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Universal Design for Learning: An Overview for Special Education Teachers

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            As Special Education teachers, we are constantly searching for the best ways to support not just our students, but all students in the school.  We look for teaching strategies that meet the needs of a variety of learners in various settings within the school and the community.  One strategy that is currently considered an evidence-based practice for meeting the needs of all learners is Universal Design for Learning, known as UDL (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014).  Evidence suggests that UDL is effective for all students, from preschool through college, and in a variety of classroom and school settings (Glass, Meyer, & Rose, 2013).  UDL is a proactive approach to instruction that anticipates the potential needs of learners and prepares for those needs before students arrive (Basham, Israel, Graden, Poth & Winston, 2010).  It is best described as a mindset about teaching, not a particular curriculum or set of practices. UDL often includes the use of technology, but technology is not a requirement for effective implementation; similarly, UDL is not a form of Assistive Technology (Edyburn, 2010). 
            Universal Design for Learning includes strategies in three key areas: multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement; these areas address the “what”, “how,” and “why” of learning (Meyer & Rose, 2005).  The concept of multiple means of representation includes the various techniques teachers use to deliver the course content; this might include providing print and audio books or computer-based text that students can customize to the size that best meets their needs, designing illustrations that go with written texts, using outlines, and scaffolding learning (CAST, 2011).  Multiple means of expression involves the ways that students demonstrate their knowledge about a particular concept; teachers use this component of UDL when they create assignments in multiple formats, such as papers, oral presentations, and multimedia presentations or when they give students the choice of completing a paper via handwritten text or computer-based text (Rao & Meo, 2016).  Finally, teachers utilize the UDL concept of multiple means of engagement when they offer choices, connect learning to relevant real-world experiences, promote student motivation, include group work and collaboration, and teach students to self-assess and reflect on their learning (CAST, 2011).
            Like many effective teaching practices, the decision to implement a UDL mindset in your classroom cannot (and should not) be done all at once.  Start small by adding one idea to your classroom instruction.  Once you are comfortable with that, add something else.  Then, something else.  Over time, you will transform your classroom into a space that meets the needs of all learners.

References
Basham, J.D., Israel, M., Graden, J., Poth, R., & Winston, M. (2010). A comprehensive 
          approach to RtI: Embedding universal design for learning and technology. Learning              Disability Quarterly, 33(4), 243-255.
CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
Edyburn, D. L. (2010).  Would you recognize universal design for learning if you saw it?: Ten
propositions for new directions for the second decade of UDL.  Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(1), 33-41.
Glass, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. (2013). Universal design for learning and the arts. Harvard
Educational Review, 83(1), 98-119.
Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2005). The future is in the margins: The role of technology and
disability in educational reform. In D. H. Rose, A. Meyer & C. Hitchcock (Eds.), The universally designed classroom: Accessible curriculum and digital technologies (pp. 13-35). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and     Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Rao, K., & Meo, G. (2016). Using Universal Design for Learning to Design Standards-Based
Lessons. SAGE Open,6(4), 1-12.

Dr. Marla J. Lohmann is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Colorado Christian University, where she prepares future Special Education teachers and conducts research in the areas of early childhood behavior management and the use of UDL in online teacher preparation.  She can be contacted at MLohmann@ccu.edu.