Supporting all students through Universal Design for Learning

Title: Postsecondary physics curricula and Universal Design for Learning: Planning for diverse learners

Authors: Erin Scanlon, Jillian Schreffler, Westley James, Eleazar Vasquez, and Jacquelyn J. Chini

First author’s institution: University of Central Florida

Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research 14 020101 (2018)


Promoting diversity and inclusion is a major theme of PER, often focusing around gender and racial diversity. Yet, students with disabilities are often not included in diversity and inclusion efforts, despite making up nearly 10% of undergraduate students. While United States federal law requires that institutions provide equal access to students with disabilities, providing equal access is different from making equal access a priority. Not making physics classrooms or coursework accessible sends messages that we as a physics community do not anticipate certain students will engage in learning physics. While PER researchers have designed many curricula to support student learning, it is an open question of how well these curricula support diverse learners. The goal of today’s paper is compare common PER-inspired curricula with the Universal Design for Learning framework to see how well these curricula support diverse learners.

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for providing access to students with diverse needs, abilities, and interests. The motivation of the framework is to proactively accommodate students rather than make accommodations as needed. For example, its not uncommon to see buildings on a university campus where a ramp is built on the side of the building or the accessible entrance is around the back of the building; these are examples of making accommodations as needed. A Universal Design approach would be to construct the building such that every entrance has a ramp and the ramp is the primary way to enter the building. In this case, making sure anyone can enter the building was an intentional part of the building’s design.

When thinking about Universal Design for Learning, there are three guiding principles. First, any learning activity should have multiple means of representation which means providing content through multiple methods. Second, there needs to be multiple means of action and expression or equivalently, students are able to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways. Finally, there needs to be multiple pathways that the student can engage. This means that there isn’t a single path through the activity as would be the case on a typical worksheet. These three guiding principles are then broken into a series of specific checkpoints (shown in table 1) which can be used to see how well any activity or curricula aligns with the Universal Design for Learning framework.

Table 1: The various checkpoints of the Universal Design for Learning Framework. (Table 1 in paper).

To investigate the alignment of the Universal Design for Learning framework with common PER-inspired curricula, the authors chose four common, active learning focused, and research-based curricula. These curricula included the Open Source Tutorials in Physics Sensemaking, Physics by Inquiry, Next Generation Physical Science and Everyday Thinking, and Tutorials in Introductory Physics. While all of these curricula are research-based, they were not designed with the Universal Design for Learning framework in mind. The authors went through each of the Universal Design for Learning checkpoints one at a time and checked each activity in each curricula to see if that checkpoint was represented within the activity. An activity was then considered aligned with the checkpoint if at least one part of the activity met the definition of the checkpoint. A curricula was then considered aligned with a checkpoint if at least 75% of the activities in the curriculum were aligned with that checkpoint.

As the four curricula were not designed with the Universal Design for Learning framework in mind, it isn’t too surprising that there wasn’t much aligned. In fact, only two of the checkpoints appeared in almost every activity: (6.2) supporting planning and strategy development and (8.3) fostering collaboration and community. The Clarifying vocabulary and symbols (2.1) and highlighting patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships (3.2) checkpoints were also present in many of the activities. The level of alignment for each checkpoint is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Alignment of the various Universal Design for Learning checkpoints with the 4 physics curricula. (Fig 1 in paper).

Looking at figure 1, many of the checkpoints appear in the unaligned box. Some of these checkpoints, the ones that were grayed out, were not applicable to the activities while others may be present in the activity depending on how the instructor implemented the activity. For example, checkpoint 7.3 minimizing threats and distractions depends on what the instructor does and says during class which cannot be assessed by looking at the in-class activities. On the other hand, some of the unalignment was due to not serving all students. For example, English may not be the first language of all students in the classroom so these students may face challenges understanding the course material due to language barriers.

As the four curricula were not designed with the Universal Design for Learning framework in mind, it isn’t surprising that there isn’t a high degree of alignment. However, as new curricula are developed it is important to make sure that this framework is taken into account. In addition, the framework isn’t designed to only be used once. Instead, it is meant to serve as an ongoing guide to ensure that the classroom and classroom materials can be used and understood by all students.

Now, how might you apply the framework to your classroom? The authors have some suggestions:

  • To address checkpoint 2.5, illustrating through multiple media, the authors suggest communicating concepts through text and diagrams. While textbooks often do a good job of using both text and visuals, research-based curricula and instructor-created materials are often text-heavy. When using diagrams, the diagrams should direct students to the important features.
  • To address checkpoint 4.1, varying the methods for response and navigation, the authors suggest having students use methods other than speaking or writing to communicate their knowledge, which can be difficult for students with physical disabilities. Instead, consider alternative methods such as storyboarding or diagramming.
  • To address checkpoint 7.1, optimizing individual choice and autonomy, allow students to choose how they want to engage the material. For example, students could be given the option to do a worksheet individually, have small-group discussions, or have a large group discussion. In addition, the activities should be designed so that there isn’t only a prescribed set of steps or a single level of difficulty. This could be achieved by including a challenge problem or having students pick a few problems from a larger list of practice problems.

Figures used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Header image from the World Bank Photo Collection and used under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND-2.0.

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