This question was received during the LD@school webinar, Supporting Students from the Ground Up: Universal Design to Support Students with LDs in the Inclusive Classroom; click here to view the webinar recording.
Answered by Candide Dovey
Involving student with learning disabilities (and all students) in the learning and assessment process is an important element of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The goal of UDL is to support our students to be motivated, resourceful and goal-oriented. Active involvement in their own learning and assessment is key to all of these ideas. The skills involved in many of these tasks may be challenging for students, particularly students with learning disabilities. It is important to remember that many of these skills must be taught explicitly and practiced before students will be able to do them independently.
In order to provide more detail and examples, let’s consider this question through the lens of each of the three principles of UDL: engagement, representation, and action and expression.
Engagement is the why of learning. When considering engagement, educators should provide a variety of ways to focus and engage students, to stimulate interest, to activate prior knowledge, generate questions, sustain student effort, clarify learning goals and success criteria, and increase self-regulation skills. Effective engagement aims to develop students who are purposeful and motivated to learn.
Teachers can involve students more actively in teaching and learning by allowing for as much choice and autonomy over learning as possible. This includes providing options for the types of resources to use, the subjects studied or the type of evaluation. An example of providing meaningful choices would be co-planning or co-designing learning experiences with students. An educator could also directly involve students in the development of success criteria and learning goals. When students are directly involved in developing the learning goals and success criteria for an assignment, they will be more engaged and have a better understanding of what they are learning. Another strategy is to create a classroom environment where peer support and interaction is the norm, and encourage and teach students how to reach out for support from peers or educators when needed. A third strategy is to include self-assessment and reflection as a key part of lessons and units. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulty understand how they are doing. Using clear self-assessment tools can help students build a better understanding of themselves, and of who they are as learners, and can support self-advocacy skills.
Representation is the what of learning. When considering representation, educators should provide a variety of ways to interact with educational content, to understand language and symbols, to activate or supply necessary background knowledge, to construct meaning, to generate new understandings and to maximize transfer and generalization of information in new contexts. Effective representation aims to develop students who are resourceful and knowledgeable.
Teachers can involve students in choosing the means of representation. This could include providing information using digital materials that are customizable (for example, a text available at multiple reading levels, or a website that works seamlessly with text-to-speech software). Students can choose how to interact with the content, and how their learning will take place. Another way to involve students through multiple means of representation is to consider how students will transfer and generalize what they are learning. Through scaffolding and providing supports for memory, such as the use of checklists, visuals, representation in multiple modalities, teachers can help students build skills that they can then apply in new contexts.
Action and Expression
Action and expression is the how of learning. When considering action and expression, educators should provide a variety of ways to interact with materials and tools, to share learning, to use assistive technology, to communicate, to set goals, to monitor progress and manage information and resources. Effective action and expression aims to develop students who are strategic and goal-oriented.
The principle of action and expression allows for many opportunities for educators to involve their students in the learning and assessment process. Teachers can allow students the choice of how they will show their learning, including the use of technology. Educators can support students to make self-directed choices in how to “show what they know” by supporting students in understanding themselves as learners. Assistive technology allows students with learning disabilities to access the curriculum and share their knowledge in a variety of ways that work for them.
Many students with learning disabilities also have challenges with executive functions. Educators can support students in goal-setting through prompting, scaffolding and modelling. Students who understand how to break down a task into manageable steps will be better able to make decisions about how much time they need to devote to completing it. It is important to expose students to a variety of graphic organizers and help them to choose the one(s) that work best for them. Another way to support executive functions is through supported and scaffolded self-monitoring and reflection. By providing students with and teaching them how to use a variety of self-monitoring tools (e.g. checklist, portfolio, continua, feedback), educators can support students to become engaged and self-directed learners.
Universal Design for learning is about flexibility and about creating conditions from the beginning that allow students to be active participants in the teaching and learning happening in their classroom and school.
Candide Dovey is a Special Education Consultant with the Toronto District School Board. Prior to her current role, Candide was seconded to the Trillium Demonstration School for students with severe learning disabilities. As a classroom teacher, resource teacher and consultant, she has worked with students, teachers and schools to support the needs of students with learning disabilities throughout her teaching career.