UDL framework for learning

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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Ways to Promote Student Responsibility for Learning

As noted in the Teaching Professor Blog post, student responsibility for learning can happen in three different arenas. First and foremost, students are responsible for their learning. Teachers can encourage and support learning endeavors in a variety of ways, but students must do the learning.

Second, students should have responsibility for all those tasks that improve learning and develop learning skills—the kind of tasks teachers do so regularly that students have come to believe that they are teacher responsibilities. It’s the teachers’ job to tell them what’s important, review what they need to know and provide every assignment detail. However, doing for students what they should be doing on their own creates dependent learners. They’re unable to make decisions or don’t make very good ones, and they resist assuming responsibility for the very parts of the learning process that enable them to learn.

Finally, there are responsibilities that students could share with teachers. Students could be given some say in how the class is run, how they will learn the content, and how that learning is assessed. Students can be involved in providing feedback and evaluating the work of their peers. Sharing responsibilities with students empowers them as learners.

Teachers frequently talk with students about their responsibilities as learners, but telling students doesn’t usually garner the desired results. However, a number of faculty are using strategies, approaches, activities, and assignments designed in a way that they can’t be completed without students assuming some responsibility for learning. Here’s a collection of ideas with references for those that have been published.

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23 Practical Strategies to Help New Teachers Thrive

“If you know the content, you can teach.”

How many of us have heard this sentiment before? How many of us believe it ourselves?

It is easy to assume that a content expert is automatically qualified to teach a course on his or her area of expertise. Much of the graduate-level preparation for entering university teaching is based on this assumption; graduate students study their subject areas, but little discussion is had about how to teach and what methods might be most effective. This is regrettable, because while content is important, the content needs to have solid pedagogy behind it in order to be effective in the classroom. Content can fall flat if all the instructor is doing is sharing the information in didactic fashion.

The concept extends to become a belief that good teachers don’t need to practice. This belief is also false, as many faculty development experts know; faculty development usually means remediation, whether one is dealing with experienced administrators or new faculty.

Higher education supports this myth; if an instructor gets good ratings and is considered a “good teacher,” then no one recommends that he or she work with a faculty developer. However, few instructors can say that they have had an entire class period go perfectly, let alone an entire course.

The reality is, there are ways to improve a class in both large and small ways every day. What works well one semester may not work well the next time the course is taught. There is always more to learn and there are always better ways to serve students.

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A Case for Coaching in Faculty Development

I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)

If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)

Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)

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Lessons from Expertise, Decoding, and a Quest for the Five-Minute Mile

A recent issue of Outside magazine recounts Charles Bethea’s attempt to run a sub-five-minute mile. At age 35 and fit, though not an elite athlete, Bethea’s goal is far short of the world record of 3:43. And although many runners break the five-minute barrier, it’s still a feat well beyond the vast majority of adults. After a respectable benchmark mile of 6:19, Bethea flounders aimlessly. A former college runner advises him to aim for quarter-mile splits of 74 seconds, which Bethea learns he can do, one at a time and with rest in between. But he can’t figure out how to string the four fast intervals together. It’s not until he gets coaching from a world-class miler that Bethea realistically approaches his goal. He quickly learns two things: first, he needs to ramp up his weekly mileage dramatically, and second, he must vary his training to include a prescribed mix of slow runs, hill intervals, and sprints. The road ahead isn’t going to be easy.

Bethea’s progression from mindless, ineffective training to purposeful, measured workouts serves as an entry point to Anders Ericsson’s recent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). A professor of psychology at Florida State who has studied experts for much of his career, Ericsson offers fascinating insights applicable to college-level teaching and learning. Although most of our students won’t go on to become experts in our fields, we often aspire to instill the practices and habits of mind which undergird our domains. The question is, how do we do that effectively?

Like Bethea’s initial efforts, most of us, argues Ericsson, go about improving ourselves in ineffective ways. Want to be an elite chess player? Play lots and lots of chess. No less a visionary than Ben Franklin took that route, but he failed miserably in his pursuit of excellence. Why? Because getting better in chess requires not playing more, but carefully studying the matches of chess masters, systematically building up a huge database of positions and possible moves, and having that knowledge stored for ready use in long-term memory. Lacking access to the games of the European chess champions of his day, Franklin never developed the deep understanding of chess he so desired.

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railroad tracks not lined up.

The Three Worst Teaching Mistakes

Mistake # 1 – Let content dictate instructional decision making.

Marshall Gregory, an English professor at Butler University, has written a fine essay that explores the role of content in learning. In the excerpt below, he discusses why we have students learn certain content. Some discussion questions follow, which I hope will encourage you to think more about Gregory’s point and more importantly about the extent to which content influences your instructional decision-making.

“In my view, the curriculum is a means to an end, not an end in itself, which means that there is no intrinsic reason whatever that says that my students must appreciate the art, ideas, or historical position of Gray’s “Elegy” [“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray]. Once students leave my course, it is a fair bet that not a single one of them will ever again have to read or even hear a reference to eighteenth-century British poetry in their whole lives. Should I conclude that those who do not learn to love this poem, or that the unwashed crowds in other courses who will never read it at all, are somehow uneducated slobs? To think that there is some intrinsic value in learning about the “Elegy” would be to treat the curriculum as an end, not a means.

“If maximum coverage is the end of education, then there are no educated persons, because even the most deeply educated among us merely scratch at the surface of all there is to know.

“My point is that teachers who love specific kinds of content often misrepresent the kind of usefulness that content will have for most of their students. Mostly, students do not get educated because they study our beloved content. They get educated because they learn how to study our beloved content, and they carry the how of that learning with them in the world as cognitive and intellectual skills that stick long after the content is forgotten. In short, the curriculum is not an end in itself.”

Reference: Gregory, M. (2005). Turning water into wine: Giving remote texts full flavor for the audience of Friends. College Teaching, 53 (3), 95-98.

Questions:

  • Do you agree with Gregory, or does the veracity of his point depend on the content? Why or why not?
  • How much content is enough in a survey course for nonmajors? In an introductory course for majors? In a senior seminar?
  • At what point do we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better when it comes to course content?
  • What would you see as the difference between covering content and using it? Is that distinction the same thing Gregory is talking about when he proposed content should be the means not the end?
  • If your students took last semester’s final three weeks into the new semester, how well would they score? To what degree would these scores be a function of how they studied? To what degree would they be a function of the instructional methods you used to teach them?

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So, What is the Real Problem?

In “Let’s Solve the Right Damn Problem: Intentional Teaching with Technology” we talked about using backward course design to align technology with the course materials and learning activities.

How does this design approach play out in today’s college classroom? Let’s look at “Mary.”

Mary is an advertising instructor who is frustrated with the way her large-enrollment introductory class is going. She has several problems that she doesn’t know how to solve—problems that we all face in our teaching.

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Let’s Solve the Right Damn Problem: Intentional Teaching with Technology

We’ve all experienced failed learning activities, such as painful class sessions, online disasters, or group projects gone wrong.

When we analyze what went wrong, we usually wring our hands and lament the state of college students today, but is it possible that we ourselves are the inadvertent cause of many of these problems? Could our lack of intentional planning be the issue?

Misalignment in our classes can cause many problems. Consider what happens when the wheels of your vehicle are out of alignment. The tires aren’t all pointing in the same direction, making it difficult to steer, causing undue strain and wear, and possibly endangering the safety of those in the car.

The same things can happen when we teach a class that is out of alignment. It’s hard to direct the flow of learning; learning activities and assessments become more burdensome than they need to be; and the safety and well-being of those in the car, so to speak, are unnecessarily put at risk.

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Attacking Problems as a Novice Learner

My wiper blades needed to be replaced. I hate these kinds of tasks; they make me feel completely inadequate. But I was doing a lot of reading about learning, and I was looking for concrete examples in my own life to help me better understand the theory and practice of learning. Knowledge transfer, constructivism, scaffolding, and making thinking visible were all pretty new ideas to me.

So, I approached the task as a learning opportunity. I gave myself every advantage—no rain, moderate temps, a Saturday morning with no commitments. I prepared deliberately—a full stomach, empty bladder, and the entire toolbox next to the car. But my resolve was shaken with the very first task. Packaging these days requires the jaws of life. After struggling with the pliers and breaking a fingernail, I went inside for the heavy-duty scissors and was once again ready to get started.

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The First Days of Class: Building Authenticity and Community

Regardless of whether you’ve been teaching for 15 years or 15 minutes, how to act and what to do on the first day of class seems to be something many faculty are constantly revising. The impact of the lasting nature of the first impression may lead to nervousness on the first day of the semester. Consequently, many of us may feel pressured to adopt a personality or plan that doesn’t necessarily resonate with who we are for the rest of the semester or in our outside lives.

We’ve discovered some ways that not only help you feel prepared for class but also create an authentic community conducive to learning in a non-threatening environment. What follows are a few of our best practices.

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