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Teaching Strategies

How Universal Design for Learning Can Help With Lesson Planning This Year

The core concepts of UDL are particularly helpful for teachers moving between remote, hybrid and in-person teaching.

March 29, 2021
Teacher works at his desk in empty classroom during distance learning
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Even when we teach with consistent, planned strategies, every student experiences instruction in a different way. When we embrace that diversity of experience among our students and recognize that what works for some may not work for others, doors open: We can plan multiple routes for engagement, representation, and expression, which enables more students to succeed.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an education framework that helps teachers support students across that span of the student experience. It is universal in that it can apply to every student and to every element of education, from inquiry-based learning approaches to classroom inclusion to assessment.

Applying the core concepts of UDL can be particularly helpful to teachers toggling back and forth among in-person, remote, and/or hybrid setups.

Build Outward From the Most Essential Idea

Directly transferring an activity from in person to remote can be frustrating. For example, even a simple exercise like having students collaboratively organize and sort sticky notes with their ideas gets complicated when you try to create and share sticky notes online.

When faced with a conundrum like that, it helps to back up and remind yourself why you wanted your students to do a particular task—in this case, sharing and sorting. You might decide it’s the sharing that matters the most because sharing is a platform for group discussion. From there, you can choose tools like Google Slides, Jamboard, or Padlet that do not directly re-create sticky notes but can accomplish the same teaching goal online.

When you move from an essential idea to a tool or process that makes that possible rather than the other way around, it becomes easier to see multiple paths forward.

Lean Into the Strengths of Your Medium

Recent research shows the importance of balancing a mixture of media sources and synchronous/asynchronous designs in online instruction.

Imagine a curricular goal to engage students in a project-based learning unit. Early on, you might decide that you want your students to brainstorm and make a plan to test their ideas.

The delivery of that experience could look very different in various settings.

In person: A shared physical space builds community and sparks spontaneous conversations and creativity. Plan for a class period when students work somewhat autonomously based on a set of instructions. Throughout the period, you might circulate to facilitate students’ talking to one another based on what you’re seeing and hearing in the classroom.

Remote: With a wealth of online resources just a click away, you could provide more detailed process expectations and allow students to explore their ideas asynchronously over a longer period of time (e.g., a week or a month). Then you could schedule structured time for students to share and discuss their ideas regularly for the duration of the project.

Hybrid: Running a synchronous classroom with a mix of in-person and remote students requires careful management. You might prepare the instructions for your remote students to work independently at first, so that you can circulate and prompt discussion with the in-person students. Later, you might turn your attention to a scheduled check-in with the remote students once in-person groups are more autonomous.

When teaching in a new setting like online or hybrid, it can be frustrating to see a beloved activity fall flat. But different teaching methods shine in different settings. Different students can do different things in a hybrid setting—just because in-person students are synchronous doesn’t mean remote students can’t be asynchronous.

Similarly, students on a mixed weekly schedule can have very different class routines depending on whether they are in person or remote. Expectations just need to be consistent, clearly communicated, and repeated frequently.

Approach Your Design With Flexibility and Transparency

In a physical classroom, a review discussion can signal the approach of a summative assessment, and a daily verbal reminder can signal that an assignment is almost due. Regular, scheduled interactions establish a cadence for course progress. When teaching online, asynchronous components require that the instructor be more intentional about how they convey that process information.

Just like in the classroom, it helps to consistently send signals over time so they become norms—they’re just different signals. In person, a teacher might issue daily reminders about an upcoming due date. It can be tempting to rely on a single posting of a due date online, thinking “It’s always up, so why post it again?” but individual students engage with online systems differently. For some, that single post is enough, but others are more likely to register the reminder if it’s in the syllabus and in a daily announcement feed.

Research has shown that transparency in the norms and expectations of a course has a significant impact on early success for college students. The same principles apply in K–12 education. From a UDL perspective, offering students multiple paths to engagement requires that information be accessible in multiple places.

The information you provide is also important. The UDL framework suggests that teachers can offer students text-based and multimedia-based approaches to new content. But for this to be most effective, students should understand why their teacher is offering one or the other and giving them a choice. It helps students to understand the instructional goal of each option, if the information in each format is identical or complementary, and any other pros and cons of each option. From there, they can make an informed decision about which format to pursue. It’s not enough to offer choices; we must also help students understand and navigate the choices we offer.

In an online setting, it helps to be more intentional and explicit in these explanations. I might offer a video explanation if students want to spend more time with a walk-through of a topic, complete with diagrams and an animated video. I might also offer a short article paired with three examples. Students could consume both if they love the topic or want extra support, since these two options offer related but different value.

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