DO YOU TAKE THE STAIRS OR THE ELEVATOR?
How the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can enhance student achievement and well-being.
Next time you walk into a building, take a look at the safety and accessibility features. From fire alarms, fire sprinklers, elevators, escalators, intercom systems, ramps, and automatic doors, these features are designed to make the space usable and understandable for everyone, regardless of age, size, ability, or disability. Now, think about a classroom; what achievement features are in place for current students or when you were a student? Let’s take a closer look at how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can enhance student achievement and well-being.
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people, or approximately 16% of the world population, experience a significant disability (2023).
According to the National Disability Authority,” Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people” (2020). The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people, or approximately 16% of the world population, experience a significant disability (2023). No wonder buildings need universal codes to diversify ease of use for the general public. Consider the presence of escalators and elevators in buildings. While most people may opt for convenience, some individuals rely on accessibility features, such as people in wheelchairs or families with strollers. Accessibility features are not solely for people with disabilities but are designed to enhance the overall usability for everyone.So, how does Universal Design in architecture relate to learning? Approximately 1 in 10, or 240 million, children have disabilities around the world (UNICEF, 2021). Understanding how the classroom and curriculum can be “assessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible” by all students is crucial. For instance, imagine a student has ADHD or anxiety; sitting on an exercise ball may help with focus and stabilizing emotions. Should a student without ADHD or anxiety ask to use the exercise ball? Similarly, a student has dyslexia and prefers a particular font style and size for worksheets. Could a student without dyslexia ask for reading materials to be printed in a larger font?
To enhance student achievement and well-being, classrooms, and curriculum should include a universal code to diversify the ease of learning for all students, just as escalators and elevators eliminate the strain of climbing stairs for everyone. By incorporating a variety of accommodations, such as diverse text size, extended time on assignments, preferential seating, or alternative assessments, students are provided options that facilitate learning and increase engagement.
The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, developed by CAST.org, focuses on Engagement, Representation, Action, and Expression to “ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities” (CAST, 2023). Engagement is the “why” of learning, ensuring that students understand the purpose of the lesson to fuel motivation and interest. Representation emphasizes the “what” of learning” by presenting information in a variety of ways to cater to diverse learning needs. Action and Expression focuses on the “how” of learning, providing diversified options for students to demonstrate their acquired knowledge. The ULD guidelines provide concrete suggestions for any discipline and can be found here: UDL Guidelines.
Accommodations are another way to enhance student achievement and well-being. Accommodations are changes to the presentation, response, setting, and timing that can be applied to the environment, instruction, assessment, or curriculum. Accommodations do not change the rigor of the curriculum, only access to the information. For example, allowing students to work with a large story broken into chunks, offering an outline of a lesson, giving written instructions, allowing audiobooks, or reading instructions aloud are all accommodations (Morin, 2023). Additionally, accommodations can benefit students by allowing extra time on assignments, permitting frequent breaks, using timers for productivity, adjusting the lighting, or using highlighters and different color pens. Notice that accommodations do not change the rigor of the curriculum, only how the information is received.
Universal Design in architecture extends beyond ensuring safety and accessibility in buildings to playing a crucial role in creating inclusive learning environments that cater to the diverse needs of students. Embracing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles can enhance student achievement and well-being. While students with disabilities may require specific accommodations, all students can benefit from the overall usability and inclusivity in the classroom.
- CAST. (2023). The ULD guidelines.
- Morin, A. (2023). Common accommodations and modifications in school.
- National Disability Authority. (2020). What is universal design.
- UNICEF. (November 9, 2021). Nearly 240 million children with disabilities around the world, UNICEF’s most comprehensive statistical analysis finds.
- World Health Organization. (2023). Disability.
Dr. Cara D. Williams has over 19 years experience supporting students with mild-to-moderate learning differences, such as Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Previously, Dr. Williams was Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for Special Education at the Early Childhood, Counseling, Neuroscience, and Special Education Division at the Emirates College for Advanced Education in Abu Dhabi. She is a prolific speaker, both locally and internationally, on diverse learning needs and at-risk populations.
Dr. Williams began her career as a special education teacher in the United States. In 2022, Dr. Williams founded the Enlighten Lounge Game-Based Learning Center in Abu Dhabi to spark a passion for life-long learning in today’s youth. Research interests include: game-based learning, at-risk students, curriculum-based measurement, mathematics education, and special education.