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April 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 7

UDL: A Blueprint for Learning Success

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Instructional Strategies
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Dylan is an enthusiastic 3rd grade student who wants to do well in his inclusive classroom. His teachers are concerned about his inconsistent performance, and they note that he's easily distracted and often doesn't follow instructions. When Dylan is able to concentrate, he can compute math facts on grade level, but he finds math word problems challenging. He is polite when interacting with adults, but friendships don't come easily to him.
Like Dylan, all students have learning strengths, challenges, and preferences that affect the way they learn. Recognizing that no two students are alike, effective educators differentiate their practices to accommodate their students' learning differences. One 21st-century framework educators can use to accomplish this goal is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
UDL is rooted in the architectural concept of universal design, which calls for designing buildings, products, and services so that all individuals can use them. For example, a ramp represents a universal design that provides access for a variety of individuals who find stairs to be a barrier—not only people who use wheelchairs, but also people pushing strollers or making deliveries.
UDL is based on brain research that applies universal design to teaching and learning (CAST, 2011). To differentiate instruction for students with a range of learning differences, UDL provides multiple means of
Representation (presenting content in a variety of ways);
Action and expression (varying the ways in which students are encouraged to respond and show their learning); and
Engagement (using a range of practices to heighten student motivation).
Just as architects create blueprints to design buildings that everyone can use, the UDL framework encourages teachers to be educational architects who build student success (Salend, 2016). Here, we describe a seven-step pedagogical model to guide educational architects in developing UDL instructional blueprints. Let's see how educators might follow this model to create an instructional blueprint for Dylan.

Step 1: Understand Students' Learning Differences

Architects begin the design of a building by identifying the various individuals who will use the building. Educational architects start to design their classroom activities by seeking to understand each student's academic, behavioral, and social strengths, challenges, preferences, and interests, as well as their cultural, linguistic, and experiential backgrounds. Teachers gather this information through a range of assessment strategies: by observing students' interactions with others; reviewing their academic records; examining their work; surveying them (and others who know them) about their interests and activities; noting the learning conditions that affect their engagement and motivation; and analyzing their performance on classroom-based and standardized assessments (Doubet & Hockett, 2016).
Interviews with Dylan and his parents have revealed that he loves to talk about his dog, Legos, trains, boats, planes, being a movie producer, and the funny stories he reads. Dylan's teachers have observed that he performs well with technology, but struggles to pay attention during traditional academic instruction and becomes frustrated when solving word problems or writing extended responses. An analysis of his math assignments and assessments shows that he often makes mistakes because he skips steps or copies numbers incorrectly from one space to another. His teachers note that when the class learns anything related to mechanical vehicles, Dylan is the first to raise his hand. They also observe that when Dylan tries to make friends with peers, he seems to misread facial expressions and actions.

Step 2: Identify Educational Goals and Learning Objectives

In the initial stages of designing a building, architects also determine how individuals will use the building—what "goals" users must be able to accomplish. Similarly, educational architects begin to design student learning experiences by identifying the academic goals and learning objectives each student needs to master as a result of the instruction he or she receives. The goals for students who have individualized education plans (IEPs) or 504 plans should be consistent with those documents; the goals for students who are English language learners should be individualized based on their proficiency in English and their first language; and the goals for gifted-and-talented students should strengthen their critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Learning objectives may vary in the amount of content to be learned, the level of difficulty of that content, the pace at which students are expected to learn, and the ways in which students are expected to demonstrate their learning.
For example, Dylan receives instruction connected to his school's curriculum for all students, which is based on the Common Core State Standards. But whereas the Common Core stipulates that 3rd graders should be able to represent and solve multistep word problems involving multiplication and division, Dylan is still working on one-step problems—a goal that appears in his IEP. The Common Core standards for speaking and listening require that students "engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts." Dylan's challenges related to paying attention and maintaining friendships affect his proficiency on this standard. His IEP contains goals for paying attention when others are speaking and developing friendships with peers. Because there are other students in his class who also struggle with attention, his teachers often focus on these goals when designing group work.

Step 3: Examine Aspects of the Learning Environment

When designing buildings, architects identify the factors that may influence how a range of individuals will use the various spaces. Likewise, educational architects can perform an ecological assessment of the learning environments they create to examine the factors that may affect student performance. These factors may include their curricular, social, and behavioral expectations and interventions; technologies; assessment strategies; and classroom layout. An ecological assessment also identifies family involvement, collaboration strategies, available support personnel, and student interaction patterns that educators employ.
Dylan's inclusive classroom contains 27 students, 7 of whom have IEPs or 504 plans. Students in the class are expected to work both independently and collaboratively, pay attention, respect their peers, comply with the classroom procedures, and make numerous transitions. In addition to Dylan's general education teacher, available support personnel include a teaching assistant and a special education teacher who are in the classroom for half of the day. Because this team has not worked together for long, they're experimenting with a variety of groupings and instructional approaches, including teacher-directed instruction, co-teaching, cooperative learning, and small-group instruction.

Step 4: Identify Barriers to Student Success

In formulating blueprints for universal design, architects examine the information they've collected about individuals and buildings to identify the barriers that may prevent some people from accessing and using specific aspects of the building. Similarly, in creating UDL instructional blueprints, educational architects identify factors that may hinder student success by reviewing the information they've collected related to students' individual characteristics and learning differences, the educational goals and learning objectives, and the learning environment. They ask themselves what barriers exist in the three components of UDL differentiation: (1) how content, learning activities and materials, directions, and academic language are presented; (2) how students are allowed to demonstrate what they know and can do; and (3) how students' attention, involvement, and motivation are fostered and maintained.
Dylan's teachers have identified several factors that seem to hinder his performance. They've noted that although Dylan is very engaged when learning about topics that interest him and using technology, he has difficulty paying attention, following directions, and completing his work during most large-group and small-group instruction. He also has trouble concentrating when he works alone to solve math word problems. During cooperative learning activities, Dylan's performance varies depending on the peers with whom he is working.

Step 5: Select UDL Solutions to Address the Barriers

Just as architects use universal design to remove barriers that limit access to buildings, educational architects employ UDL solutions to address the barriers to student success they have identified. UDL solutions are research-based instructional practices, accommodations, technologies, and policies that offer appropriate supports and challenges to students by providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. Educational architects consider a range of evidence-based UDL solutions and select those that best address each student's learning differences.
Dylan's teachers have implemented several UDL solutions, which they also employ with some of Dylan's classmates who are in his small group for math. For example, they use color and enlarged type size to highlight important information in the math word problems they create. They make the problems more interesting and relevant to Dylan by incorporating animals and mechanical vehicles into them. They also use explicit instruction to teach word problems in small steps, and they've taught Dylan and other students to use manipulatives like Legos and graphic organizers like tape diagrams and number bonds (a mental picture of the relationship between a number and the parts that combine to make it). Students use response boards and think-alouds to explain their answers so that the teachers can monitor progress and give immediate and appropriate feedback.
To help Dylan follow directions and pay attention, his teachers present directions orally and visually, limit the number of directions presented at one time, and prompt him to paraphrase the directions. For any written task, they give him support to complete the first part. When improvement of writing is not the primary goal of the lesson, they allow him to respond orally. They have also taught Dylan to use a self-monitoring system to keep track of his on-task behavior. When he meets a goal, he earns time to work on a computer.
To promote positive relationships among students, the teachers provide social skills instruction and periodically implement community-building activities. For Dylan, they supplement their social skills instruction with social stories and role playing. For example, they've worked with Dylan to create and review brief, personal stories that illustrate appropriate behaviors during a range of social situations, such as how to listen without interrupting when others tell a funny story, or how to understand why a peer might be frowning.

Step 6: Ensure that UDL Solutions Are Well-Implemented

Architects develop detailed blueprints, specifying dimensions and materials to help ensure that buildings are built as they were designed. Educational architects also need to take steps to ensure that their UDL solutions are implemented well (McKenna, Flowers, & Ciullo, 2014). Educational architects make sure everyone understands the specific actions and conditions associated with the UDL solutions, including (a) when solutions will be employed; (b) which individuals will be responsible for implementing them; (c) what materials, resources, technologies, locations, and grouping arrangements will be needed for implementation; and (d) what preparation and education students and educators need.
To ensure fidelity in the implementation of the UDL solutions for Dylan, his teachers created a checklist of the essential features of the strategies. They periodically analyze lesson artifacts and samples of Dylan's work. They help Dylan learn the self-monitoring system by having him role-play how to pay attention and self-record, and they occasionally check his accuracy in using the system. As Dylan's teachers become sure that the UDL solutions are well implemented, they collect fidelity data less frequently.

Step 7: Evaluate the Efficacy, Acceptability, and Fidelity of UDL Solutions

Effective professionals in all fields examine the efficacy, acceptability, and fidelity of their practices. After UDL solutions have been implemented, educational architects collect and analyze classroom-based data to assess how the solutions are affecting student learning, behavior, and socialization (Salend, 2016). Through observations, self-reflection, and interviews with students, educators examine whether they and their students view the UDL solutions as appropriate and effective (Chorzempa, Maheady, & Salend, 2012). They also gather information to determine the extent to which the UDL solutions are being implemented with fidelity (McKenna, Flowers, & Ciullo, 2014). Effective and acceptable UDL solutions are continued as needed. Ineffective, unacceptable, or difficult-to-implement solutions are revised or replaced by other solutions.
Dylan's teachers use work samples, observations, interviews, and self-reflection to evaluate their UDL solutions. They periodically examine the data that provide evidence of Dylan's improvement in solving word problems, following directions, and paying attention. When they evaluate their efforts to help Dylan's socialization, teachers note that although they observe him socializing with more peers, these interactions tend to be brief and initiated by others, so they need to step up social skills instruction for him.
Dylan has said that he likes using the self-monitoring system and has offered ways to make it better—for example, he suggested that his self-recording sheet include a pictorial depicting him paying attention, and that he be allowed to choose a classmate to work on the computer with him if he achieves his goal. The teachers agree to try these strategies.

Building Student Success

Educators are challenged to teach students with a range of learning differences. If these differences are not addressed, they can hinder students' learning and educators' instructional effectiveness. By serving as educational architects who use Universal Design for Learning, educators can acknowledge their students' learning differences and build student success. 

CAST. (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved from

Chorzempa, B., Maheady, L., & Salend, S. J. (2012, April). A practice-based evidence model: Assessing what works for teachers and students. Presentation at the annual meeting of the Council for Exceptional Children, Denver, CO.

Doubet, K. J., & Hockett, J. A. (2016). The icing or the cake? Educational Leadership, 74(2), 16–20.

McKenna, J. W., Flowers, A., & Ciullo, S. (2014). Measuring fidelity to improve intervention effectiveness. Intervention in School and Clinic, 50(1), 15–21. doi: 10.1177/1053451245322348

Salend, S. J. (2016). Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective, differentiated and reflective practices (8th ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson.

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