Teaching Tip: Universal Design

Universal design in education is the idea that courses should be constructed in a way that addresses the needs of all potential students. The considerations of universal design include the layout of classroom furniture, the type and format of course materials, the method of content presentation, and the tools used to assess students. A professor’s ultimate goal is to alter their class for the individual students who are enrolled in it.

The first step of the universal design process is to decide on primary course objectives. Catering to students’ learning styles does not mean compromising the intended curriculum. With fixed content objectives in mind, the professor can make decisions about teaching methods and materials. These methods should be based on the characteristics of students in the course. What is their primary language? Do they prefer to see information written down, or do they prefer to listen to it and write it down themselves? How do they learn most effectively? Do they feel anxious about tests? What factors might distract them from learning effectively?

Many college students have some insight into these questions, but the answers are not readily apparent to a professor. A professor can figure out these answers by getting to know their students at the beginning of class through methods such as introductions, journaling assignments, surveys, and conferences. Based on the demographics and experiences of students in a course, a professor can then choose how to present content, assess students, and even arrange the classroom.

In comparison to more traditional special education modifications and accommodations, universal design modifications are made for the benefit of every student in the class. For example, using a combination of visual, auditory, and hands-on learning in the classroom is beneficial to all learners, not just those who may have a hearing loss. Using a variety of reading materials rather than just a single dense academic textbook gives all students a variety of viewpoints, and isn’t just beneficial to students who may struggle with dense academic texts. In a discussion based class, arranging the desks in a circular formation increases everyone’s ability to hear and be heard.

It isn’t enough though to simply use universal design principles. A professor must also assess their effectiveness. This assessment is both quantitative and qualitative. Test scores are important, especially if it seems that a specific subset of your students is not doing well, but test scores are only one measure of success. They cannot be a substitute for actual communication and interaction with students. Only through connecting with students is it possible to know why they are struggling, and what modifications can be made to improve their learning experience. This is, after all, the point of universal design. For similar reasons, assessment must be both formative and summative. It isn’t particularly useful at the end of a unit to find out that your students were struggling. At that point it’s too late. Universal design can only be accomplished through frequent (and sometimes non-consequential) assessment.

There is a temptation to think of universal design as being useful only for students with special needs. However, this is entirely against the idea of universal design, which is accessibility for everyone, not just everyone with a disability. Another danger in universal design is stereotyping. It’s easy to make decisions based on assumptions about groups of students. Decisions in universal design should be based on assessment data, factual evidence, and student requests.

Universal design is an ethos that pervades teaching, rather than just a checklist for planning courses. While it can be seen as a step-by-step process, it is more practical to approach it holistically. There is no point at which one step ends, and the next truly begins. Course content can be expanded or contracted, activities can be added or removed. The course responds to assessment of the students who are enrolled in it. For this reason, a requirement of teaching using universal design principles is the ability and willingness to adapt on the fly. The benefits of this flexibility, and of universal design, are that teaching can be tailored to specific students, helping them to learn at their maximum potential.

So how can you implement universal design principles if your course is already in session? Here are some techniques and ideas to consider:

  1. Get to know your students. Even in a large class you can conduct an online survey to find out how students enjoy learning.
  2. Introduce choice in projects and assessments. The content being assessed can and should remain the same, but the method of assessment can change. Step away from the multiple-choice tests. Consider project-based assessments which let students demonstrate their knowledge in ways that they are more comfortable with.
  3. Present content in diverse ways. If you give a lecture, give students access to a copy of your lecture notes. But don’t just lecture. You can implement video, skits, demonstrations, and hands-on activities. You could even let students teach for a day.
  4. Use campus resources. Just by posting your lecture notes in ECLearn, you allow students to learn lecture content not just aurally, but also visually. This adds another level of accessibility to this information.

Finally, if all of this sounds intimidating, confusing, or not applicable to your course, get in touch with an Academic Strategies Specialist from the Academic Technology and Innovation Group. We’re here to help you not just with technology, but with any innovation that will help you convey your knowledge and experience to your students more effectively.

Online Resources:



Books: (Available in the ATIG Library)

Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice- http://amzn.to/UUSu6Q

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