Universal Design: A Classroom That Benefits All

Back in May – we published an article about the idea of universal design. Throughout the article, we detailed why this concept is so important, and what YOU can do to make the environment around you more accessible to all. In case you missed that article, you can read it HERE.

Today we are going to take a look at universal design when it comes to teaching and learning. The organization CAST (previously known as Center for Applied Special Technology) describes universal design in the classroom as “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights on how people learn.” The organization recommends that teachers and other educators focus on providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression towards students. 

Keeping Students Engaged & Interested in Learning

When it comes to learning – each individual differs in how they are motivated and what keeps that individual engaged with the material being presented. Neurology, culture, personal relevance, and background knowledge all impact how engaged a person is when it comes to any given topic. According to CAST, “Offering learners choices can develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning. However, it is important to note that individuals differ in how much and what kind of choices they prefer to have. It is therefore not enough to simply provide choice. The right kind of choice and level of independence must be optimized to ensure engagement.” 

Some choices an educator could offer to their students include: the level of perceived challenge, the type of rewards or recognition available, tools used for information gathering, content used for practicing or assessing skills, color/design/graphics of layout, sequence of timing for completing a task. Often, conversations with students and/or parents and observing how a student best absorbs information will help an educator understand what will and won’t motivate a student. 

For example – a student with dyslexia may struggle with reading and writing but excel at public speaking, while a student who struggles to communicate verbally may excel at reading and writing. If both students were forced to learn in the same way – it is possible that one of the students would lose interest and motivation because that student already knows they struggle with that form of presentation. Meanwhile – if a classroom is focused on allowing students to learn in the way that is best for them, they will be more engaged with the lesson and assignments. 

According to a page on the University of Washington’s website, furniture in a classroom such as desks and chairs can lead to students having equal access and becoming more motivated and engaged in the lessons. Desks and chairs of different sizes, ball chairs, and chairs that rock are just a few ways furniture in a classroom can accommodate all. 

Allow Students Multiple Forms of Representation 

Each student in a classroom has a different skill set and different needs – once again, allowing options will help them all. CAST states, “learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g. blindness or deafness), learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia), language and/or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information more quickly or more efficiently rather than printed text. Also learning, and transfer of learning occurs when multiple representations are used because they allow students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. There is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners.”

Allowing the size of text, images, tables, and other visual assets to be enlarged on a computer and/or phone screen, allowing color contrast and the color of information to be changed, presenting online information that allows the volume and rate of speed or sound to be changed, allowing text-to-speech technology, and being flexible when it comes to the font size on documents are all ways to give your students a better chance at showcasing what they know in a way that is manageable to them. 

Students will also benefit if they understand the connection between a new concept being taught and something they already know and if key concepts are highlighted in lectures and/or in text. For some educators, there may be the appearance of too many options and it may seem complicated – but many pieces of technology used by teachers and students every day allow the above suggestions to be possible.  

Allowing Students To Show What They Know

Some students are most successful when they are giving a presentation in front of an entire class, some work best when it comes to taking exams, and some work best when they  can collaborate with others in their class on a project. Allowing students to show what they know in a variety of ways will allow them to shine where they feel they work best and grow when completing tasks they feel less comfortable with. While it is important for every student to learn skills in test-taking, public speaking, and working together successfully with others – giving students the choice of how they want to present their knowledge in some instances will allow them to thrive in the classroom. states, “in particular, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is one of the best ways to reach students who are traditionally marginalized – like children from low-income families, or those with disabilities. By being more mindful of the barriers these children face, you will be able to provide better support and prevent them from falling behind.”

What You Can Do

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, efforts have been made in recent years to encourage educators to learn more about, and teach in ways that are accessible to ALL students. 

The NH Department of Education said, “The NH Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education has contracted with CAST: Center for Applied Special Education Technology to provide New Hampshire educators with professional customized learning opportunities that build capacity in the implementation and roll-out of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a systemic framework for educational decision-making.”

Currently, in our state, UDL Academy is encouraging this concept in many schools across our state. The New Hampshire UDL Innovation Network found that students are 53% more likely to be goal-oriented and 53% more motivated if the lessons are structured in a way that considers UDL. 

If you are an educator, parent, student, or member of the community – there are actions you can be taking to promote UDL. Having conversations with educators in the early weeks of a new school year (or before it begins), promoting different ways of learning both through word-of-mouth and on social media, and encouraging legislators on a local and state level to consider laws that support teachers and students with all abilities will all help make UDL more widespread throughout America. 




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