How to Use Universal Design for Learning to Create Assessments

Providing elementary students with multiple means of action and expression helps ensure that teachers create equitable, valid assessments.

November 27, 2023
Nastya Bevz / iStock

From the moment I first learned about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I saw limitless potential. Because there is no such thing as an “average” learner, the most effective instructors offer students a variety of ways to access and express information.

The UDL Guidelines offer a research-based variety of effective options for doing so. Below, I focus on two tenets of UDL to show how “multiple means of action and expression” checkpoints can make thinking and learning visible (which is, after all, the heart of assessment).

When we use multiple means of action and expression to design assessments, students can show their depth of understanding and feel successful, agentive, and engaged.

Setting a Strong Foundation through Expectations and Feedback

When designing assessments using UDL, we don’t reduce rigor; the goal is meaningful grade-level instruction that moves students toward the same learning objectives in accessible ways. 

Incorporating regular opportunities for feedback supports UDL, as it allows students and teachers to tailor their next steps to reach the goal.

In impactful instruction, assessment, feedback, and reflection are embedded throughout learning experiences, not just tacked on at the end. For that reason, teachers, students, and peers should provide actionable, mastery-oriented feedback throughout a unit. 

Doing so is essential for growth and for building learners’ identities and sense of community. When teachers and peers provide feedback on strategies and on learning behaviors (such as perseverance, focus, or mindset), we model—and provide time in the learning journey—for students to see their progress and to reflect on what is working and what needs revision. 

Backward Design

The best advice I received when learning about UDL was to start small, to incorporate one change at a time. Within the multiple means of action and expression checkpoints, this might mean offering students one new tool, or two to three choices, in how they show their learning through assessment. 

Begin by unpacking the learning objective/standard to analyze what it is that students need to be able to do in order to show that they have met the standard. This is best done with a teaching or departmental team, if you have one, to enhance your collective depth of understanding through dialogue. 

Next, get clear on success criteria, and develop or revise rubrics or checklists, or provide a mentor text/product, to ensure that the choices you offer students use the same criteria for proficiency. Doing so makes assessment more streamlined for you and for students and ensures instructional validity. Share these criteria with students so that they can make informed decisions about their learning and know what they are aiming to achieve. 

Choosing Assessment Options

So, you’re ready to choose the assessment options you will offer your students and to consider the scaffolds you need to provide to minimize barriers to student engagement. Where should you begin?

If the standard uses the word “identify,” as in the second-grade standard “Identify the main topic of a multiparagraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text,” students might highlight the main topic, turn and tell a partner, or write a response. 

In the second-grade math standard “Identify triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, and cubes,” students might sort with manipulatives, sort on an iPad, or move (you might prompt students, “Walk to the front of the room if this shape is both a square and a quadrilateral and the back of the room if it is a quadrilateral but not a square”).

If the word “compose” is used, as in the kindergarten standard that states students should “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic,” students might write and illustrate a how-to book, act out a how-to process, or put pictures of the process in order and describe them orally. 

In the spirit of starting small, these examples offer students a few options while holding true to the rigor of the standards.

Incorporating UDL Throughout Instruction 

Teachers new to this approach often ask me, “How will I have time to assess all students?” I remind them that assessment doesn’t only happen at the end of a learning experience. As students are learning and creating their product, I can go around and check in with them about the rubric, noting what is already present in their work. 

If students choose to video- or audio-record their product, I can watch and listen to the files at another time. I can hold a whole class performance or gallery walk at the end of the unit or lesson and assess some of the students at that time, or focus on one aspect of the rubric to home in on. 

While performances and gallery walks may feel like added time, if you teach students how to provide meaningful feedback to each other and how to be present as audience members, you expand their collaboration skills—which improves instruction and better positions them to be lifelong learners.

Sometimes, I also have students self-assess and star aspects of the rubric they want my feedback on throughout our unit, then focus my feedback on what they starred. The ultimate goal in incorporating UDL into assessment is to nurture expert learners who feel empowered in their learning, motivated to persist in academic tasks. Katie Novak and Kristan Rodriguez say it well: “The framework has the potential to eliminate opportunity gaps that exclude many learners, especially those who have been historically marginalized. If we want all students to have equal opportunities to learn, we have to be incredibly purposeful, proactive, and flexible,” which applies to all instruction—including assessment.

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Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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