universal design for learning outside the classroom

Big Improvements, Small Adjustments — Stories from Goodwin’s UDL Fellows

Any student or alumni can tell you that Goodwin University is a unique place. From the expert instruction of our faculty to our readily available support services, the Goodwin community goes above and beyond to cultivate an inclusive educational environment. Better still, Goodwin University is all about growth. That doesn’t just translate to our students, either — as a University that strives to be an exemplar of equity, our staff and faculty always embrace new opportunities to make education more accessible.

In this spirit, Universal Design for Learning Framework (UDL) found its way to Goodwin’s walls nearly six years ago, when University leaders began incorporating UDL into the culture of Goodwin. Building its bones from educational and neuroscientific research, the UDL Framework is a model that supports the success of all students — providing the freedom and flexibility needed for diverse learners to have equal access to equitable and effective educational experiences.

Embracing equity, inclusion, and accessibility

Imagine a second-floor library. Though many may dream of exploring its endless resources, the only entrance is a wobbly ladder. Those unable to climb the ladder have no way to reach the library. Furthermore, if a rung breaks during a climber’s ascent, they cannot reclaim or continue their pursuit of knowledge.

Consider the same library again, but imagine installing a set of stairs, a ramp, and an elevator. Thanks to these new entry points, the library is now available to virtually every learner. These changes speak to the mission of UDL — to create high-quality learning opportunities that are accessible and flexible.

Breaking barriers to accessibility

UDL champions accessibility by breaking down the barriers that obstruct new learning. Some of the most common roadblocks to student learning include:

Practical principles for student success

Naturally, the next question is how to tackle these obstacles to learning—and you’re in luck. Thanks to the UDL framework, these barriers aren’t as insurmountable as you might think. By applying the three principles of UDL, anxiety-inducing roadblocks can become a thing of the past.

The principles of UDL include the following:

  • The Principle of Engagement focuses on creating an inclusive and accessible learning environment. The Principle of Engagement focuses on building genuine interest, creating clear goals, and encouraging self-monitoring.
  • The Principle of Representation provides flexible multimedia resources to support student comprehension. Furthermore, students apply new learning to existing schemas — building supplementary knowledge and highlighting conceptual connections.
  • The Principle of Action and Expression allows students to communicate their learning in a mode of their choice (e.g., verbal, written, etc.). Students are free to play to their strengths — selecting their preferred strategies for expressing knowledge.

Applying the principles across many disciplines at Goodwin University

For seasoned instructors, the idea of adopting these principles may, at first, sound overwhelming. Luckily for Goodwin faculty, however, this is another way our University dares to be different. At Goodwin University’s Universal Design for Learning Institute, faculty and staff can complete a fellowship to master their understanding of UDL. Through expert guidance and collaboration, UDL fellows develop techniques and strategies for incorporating the framework into their practice.

Our most recent cohort of UDL Fellows included Dean of Students Dr. Kim McGinnis, assistant professor and MSN Director Mary Salisbury, and communications professor Brandon Daily. Read on to learn how UDL redefined how they teach.

Using UDL Outside the Classroom

A UDL Story from Dr. Kim McGinnis, Dean of Students

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching approach that accommodates the needs and abilities of all students by eliminating unnecessary barriers to the learning process. Though the framework was first put forth in 1984, it has been used for many years since to help make learning inclusive for everyone. The three UDL principles are engagement, representation, and action and expression. Respectively, these principles address the “why”, “what”, and “how” of learning.

When implementing Universal Design for Learning, these guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions applicable to any subject or domain. By following UDL guidelines, instructors ensure that all learners can access and engage in meaningful and challenging learning opportunities. Oftentimes, UDL is thought only to apply courses being taught online or in the classroom. However, this is not the case. Beyond traditional classes, UDL principles can help instructors design and improve workshops, events, and activities for participants of any age.

Universal Design beyond the classroom

Recently, I completed the training necessary to become a UDL Fellow at Goodwin University. As Dean of Students, my focus was not on reimagining a course or assignment. Rather, I chose to apply my UDL learning experiences to redesigning New Student Orientation. This typically includes an on-campus or virtual experience, as well as an additional online course.

To make New Student Orientation more accessible, certain barriers needed to be addressed. Students were overwhelmed by the large amount of information being shared over a short timeframe. Using the three UDL principles, I was able to make their orientation more meaningful and accessible. By applying these principles, I could ensure that online and on-campus participants would have similar experiences. Furthermore, by including cross-functional areas in the orientation process, I could help new students establish connections throughout the Goodwin community.

Emphasizing engagement

The Principle of Engagement focuses on minimizing threats and distractions, fostering collaboration and community, and promoting self-regulation. These concepts were incorporated into our Saturday New Student Orientation Event by creating multiple resources including FAQ’s, a contact information document, and a glossary of important terms and definitions. All students could access physical and electronic copies of these resources.

We also created a multi-disciplinary committee to work on the New Student Orientation experience, allowing staff and faculty from various departments to participate in welcoming our new students. This provided an opportunity for our students to build relationships with faculty, staff, and other students. To encourage new students to continue building these relationships after Saturday orientation, we helped them set goals to reconnect with the faculty, staff members, and classmates they met at orientation.

Rethinking representation

The Principle of Representation asks us to provide strategies and techniques that help students access and comprehend new learning. This principle can be incorporated by providing students with clarifying vocabulary and symbols, supplemental background knowledge, highlighting relationships and connections, and providing alternative or non-auditory options for receiving new information.

We implemented this at the Saturday event by providing documents that addressed commonly asked questions, contact information for all departments and presenters, and a reference sheet of helpful terms for students new to higher education. Additionally, we provided pre-orientation videos and materials to help students gain a baseline understanding of the support available at Goodwin University before attending the event. They were also given the opportunity to interact with staff and faculty during breakout sessions.

Taking action to embrace expression

The Principle of Action & Expression was incorporated in several ways, including multimedia communication. We also helped new students build fluencies with graduated levels of support by encouraging goal setting, using checklists and guides to facilitate information and resource management, and developing mentorship programs.

An ongoing approach to foster inclusion

Redesigning New Student Orientation through the UDL framework helped us turn a one-day event into a thoughtful and more inclusive learning experience. This redesign is, and will continue to be, an ongoing process. As we learn from our challenges and successes, we will continue implementing new changes to the program. UDL principles are an indispensable tool for fostering participation and learning at any event, workshop, or function — all while increasing inclusivity and eliminating barriers to engagement and learning.

Informative Speeches on Overload

A UDL Story from Professor Brandon Daily, MFA

In the fall semester of 2022, I taught an asynchronous, online Public Speaking course (COM 101) at Goodwin University. Though I had taught two sections of COM 101 in the previous spring semester, these earlier sections were on-campus and in-person. When teaching Public Speaking asynchronously online, I was surprised by the disconnect the students seemed to have with some of the required materials and assessments. This disconnect seemed to hit its head during the third of four major speech assignments, the Informative Speech.

For this assignment, the students were required to record themselves presenting a speech, as they had done with two prior speech assignments. This third speech was meant to inform (or teach,) the hypothetical audience about a topic of their own selection. Some examples of presentation topics included how to bake a particular food, a discussion about shoes, and information pertaining to students’ home countries or cultures.

In addition to giving an informational speech, each student was required to include a visual element to aid in the presentation of their selected topic. While most students successfully presented informative speeches with well-thought-out visual aids, several others failed to fully grasp the requirements of the assignment. Rather than providing a factual exploration of their topic, they argued in favor of a specific opinion. Some failed to include a visual element in their presentation and, in so doing, submitted sub-

Addressing the overload

Through my participation in Goodwin University’s Universal Design for Learning Institute, I came to recognize that several learning barriers were inadvertently designed into the Informative Speech assignment. More specifically, students were provided with an overwhelming amount of information about the assignment’s requirements. There were detailed prompts, notes from PowerPoints and video lectures, weekly announcements, and announcement videos. This quantity of information (and the way it was presented,) seemed to confuse some students, making it difficult for them to understand what to focus on and where to begin.

Another design barrier was time. Students were only given one and a half weeks to choose their topic, research the information, find a useful visual aid, prepare their speech, and record and present the final video. Furthermore, the students had to do all of this without any clear exemplar off of which they could base their own presentations.

Using the UDL framework as a lens, I identified and developed several +1 solutions that can easily be incorporated into COM 101’s Canvas shell and schedule. Most importantly, I believe these changes will help students better understand the expectations for the Informative Speech assignment. Subsequently, this will improve the quality of their speeches.

Enriching students’ experiences

First and foremost, I will simplify the extensive verbiage and numerous resources for the assignment (7.3 Minimize threats and distractions). This can be accomplished by creating an infographic for the students to reference. Second, I will provide video examples of both exemplary and sub-standard presentations (3.2 Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships). This will allow students to see and learn from previously submitted speeches.

Third, I will scaffold the various elements of this assignment by creating more time for students to prepare their speeches. As the instructor, this change will allow me to help redirect students when necessary (5.3 Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance). The same can be said with the students’ use of visual aids, which I will have them submit ahead of their speech presentation.

Lastly, I will provide students with a checklist based on the assignment rubric (6.4 Enhance capacity for monitoring progress). Students will use the checklist as a self-assessment before submitting their presentation. The checklist will ask students to confirm that their speech is informing the audience rather than arguing an opinion. Students will also be asked to confirm that they’re purposefully incorporating a visual element into their presentation.

Adopting a Universal outlook

By looking at this assignment through a UDL lens, I’ve come to realize the truth of the trite, “big improvements from small adjustments.” At the beginning of my UDL exploration, I had the misperception that we were being asked to overaccommodate our students. I’ve since realized that what we’re doing is guiding students to success, as any coach, supporter, and teacher should.

With the manageable changes that I’ve proposed, I believe students will not only succeed in this assignment but feel pride and confidence in what they’ve accomplished. Students’ success on assignments and assessments in COM 101 will hopefully color their achievements throughout their academic, personal, and professional lives.

The Case of “Case Formulation”

A UDL Story from MSN Director and Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Salisbury, DNP, APRN, PMHNP-BC

The course I explored through the UDL Framework was Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Mental Health Disorders (NUR655). This master-level class is a requirement for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) students.

The assignment I chose to focus on was the Module 4 discussion board, which requires students to complete a case formulation. The directions for this assignment state:

Create a case formulation of an adult challenged by an anxiety disorder and one of the obsessive-compulsive related disorders (OCD) from the DSM5. What symptoms indicate that they meet the diagnostic criteria? Be specific. Use all three textbooks. Reply to another learner who focused on different anxiety and OCD disorders. Critique their treatment plan using references and evidence-based research.

Students are assessed with a standardized rubric, which evaluates their critical thinking throughout the case formulation.

The concern about cases

After assigning the Module 4 discussion board, several students reached out to clarify what I meant by case formulation. Students were uncertain about how many details to provide and were unsure of the criteria they needed to meet. Others asked if there was a template they could use to create their case formulation. After receiving these inquiries, I reviewed the prompt before ultimately determining that it lacked the details necessary for students to feel confident in the objective.

Using the UDL Framework, I posed a few questions to myself, including:

  1. What method(s) of communication are most effective to ensure students’ full understanding of an assignment?
  2. What alternate methods of engagement would foster learning and comprehension for the assignment described above?

Formulating solutions with the UDL Framework

In posing these questions to myself, I considered the UDL Engagement Checkpoints that would help me remove learning barriers from this assignment. One such checkpoint (7.1) focuses on optimizing student choice and autonomy. To address this, I could allow students to present their case formulations in either written or oral format.

I could also make the assignment more accessible by using UDL Engagement Checkpoint 8.1, which increases the salience of goals and objectives. To clarify my directions and details, I could better communicate my expectations for case formulations. Doing so will help students understand the assignment goals and objectives in relation to the grand scheme of our class and the PMHNP program at large.

The UDL Representation Checkpoints helped me apply relevant solutions. Checkpoint 1.2 suggests that instructors offer alternate options for visual information. I determined that by creating an instructional video, I could outline the template required to complete a case formulation. I also reviewed Checkpoint 2.5, which asks instructors to provide learners with multimedia options. Considering this, I will incorporate multiple resources, including a template and case formulation examples.

Through the UDL Action and Expression Checkpoints, I facilitated new ways for students to share their learning. Most pertinent was Checkpoint 5.2, which encourages multiple tools for construction and composition (such as text-to-speech software and tools for reviewing grammar and spelling). These tools will help students create polished, high-quality products appropriate to the master’s level. Aside from giving students alternate tools for expressing their knowledge, introducing them to text-to-speech software will prove relevant when entering their careers. In the medical field, professionals frequently use this software for documentation.

Small solutions with significant impact

Although Module 4 had passed, I included these solutions in later discussion boards that required case formulations. By implementing UDL-based solutions, I helped students better understand the materials and achieve success while providing one another with meaningful feedback. I have been awestricken by how a few targeted, UDL-based solutions have dramatically improved my students’ responses. In the future, I plan to continue utilizing the UDL framework — incorporating individual choice and providing alternate options for students to express their learning.

About Dr. Kim McGinnis, Dean of Students

Kim McGinnis holds a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Horticulture from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC; a Master of Arts in Education from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC; a Master of Science in Psychology from Capella University; a Master of Science in Education Law from NOVA Southeastern University; and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN.

About Professor Brandon Daily

Brandon Daily is an Assistant Professor of Communications at Goodwin University. In addition to teaching, he is a published author of two novels and a collection of fiction. His short stories, essays, poetry, and plays have been published online and in print journals and magazines.

About MSN Director and Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Salisbury

Mary Salisbury earned her doctorate in nursing from the University of Saint Joseph. A board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, Dr. Salisbury focuses on young adults, adults with schizophrenia, and individuals with opioid use disorders. In addition to providing years of patient care, Dr. Salisbury mentored APRN students at the University of Saint Joseph and Wilkes University. Most recently, Dr. Salisbury was appointed program director of Goodwin University’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.