UDL consists of three principles: representation, expression, and engagement. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, these principles describe the what, how and why of learning (2014). By individualizing and differentiating instruction, teachers can better meet the needs of their students. One size does not fit all when it comes to education. In fact, one size does not even fit most. When we talk about individualizing education, IEPs and Special Education immediately come to mind. UDL, as beneficial as it is for students with learning differences, can and should be applied to all student learning.
I teach high school algebra to special education students through a two-year curriculum. All of them have learning differences, and one student has significant physical challenges as well. I have found that the more ways I can present information, the better I can get my point across. A comment was made on my lesson plan stating that the number of activities I had was a little overwhelming. In fact, this is a good example of representation, as well as engagement. When I post homework assignments on our Classroom page, I post a copy of the assignment, a copy of any notes/problems that we worked out together in class, at least one or two videos showing the steps to solve the homework problems and sometimes even a simulation or a game. My students know that they are free to use all, some or none of the materials, according to what they feel they need to be successful. I grade homework on the attempt and the process, not on the final answer. My students know that with all the different ways I have represented the problems, there is no excuse for a homework assignment that is blank. Students are encouraged to search for their own representations of the problems and share those with the class. Teaching them how to access the tools at hand to figure out problems is a worthy skill for any student.
I have often found students who can walk me through problems in class with very little difficulty, but fail tests when they are expected to put things into writing. Unfortunately, most students are required to do their own writing on state tests. The use of a scribe is very rare, and the accommodation itself is tedious for both the scribe and the student. All tests/materials are read aloud, as all of my students have that accommodation. When I find a student that can successfully explain problems orally, I will allow that on a test (I test them on their lunch period, a study hall, or before or after school.) Since I have them for two years, we start with a completely oral test, gradually adding more writing into it, until they are completing tests all in writing. If a student is completely unable to make that shift, I will recommend scribing for the Regents exam to the committee and add it to the child’s IEP. To address expression, I allow students to express their answers in ways that make sense to them. I have had students record their answers, write a blog post, draw a picture or even create a presentation or teach the class. I also started using a classroom blog this year to encourage more writing in our curriculum. We have been doing one of these each week and so far it has been very successful, with several students asking to do more blogging.
The piece I find most interesting about UDL is that all three pieces are interwoven. By representing materials and problems in different ways, I am also increasing engagement. These varying representations also show students different ways to express their answers/thoughts, also increasing engagement. None of the three principles work in isolation. All impact the others, and all allow classrooms to become more student-centered, thereby fostering more and better learning.
The Three Principles of UDL. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl/3principles