Key Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Opening Doors for All Learners

Introduction

Individual differences in learning behaviour have been widely researched over the last four decades or so, yet there is still much that is not known about how individuals manage learning within and across different contexts. The concept of individuals preferring a particular learning style focuses on the person-bound differences in the way individuals go about learning (e.g., Pask, 1988; Sternberg, 1988). Researchers in this branch generally argue that the differences are related to personality traits and are thus rather stable.

Proponents of the style construct often assume that a relatively direct relationship exists between learning style, teaching style and learner performance. This has come to be known as the learning-styles hypothesis which claims that learning outcomes could be optimised if instruction could be individualised to the learners’ styles (Pashler, McDaniel, Rowher, & Bjork, 2009). To be specific, Pashler et al. (2009) defined a “meshing hypothesis” (p. 108) that referred particularly to the claim that the presentation of content should match the learners’ inclinations to particular forms of information reception (for example, visual or verbal). Researchers who hold this view have attempted to devise instruments to measure and categorise learners according to their preferred mode of learning. However, questions have been raised with regard to the reliability and validity of the instruments used, and hence the results of such studies. Pashler et al. (2009), using their own rigorous criteria to validate the use of learning-style assessments in instructional settings, found only a small number of pieces of evidence that supported the hypothesis, but were not convincing enough to advocate the use of learning-style assessments in the classroom. Moreover, several well-designed studies found evidence that contradicted the matching hypothesis (Constantinidou & Baker, 2002; Massa & Mayer, 2006).

Acknowledging the difficulties and shortcomings of attempting to match teaching and learning styles, some educators would rather promote the idea that learners should develop a repertoire of styles, so that an awareness of their own preferences and abilities should not bar them from working to acquire those styles which they do not yet possess. This calls for educators to provide a wide enough variety of delivery, assessment and engagement methods so that no particular group of students are left out, and learning is maximised.

Concept of Universal Design for Learning

The original idea of a universal approach to curricula and learning environment design may be traced to a group of researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the USA who promoted the term, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in 1984. They were clinicians at the North Shore Children’s Hospital in Salem, MA, who sought to explore ways of using new various technologies to provide better educational experiences to students with disabilities. Since then CAST researchers have tested and refined their methods and have come to a new understanding of how to improve education using flexible methods and materials (Rose & Meyer, 2002; Rose & Meyer, 2006; Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005). The underlying philosophy of the UDL concept is to avoid unintentionally raising barriers to learning.

The three primary principles that guide UDL may be articulated as follows:

Principle I : Provide Multiple Means of Representation

This principle acknowledges that learners have different preferences in the way they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. There have been a number of studies that sought to understand this aspect of learning. Neil Fleming was an example and he introduced the VARK model (Fleming & Mills, 1992). VARK is an acronym that describes four types of learners: Visual, Aural, Read/Write and Kinaesthetic. Fleming claimed that there exists visual learners who learn best when information is presented pictorially (such as by means of diagrams, charts, and maps), aural/auditory learners who prefer information in a form that can be heard (such as lectures, audio recordings and verbal discussions), while learners who prefer the read/write modality learn best if information was presented in text-based formats (such as written documents, lists and books), and finally kinaesthetic learners who prefer experiential and practical forms of learning (such as role-playing, laboratory experiments and practicum). Studies have shown that a minority of people prefer to use only one sensory modality when internalising information (unimodal), whereas the majority of people prefer to use two, three, or all four modalities (multimodal) (for example, Alkhasawneh, Mrayyan, Docherty, Alashram & Yousef, 2008; Baykan & Naçar, 2007; Lujan & DiCarlo, 2006; Murphy, Gray, Straja & Bogert, 2004).

This principle therefore advocates the use of a variety of options for the representation of information. This will also ensure that the learning needs of students with particular sensory disabilities (e.g. blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth, will be catered for. Another possible benefit could be that learning, and the transfer of learning, is reinforced when multiple representations are used because it allows students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts.

Practical considerations to apply Principle I could include:

  • Providing options for perception such as presenting information using an appropriate blend of visual and auditory content through leveraging multi-media;
  • Providing options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols by ensuring that technical vocabulary and symbols are clarified (e.g. via a glossary); and
  • Providing options for comprehension by highlighting patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships, and guiding information processing, visualisation, and manipulation.

Essentially Principle I addresses the “what” of learning that facilitates the cognitive processes involved in learning. The end goal is to develop resourceful and knowledgeable learners.

Principle II : Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

This principle acknowledges that learners differ in the way they navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For instance, students with speech impairments, those who struggle with strategic and organisational abilities (e.g. executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so on, approach learning tasks and express themselves very differently. Thus some may express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognised that action and expression puts demands on students to strategise, practice, and organise information, and this is another area in which learners differ. These are regulation strategies can be described as metacognitive activities that are directed at regulating cognitive activities and therefore impact learning outcomes. Examples of metacognitive regulation activities include planning and monitoring one’s own learning progress, and diagnosing the cause of one’s own difficulties in learning a particular subject matter (Brown, 1987; Volet, 1991).

Practical considerations to apply Principle II could include:

  • Providing options for physical action by varying the methods for response and navigation;
  • Providing options for expression and communication by using multi-media for communication, or offering multiple tools for construction and composition of knowledge; and
  • Providing options for executive functions by guiding appropriate goal-setting, supporting planning and strategy development, and enhancing capacity for self-monitoring of progress.

Principle II can be said to address the “how” of learning with the objective to develop strategic and goal-directed learners.

Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

This Principle addresses the affective dimension of learners who differ in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated. This dimension may be viewed as the learning orientation (or motives) of students and their mental models of learning.

The learning orientations of students generally encompass students’ personal intentions, attitudes, expectations, anxieties and doubts. Researchers (e.g. Biggs,1987; Entwistle, 1988; and Gibbs, Morgan & Taylor, 1984) have found that the learning motives of students in a course of studies, can have significant influence upon their learning process. For example, Biggs (1987) reported that intrinsic study motives characterised by the desire to actualise interest and competence in particular academic subjects, had a strong correlation to the adoption of deep strategies.

Mental models of learning include conceptions of learning and studying in general, conceptions of themselves as learners, conceptions of learning objectives and learning tasks and conceptions of the task division between themselves and others in the learning process (Flavell, 1987; Lonka, Joram & Bryson, 1996; Marton, Dall’Alba & Beaty, 1993; Prosser, Trigwell & Taylor, 1994). In short, the mindset that students adopt towards learning.

There are a variety of sources that can influence such individual variations in affect including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge among other factors. These differences can manifest themselves in a range of responses to engagement approaches. For instance, some students may be highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty, while others may become disengaged and even frightened by those approaches, preferring stable routine. Some students may prefer to work alone, while others prefer to work with peers.

Practical considerations to apply Principle III could include:

  • Providing options for drawing out interest by showing relevance, value and authenticity, encourage individual choice and autonomy, and minimise perceived threats and distractions;
  • Providing options for sustaining effort and persistence by careful scaffolding (constructive friction) through gradually increasing the difficulty of learning tasks; fostering collaboration and community, and providing mastery-oriented feedback; and
  • Providing options for self-directed learning by promoting expectations and beliefs that optimise motivation, facilitating development of personal coping skills and strategies, and encouraging development of self-assessment and reflection.

Principle III addresses the “why” of learning and seeks to develop purposeful and motivated learners.

Conclusions

The discussion above has outlined the key principles of UDL which ultimately provides a good framework to guide the design of curricula and learning environments to not only help students with different abilities and learning preferences to master a specific body of knowledge or specific set of skills, but also to help them master learning itself. Perhaps it may be useful to remember that often it is not the learners themselves that are “disabled” but it could be the curricula, or the pedagogical approaches used by educators, or even the learning facilities and the lack of the right kind of support, that actually impose limitations on students and “disable” them.  As educators seek to adopt learner-centric approaches to open doors for all learners, incorporating the UDL principles into teaching and learning strategies could be a positive step in the right direction.

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