developed, anticipate and reduce barriers students may face in your lessons, whether remote, hybrid, or face-to-face. Reflect on whether the barrier is in Engagement (how students recruit interest and sustain effort), Representation (how students perceive and build background), or Action & Expression (how students show what they know) and include a flexible option to reduce that barrier.  

  • Here’s one last UDL tip. As you facilitate the lesson, listen to students and get their feedback about what is supporting their learning, or where there are barriers that could be reduced. Ask your students:
    • Was the goal of this lesson clear to you?
    • Was the goal of this lesson meaningful to you?
    • Did this lesson give you options to show what you know?
    • Did you learn something about yourself as a learner today?
    • If you answered no to any of these questions, how could I do better next time?

Together, we can work to ensure that the design of our lessons meets the needs of all learners - and that they are engaged and goal-directed in their learning pursuits. It’s easy to get started, focus on the goal.

Distance Learning Series: DL #26, December 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Posey, A., & Hartmann, E. (2020). Universal Design for Learning: Intentional Design for All. TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are the Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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