Embracing Universal Design for Learning

This post was written in collaboration with the featured professor, Rebecca Ewing. 

For many instructors, teaching online during the pandemic upended the traditional ways they approached student learning. Changes had to be made to grading policies to accommodate more absences. Students and instructors needed more technological guidance. Instructors had to be able to point students to support networks across campus. Assignments had to be redesigned for online learning. This upheaval, while taxing, has also brought opportunities for change in the classroom. 

Through our Carry the Innovation Forward program, Learning Innovation partnered with and awarded funding to faculty who wanted to implement lessons learned from pandemic teaching. One of our awardees, Professor Rebecca Ewing, learned early how the pandemic would change teaching and learning. Soon after pivoting to online teaching, she became ill and she had to accommodate instruction for her own needs, plus address the challenges that students were facing as they moved online. It was a lesson in understanding that there is likely always someone in your classroom who is having difficulties. She approached the semester with much more empathy and direct outreach to students who needed help, emphasized community and made changes to testing and assignments as needed.

This experience inspired Ewing to offer an online version of Spanish 204 (an intermediate language course) in Fall 2021 that followed Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices to create an inclusive course that embraced accessible content, alternatives in grading and open, equitable communication with students. The course was open to everyone, but was highlighted as an accessible and inclusive course in the course description. It is being repeated this Spring and will be offered again in Fall 2022.

To become more familiar with the ways UDL should inform course and assessment design, Ewing took a workshop with CAST and worked with consultants from Learning Innovation. 

Her first concern was making sure the materials she used in her course were accessible to all students. One resource she relies on is video. To prepare for possible disabilities in her classroom, Ewing realized she needed to add subtitles to the videos she used. She was able to work with the publisher of her textbook to have Spanish subtitles added. The subtitles have the extra benefit of helping all students with their comprehension of Spanish, since they can hear and read the words.

One of the main adjustments to her online course were the ways students were assessed. Her goal was to build flexibility into her assessment policies, which she did by:

  • Increasing the number of formative assessments (in person or online quizzes, group activities) so that she and the students could gauge their learning more frequently throughout the semester.
  • Including a new policy in the course syllabus allowing students to redo two assignments  (not including a group presentation and class participation). 
  • Modifying students’ assessments based on their learning differences. In one case, she allowed a student to prepare for an oral presentation that other students had to do in the spur of the moment. 

Because UDL is iterative and one of its principles is that every learner is unique, one of the lessons from implementing this type of course is that many barriers to learning can be anticipated – but there will always be unique situations that arise during the semester, and students should be involved in finding ways to best handle the challenges that arise. 

“I have also learned to be explicit about how UDL principles are used in the course. Highlighting how the grading changes offer students a better chance to succeed will lead to more students taking advantage of the opportunities,” said Ewing.

Ewing asked students to provide frequent feedback to make corrections in her teaching techniques and to find out student needs. For example, checking in with her students informed Ewing that some were longing for more opportunities to write during class. 

“I tend to emphasize speaking skills in my classroom, but UDL encourages instructors to allow students multiple ways to engage with the material and display their learning. After receiving this feedback, I made a conscious effort to include activities that allow students to respond orally or in writing or both,” Ewing shared.

Another change in her course was an increased emphasis on community. She implemented a greater number of ice breakers at the beginning of classes to provide more opportunities for students to socialize. She learned that each group of students is unique and circumstances are always changing during the pandemic. Last semester, Ewing observed that students seemed to build community quickly online. This semester, however, students were slower to warm up, perhaps due to the delayed return to campus. She plans to invite each student to meet with her individually during the semester to encourage them to participate and find out their needs.

The online section of Ewing’s course has been a success. Final course evaluations from Fall 2021 differed from other sections of Spanish 204 taught in person. They revealed that the implementation for UDL positively influenced students’ sense of mastery of the material, students’ sense of community in the course, and students’ enjoyment of the class. Along with the benefits of UDL, some students emphasized that the online format was actually helpful, not just because of the realities of learning during a pandemic but because the online format made it easier for students to make it on time and engage with the course. One student wrote, 

“I really enjoyed the online format, considering the course was an 8:30 am course. It allowed me to avoid stress…by permitting me to take the class in my room.”

“Learning about UDL and implementing it methodically in a Spanish course has been an invaluable learning experience that has influenced my teaching in all of my courses,” said Ewing. “My first instinct now is to anticipate what barriers my course design might be creating for students’ learning and finding ways to remove those barriers. I am still learning about UDL, but I am pleased that with each semester I can work to make the courses more accessible for students.”

If you are interested in learning how you can implement UDL in your course, contact us for a consultation.
The Duke Accessible Syllabus Project and our guide to creating an inclusive and equitable course are good references as well.