Optimize Student Performance with Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recognizes that variability exists in student populations along many spectra, and guides the design of learning experiences that present as few barriers to success as possible. To learn more about the concept of Universal Design for Learning, see the Teaching Resources Page: Increase Equity, Access and Engagement with Universal Design for Learning.

This article addresses one of the UDL Guidelines from CAST.org, the leading proponent of Universal Design for Learning. The guideline covered by this article is “Multiple Means of Action and Expression.” View all the UDL Guidelines from CAST.

UDL and performance

When we think about using UDL to optimize performance, we’re focusing on the strategic networks, the “how” of learning, and assessing whether there are artifacts in what we’re asking students to do and how we’re asking them to do it, or peripheral skills and tasks that have nothing to do with the learning objective of the course, and that might be getting in their way. Many potential barriers to student performance can be categorized into four areas:

  1. Physical abilities
  2. Brain function
  3. Knowledge and skill
  4. Executive Function

Reducing barriers related to physical abilities

A crow, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and dog are lined up in front of a tree, facing their teacher who says, "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree"
Cartoon by Hans Traxler (1929)

In the cartoon above, a crow, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and dog are lined up in front of a tree, facing their teacher. The teacher has decided that he wants all the animals to demonstrate their physical strength through one means – climbing a tree. He figures that it’s only fair they get the same test.

Clearly, some of these animals are not going to be able to complete this task, and it has nothing to do with their strength. Other barriers exist that are will cause them to be unsuccessful. How might this illustration apply to a college course other than health and exercise science?

Consider a drag-and-drop quiz or activity. A student who knows which items to drag and drop where might struggle for other reasons…maybe they don’t have full use of their hand, arm or wrist, have a sensory disability, lack speed or dexterity, or cannot use a mouse. Much the like the animals in this cartoon, this student’s performance would not demonstrate what they know because there are extraneous physical barriers to completing the task.

A course designed with UDL would offer multiple means of action and expression, so students would have other ways to demonstrate their knowledge that might work for them. Even if a given task has barriers for them, students would be able to select a different task that does not.

On a related note, a course design following UDL principles would have assessment materials that are fully compatible with assistive technology. Images used in assessments and assignments would be be of high resolution so they are clear and students with vision impairments can zoom-in on them if needed. All audio would include captions or transcripts. See the Quick Couse Content Checklist to examine the basics of making sure your assessments follow standards of digital accessibility.

Reducing barriers related to brain function

Fall 2022 demographic data from the Disability Resources Office show that in that semester, 78% of registered disabilities had to do with brain or mental functioning, including ADD, ADHD, mental health, neurological, learning disabilities, brain injury, and autism spectrum disorder. Indeed, the most requested and granted disability accommodation across NC State is more time to complete assignments and tests. Even students (like any human) without disability have off days where they are mentally sluggish or foggy. Either permanent or temporary brain functioning can certainly affect one’s performance at a given time, and certain conditions can worsen these effects. Does succeeding in your discipline require completing tasks perfectly the first time, quickly, and on demand? Or does this expectation create an artificial barrier to success?

Consider a chemistry course where the achievement of the learning objective to “predict products in the reactions of carbon compounds” is measured through a multiple choice exam administered in one scheduled class period and for which no partial credit is awarded. A student who knows how to predict the products might struggle due to the time constraint, anxiety caused by the pressure of a high stakes exam, or having to sit still and quiet for a long period of time. Some students might wake up that having not have slept well, feeling under the weather, suffering from food insecurity or hunger, or having come off of a long shift at work. Additionally, for a multiple choice exam, a student who can perform each task at 80% will still receive 0 points if no partial credit is given.

In this way, this exam might actually be testing whether “At any given time, regardless of your level of fatigue, hunger, or overall well-being, can you quickly and perfectly predict products in the reactions of carbon compounds.” Might you remove some of these barriers and test the actual learning objective by

Removing barriers related to outside knowledge and skills

Consider an example in a geology course in which students are expected to be able to list, in order, the layers of the Earth and describe how they were formed. An instructor wants to make the test interesting so asks every student to demonstrate their knowledge by writing a story that describes a journey into the center of the earth, listing and describing the formation of the layers as they go. Assuming a student knows the content, to complete this task well, a student must also

  • Not struggle with writing a story, specifically in English
  • Know how a fictional story is constructed
  • Master grammatical and spelling conventions

If the instructor has not specifically taught storytelling or writing, these skills are not aligned with the learning objectives nor the instruction in the course, and may pose barriers to some students. It is laudable to try to motivate students and create assessments that are more interesting for them to complete (for more on this topic, see the Teaching Resources article entitled Boost Motivation with UDL), but a course designed with UDL would offer students multiple options to choose from.

Named and described formation accurately and in correct orderLayer of the EarthNaming or description is not accurate or complete or is out of order
Upper Mantle
Outer Core
Inner Core
Rubric for grading assessment related to layers of the Earth

Above is a possible rubric for evaluating whether a student has mastered this learning objective regardless of how they choose to show this – whether through a story, a speech, an infographic, or a model. Note that the rubric evaluates achievement of the learning objective only and also providing choice and flexibility for how that achievement is expressed. For more information on creating and using rubrics see the DELTA Teaching Resources article “Rubric Best Practices, Examples, and Templates.”

Another way to ensure that successful completion of an assessment does not depend on knowledge not taught in the course is to monitor the language used in the assessment for acronyms, jargon and culturally-based idioms or figures of speech that might not be familiar to students of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. For more on this topic, see the Maximizing Comprehension section of the Teaching Resources Article entitled Elevate Your Content with UDL.

Supporting executive function

One skill that is necessary for optimal performance but that is not fully developed in all college-aged students is executive function. According to a Psychology Today article “Executive function describes a set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals.” The article goes on to note that much of this functioning relies on the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, and these skills are still developing in college-aged adults. Notably, development of these skills can be more difficult in individuals with some genetic factors as well as childhood trauma. (Psychology Today, n.d.)

Consider the planning, monitoring and reflecting necessary to succeed on a set of exams in a course. A student must create a plan to prepare for the exam, monitor how well following that plan is preparing them and adjusting as needed, and reflecting on their performance and feedback received to create a perhaps better plan the next time around. Students who have not had the opportunity to practice and hone these skills or whose executive functioning development is incomplete may not perform well in college even if they have the ability to learn the content. Providing some coaching to these students may optimize their performance.

One possible tool to use is some version of a Pre-Exam Planner. This example planner could be copied and modified to fit the needs of your course – it does not need to contain all of the elements presented in this example. The basic idea is to coach students to reflect on their engagement with the material up to the time of the exam, set goals for preparation and performance, review the task at hand and create a plan to prepare, and monitor how their preparation is going. Just prior to the exam, students can reflect on the process and state how they expect to perform.

After the exam, a Post-Exam Analysis and Reflection exercise can help students recall how their preparation went, analyze their mistakes and consider how they might adjust their engagement and learning strategies for the next exam.

References and Resources