Dr. Rebecca Cory: Rethinking your Course Using Universal Design

Dr. Rebecca Cory, Division of Doctoral Studies

Dr. Rebecca Cory, Division of Doctoral Studies

Think for a moment about the students who have taken your classes in the past. Who are they? How old are they? What background do they come from? What gender? What race? How many of them speak English as a first language? How many as a second, third, or fourth language? How many of your students have physical or learning disabilities? What about having a new baby or aging parent at home?

Universal Design is a concept that helps us think through these questions (among others) about our current and future students and design accessible classes and curriculum for all of them. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has developed three principles for Universal Design of Learning:

These principles emphasize the importance of providing multiple pathways for students to access courses. Universal Design is a process that involves us imagining the diversity of our students and designing our courses to help all of them feel included. Then, if we meet a student who does not fit in our classes, we broaden our imagination to bring them in.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from my years of teaching Universal Design to faculty and staff:

  • Shared Note-taking: One common accommodation for students with language processing or attention based disabilities is a copy of the professor’s notes or a peer note taker. Instead of making this an accommodation for that student, and making them feel different, and therefore lesser, some faculty choose to make note-taking an integral part of their class. Assign a note-taker or two for each class session. The note-takers are then charged with posting class notes to the class website. For courses online, consider a Wiki where students can collaboratively share ideas and notes.
  • Integrated Technology: Consider “readings” aren’t just readings. Use videos (make sure they have captions), pod-casts, multi-media presentations, websites, and pictures to illustrate your content. Give the students multiple access points, no matter what their reading level, attention span, or proficiency with English.
  • Alternative Assignments: Think about assignments for students to express their content knowledge that give options for expression. Assign written work, but also have them develop a presentation, a graphic representation, a wiki, or a video or pod-cast of their own. This will allow students who are weaker in written expression to still show off what they know.

These ideas benefit all students—those with disabilities, those who have limited English proficiency, those who are tired because of a new baby at home, those who need to miss part of a class, or even those whom the content is especially difficult to understand.

Universal Design is a process, not a product. If you look at your course, you will probably see that you are already providing multiple means of engagement, expression, and representation. Keep pushing yourself to include more and more ways.

To learn more about ways to use Universal Design in a class, look at the National Center for Universal Design in Learning or check out my book, Universal Design of Higher Education: From Principles to Practice.

CAST (2012).What is UDL? Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/udl/index.html