As an athlete and coach I know how important it is to have a training plan that fits the individual. Not everyone will respond to the same cues or drills. This is part of our normal variability. The same is true with learning and in how we demonstrate what we’ve learned and yet most classes still assess every student the same way. We all know someone who knows the content but doesn’t perform well on a test for any number of reasons. Or the student who struggles to get words out in an oral presentation but writes clear, coherent, and even engaging essays. The one assessment fits all model doesn’t let these students fully demonstrate their learning.
Universal design for learning aims to recognize that variability is the norm and create opportunities for everyone to learn and demonstrate their learning without having to ask for special accommodations. The idea of universal design came out of architecture originally where it looked at physical access. One of the most common examples is the curb cut, or the slope between the sidewalk and the street that allows someone in a wheelchair to transition between the two surfaces. But curb cuts end up helping a lot more than just wheelchair users. Pushing a stroller or pulling a cart? Use the curb cut. Traveling via inline skates? Find the curb cut. Wearing jeans that are too tight to move? Make your way to the curb cut. Universal design for learning is based on the same idea, that if we build courses in ways that acknowledge and support learner difference everyone will benefit.
I should say before I go on, if something is a fundamental skill that that isn’t something that you would accommodate anyway so it doesn’t require the same options. Think of a job where you have to move boxes that weigh up to 20 kg, if you can’t do that, you can’t do the job. So if writing an essay or doing presentations is a fundamental skill then those things would stay even in a course using universal design for learning.
This spring, with education forced online due to the global pandemic, I taught an introduction to sustainability course at a local university. Sustainability is defined in the course as including economic, environmental, cultural, and social justice components. Basically it recognizes that to achieve well being for people, planet, and relationships we need to meet all four areas of need. As part of living sustainability in the course, I wanted to open up the assessment in the course so that students could explore topics that were of interest to them and hopefully, as a result, create meaningful rather than throwaway assignments. (A throwaway assignment is one where the student is only doing it because they have to and they often literally get tossed out (at least in paper form) once the teacher has graded and returned them. With this, and the upheaval from the pandemic in mind, I set about creating an assessment menu that my students could choose from.
There were a few required elements (40 points out of the hundred total) and then they could choose between appetizers, soups & salads, and entrees. As you can probably guess, these varied in size and intensity and in the number you had to complete. An entree was a significant project with some smaller pieces built in as scaffolding and to encourage metacognition (thinking about thinking). If you chose an entree you would do in depth research on a topic of interest that related to sustainability. The product could take different forms including a proposal, a blog series, a podcast episode, or a formal research paper. But, if you did an entree that was all you did. Appetizers were smaller so you had to complete more of them. They ran the range of topics for the course and served as tasters for different areas. Soups & salads were somewhere in between. And again, there were lots of options from videos to write ups to infographics that you could use to demonstrate your learning.
Aside from some challenges in figuring out my grade book, this menu approach was awesome. Students reported being more engaged because they got to do things that mattered to them and fit with what was going on in their lives at the time. Marking was significantly more pleasant because the students were engaged and every item had its own unique spin on it. And academic integrity wasn’t a big concern. But most of all, I found that the demonstration of learning was greater. The student who struggles to write a paper could choose options and formats that played to their strengths and truly demonstrate what they learned in the course. So I could see what they had learned, not whether or not they were skilled writers or test takers or whatever.
The biggest challenge with the menu format was just making sure that the students understood it and what they needed to do, but a couple videos and examples from me, as well as answering a few questions seemed to get everyone on track.
I know that this approach can seem intimidating with so much choice and variability, but what I liked is I could see what students could do, rather than force everyone to walk the same path regardless of their backgrounds, interests, and strengths. Similar to the curb cuts, it let everyone get to the same location in the end, by taking different paths to get there. Or to continue my food analogy, we all went out to dinner, and everyone got to choose their own food that they enjoyed and were engaged by (no throwaway menu items), and we were all full at the end. As a teacher that’s what I hope for.
Feel free to reach out via a comment or twitter or email if you would like more information about the assessment menu or about the sustainability class.