Universal Design for Learning creates equal opportunity through choices

Medill Integrated Marketing Communications lecturer Judy Franks has always been thoughtful about her teaching, taking a strategic approach to improving the design of her courses each quarter. But after taking a Universal Design for Learning workshop at Northwestern, Franks committed to a process of questioning her assumptions, unpacking her existing curriculum, and creating more paths into the material for all her students.  

“Before UDL I wasn’t thoughtful enough,” says Franks, about UDL or Universal Design for Learning, the approach she’s taken for her latest redesign for the course Consumer Insights. “It’s a labor of love that takes a lot of time.”

Inspired by the late 20th-century movements in architecture and industrial design for the built environment that have come to be known as “universal design”—think of how improving physical access for people with disabilities makes places more accessible to everyone—Universal Design for Learning is a growing set of educational initiatives to grant equal access to all students. The UDL framework leverages the flexibility of digital tools and materials to align teaching practice with recent research in learning sciences and the desire to make education more inclusive.

“Flipped classroom thinking works amazingly well for this,” says Franks. “UDL says, ‘Wait a minute, not everyone processes lectures in the same way and at the same speed.’ So you take the lecture out of class and offer students multiple modalities.”

At the heart of a curriculum shaped by UDL is the commitment to multiple approaches. Students are given multiple ways to acquire the knowledge and to achieve disciplinary mastery; students and teachers should use multiple techniques for engaging with each other and the material; and students should have multiple ways to demonstrate that they have learned.

"One of the biggest ‘ahas’ for Universal Design for Learning is offering people choice," says Franks.

Franks publishes her lectures notes on Canvas, and provides her students lots of Panopto videos and interactive exercises. By creating these materials ahead of the class and not relying on traditional lectures for teaching, Franks is providing her students with choices she calls “buckets of learning tools” that her students can access before they attend class.

“They can spend as much time with them as they need,” she says. UDL gives students the opportunity to control their learning allowing students to work with the material that speaks to them and to do so at their own pace.

“What used to be homework assignments are now in-class activities,” says Franks, where both her in-person and online students are challenged to work higher levels of thinking. And they are producing better work.

Another benefit of the UDL approach has been improved assessments. “One of the most awesome things UDL has done for me is help me identify my intention, so I’m starting to offer multiple format options, and focusing on what really needs to be assessed,” says Franks. In practical terms, that means different students could satisfy a single assignment by writing a paper, shooting a video, or creating a slide deck, whatever demonstrates their command of the material.

And quizzes are now a lot less anxiety-producing for everyone, with time-limits removed and a diversity of question types to give students multiple ways to show their proficiency.

Franks was one of the six Northwestern instructors to work with AccessibleNU as a pilot cohort to apply UDL principles in redesigning their courses. These NUDL workshops and support were funded by the Alumnae of Northwestern and the Associated Student Government.

There’s one area where Franks has pushed against the UDL grain: “I’m unwilling to break up larger assignments into smaller ones,” she says. Judy believes authentic project work—and group projects in particular—are necessary and key to students practicing and demonstrating the executive functioning skills they will need in their real working life. It’s an area she hopes to work on further with AccessibleNU.

Advice for other faculty thinking about Universal Design for Learning? “Small victories are great,” says Franks. “You aren’t going to convert your course overnight.”