Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Tips for Inclusive Teaching

May 25, 2021

When people consider the accessibility of college courses, they often focus on how easily a student with a disability can interact with the course material. However, courses that are more accessible for students with disabilities are often also more inclusive and equitable for a wider range of diverse students.
Consider curb cuts, which are the ramps found on some street corners. The first time people without physical disabilities might notice the value of curb cuts is when they are a new parent, pushing a stroller across a road and having to transition to a sidewalk that lacks such a ramp. And yet, the curb cuts were developed for people in wheelchairs, as a requirement of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. This simple innovation that now allows wheelchair users to navigate independently through city centers and university campuses is also widely sought out by people pushing a stroller, dragging a suitcase, pedaling a bicycle and more.
Curb cuts are a classic example of Universal Design, which is when environments and products are designed to be accessible or usable by almost everyone without the need for accommodations. It was originally an architectural term, but can be applied to many fields. In 1984, the Center for Applied Special Technology, now simply CAST, began working to increase accessibility in education for students with learning disabilities, with a focus on computer technology. Later, they expanded their work to reduce curriculum barriers for a wider range of diverse learners and their efforts became knows as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Knowing how to put Universal Design into practice to make courses more accessible, equitable and usable for all students is not always obvious without a deep read of the UDL Guidelines. A common first step to increase course inclusivity is to add closed captioning to videos in the online components of courses. This makes courses more accessible to students who are hearing disabled, but also improves accessibility for students who are still learning the language used in the video or who concentrate or learn terminology better when they can both see and hear the information. Adding closed captioning to course videos makes good sense, but what are some of the less common ways to make courses more accessible and better for all learners, using the principles of Universal Design?

Use HTML Heading Tags and Other Digitally Embedded Information  

UDL Representation Checkpoint: offer alternatives for visual information.

This first tip does not require major changes to the structure of a course and is easier to implement, so it could be a good step for instructors to take to ease into the mindset of considering accessibility in course design.
Imagine listening to an audio recording of a literary anthology and wanting to fast forward to a specific short story. Except, the recording has no table of contents and has not been divided into chapters. The only option seems to be to listen at 2x speed until hearing the narrator say the title of the story.
That scenario mimics the experience of students who rely on screen-reading software when they try to find the part in a digital course syllabus describing the policy on class absences. To someone who can visually read the syllabus, it might be obvious that they should skip to the section under the word typed in a larger font and underlined and bolded: Policies. But those visual cues are meaningless to screen-reading software.
The solution is to use structured HTML tags that enable screen reading software to recognize headings as important subdivisions of the content in a document. The listener can then choose which subdivision they want to hear in its entirety out of a list of the document headings. Modern word-processing and HTML editor software makes this easy: highlight the intended heading and change the text style from “Normal” or “Paragraph” to “Heading 1” or “Heading 2,” etc. Using multiple heading types has a similar effect to creating multi-level lists with bullet points.
Digital tags can also be added to images and figures in the form of alternative text, which is read by screen reading software to convey the content and intent of non-text elements to people who might not be able to see them. The alternative text should succinctly describe the relevant content of the non-text element, considering the context and the reason why the element has been used.
The main benefit of these digital tags is for people who use screen reading software; however, once document preparation is approached with the mindset of increasing accessibility, the use of these tags can also make documents and webpages neater, more intentional and better organized than before and this can benefit everyone. Alternative text is also useful to people who choose to load webpages without images, which might be the case for students without good internet access or who are trying to preserve bandwidth.

Provide Options for Assignments and Course Interactions

UDL Engagement Checkpoint: Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity.
UDL Action and Expression Checkpoint: Use multiple media for communication.

When verbs like “explain” or “appraise” are used in the student learning outcomes for a course, the obvious assessment vehicle for those learning outcomes might be a conventional essay. For some students, practicing how to write an effective essay or other type of paper could be important for their future careers as researchers, science writers or grant writers. But paper writing might not seem as relevant for other students or could be overly intimidating and a source of great stress. In addition, it might limit the ability of some students, such as those with dyslexia or a lower level of experience with the language used in the course, to fully express their ideas.

One solution to better engage and assess all students could be to offer a choice of formats for assignments and suggest that students direct the message to a specific audience. For example, instead of limiting students to writing a scholarly paper about probiotic supplements, they could be offered the option of recording a video in which they pretend to try to get funding from investors for a new probiotic supplement they have developed, in the style of a Shark Tank pitch, or a podcast of them interviewing their other persona, a medical expert, on the benefits of probiotic supplements. Other students could choose to write a newspaper op-ed, blog post or even a comic or storyboard about the pros and cons of probiotic supplements from an observer’s perspective.

When students are given agency over the submission type for assignments, many might choose a conventional format, such as a paper, given that it is a comfortable form for them. But others will appreciate the opportunity to express their creativity in an alternative format and might see the real-life value in what they produce. To simplify grading, instructors can design a single grading rubric for all different types of submissions if the specific requirements for content apply to all submission types. A category for "style and effort" can allow assessment of whether the presentation is appropriate for each type of submission and the level of effort.

The value of providing options for students applies to course content developed by instructors, too. Instead of only providing written instructions for assignments or only discussing the assignment during a live class period, instructors could do both and could additionally record a video in which they explain the purpose and guidelines for the assignment for students to review later. Video and sound recordings, such as podcasts, can be used in place of or in addition to readings to increase student engagement and provide an alternative media format that might be more approachable for some students.

Encourage a Growth Mindset

UDL Engagement Checkpoints: Heighten salience of goals and objectives; Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge; Increase mastery-oriented feedback.

Many students experience feelings of being an imposter at some point. This ‘imposter syndrome’ is the unjustified feeling or belief that they do not deserve to be where they are academically, that someone must have made a mistake and let them in or that it was only luck that got them there. First-generation college students in STEM fields are particularly prone to these feelings, which can have a negative impact on their perseverance in these fields.

One way to counteract imposter syndrome is to have a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that people can improve their intelligence and skills over time if they practice. To encourage a growth mindset in students, practice should be built into courses. It can take the form of low-stakes, formative quizzes that allow students to test their knowledge and increase their familiarity with the types of questions they will encounter in a high-stakes exam. Or, it can take the form of required paper drafts or other pre-writing activities before the submission of a major paper.

Another way to encourage acquisition of a growth mindset is to reward effort and improvement instead of how well a student performed relative to a fixed target; it might be more palatable to begin doing this in the lower-stakes and formative activities in a course.

Along with this, specific, constructive, timely and substantive feedback should be provided to students. This does not necessarily mean an increase in the time devoted to grading; robust analytic grading rubrics facilitate rapid, but informative assessment of a student’s submission with a few quick check marks into categories that show them where they are already proficient and where there is room for improvement. Grading students based on a rubric instead of comparing their work to that of other students also helps reduce the effect of an instructor’s biases on assigned grades.

Grading rubrics should be available to students before they start working on an assignment, so that they can clearly see the expectations for their performance. Rubric assessment levels can be labelled “partially meets,” “meets” and “exceeds” expectations to allow students to choose the upper level of effort they want to expend on an activity, depending on their goals, and reiterates that mastery is a process. For categories where a student only partially met expectations, an invitation to resubmit an improved version of their work to earn partial credit back reiterates the importance of practice.

Make Increasing Course Accessibility an Ongoing Process

It can be intimidating for an instructor to begin increasing the accessibility and equitability of their courses, but a growth mindset is useful here, too. It is best approached as a process that can be started simply and that can proceed in small steps. Even the UDL Guidelines are a constant work in progress. The organization that manages them, CAST, has embarked on a community driven process to update the Guidelines, acknowledging that they do not yet adequately respond to the needs of all learners. In a move that is well-timed to coincide with the increasing collective awareness about systemic inequities, this round of revisions specifically aims to "identify, name, and redress systemic barriers to equitable learning and outcomes" and could thus equip educators with additional practical tips to improve the equity of their courses and institutions.
Learn more about how biology educators are implementing universal design for learning, inclusive teaching and improving equity in their classrooms at 2021 ASMCUE!

Author: Samantha Orchard, Ph.D.

Samantha Orchard, Ph.D.
Samantha Orchard is Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Arizona, where she teaches biotechnology courses.