Let's Meet in the Middle - a Case for Universal Design Learning

In reading the literature on how one should instruct STEM students to improve creativity and higher-order learning, the influential change agents of the 21st century are advocating the discovery approach (also sometimes generously called the minimal guidance approach). Students are expected to discover the fundamental principles of the subject matter on their own through observations, experimentation, problem-based learning and real-world problems. I have wondered if this method is the most effective way to learn, and if many students are left behind.

On the other hand, fully guided instruction advocates demonstrate that for students direct and explicit instruction is the most effective. Each concept is described, and examples and abstractions are shown to reinforce them. Practice and feedback are an integral part of this method.

Over the last 26 years of teaching at University of South Florida, I have seen each approach welcomed or disliked by a substantial segment of our students. For years, I pondered if a middle-of-the-road approach is better or if is there was an evidenced-based method to reach an even larger number of students than possible with either of the two approaches.

Since 2001, with my colleagues around the nation, I have been leading the development, revising, refinement and assessment of an open courseware for an engineering course in Numerical Methods. The course content is available in multiple formats and multiple contexts including digital audiovisual lectures, textbook chapters, class presentations, worked-out problems, real-world applications, anecdotes and simulations. Repeatedly via formal student satisfaction surveys at several participating universities and informal student comments via social media, the students overwhelmingly mentioned the multiple formats and contexts made their learning more satisfying and convenient, while the performance at the participating institutions in a final examination based on Bloom’s taxonomy improved by as much as 22 percent. These observations are supported in the book How People Learn where it mentions, “knowledge that is taught in only a single context is less likely to support flexible knowledge transfer than is knowledge that is taught in multiple contexts.”

A few months ago, while conducting a literature search on the learning process, I came across the Universal Design Learning (UDL) approach that is believed to have been first mentioned to make instruction more accessible to students with disabilities. However, the philosophy of UDL makes it naturally inclusive, and hence reaching a diverse population.

The first principle of UDL of having multiple means of perception matches what we have been doing all along with our open courseware philosophy of presenting information in multiple platforms and contexts. However, it is the other two principles that I have formally implemented in the recent semesters to make students master the learning process itself.

The second principle of UDL is to provide multiple means of expression. We are implementing this by having multiple forms of assessment required of all students such as concept inventory tests, essays, problem solving, projects, and regular in-class tests, but also by allowing students to either submit a final project or take the regular in-class final examination.

The third principle of UDL is to allow multiple means of engagement. We are doing this by conducting clicker quizzes to create think-pair-share interactions, opening discussion via tools like Piazza, and by assigning mini projects that are individual as well as group-based.

Following these three major principles of UDL not only makes learners masters of the content but of the learning process as well.

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