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10 Focus Areas to Evaluate the Effectiveness of UDL in the Classroom

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
August 31, 2022

When I was in high school, there was an amazing competition called Creative Awareness. As students, we had the opportunity to compete in the creative arts (painting, cooking, music, dance) to community judges and there were real cash prizes. Everyone from the community came out for the showcases, and if memory serves me right, my sister, Lindie brought home enough in prize money to send our family to the moon. Worry not, I did not come home empty handed. I took 3rd place in the baking competition with my Aunty Patti's Treasure Chest Bars. 

As my parents and siblings will attest, I was NO talented baker, but I was given a rubric for how the competition would be scored and I got to work. Once I knew what the judges were looking for, I was able to set goals and a strategy. Third place, baby.

We often create checklists and rubrics for our learners so they have a better exemplar of what it means to be successful. Just like my own Creative Awareness experience, some of you would love to know what people are "looking for," when they are assessing the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Certainly, there are look-for tools that educators, schools, and districts can use to assess UDL implementation, but sometimes, those tools don't provide enough information about concrete strategies, reflection questions, or why each look-for is important. Worry not - we've got you. With my colleagues at Novak Education, we created a tool to help educators answer the question, "What does UDL look like?" And with these tools, we are rooting for you to take home the ultimate prize - more student learning and classroom engagement. 

So, you or your district want to eliminate barriers to learning and implement UDL. So, where do you start? We have put together a list of the top 10 focus areas to look-for and work toward when accessing the implementation of UDL. Check out the list of areas to focus on, then download the resource which breaks down WHAT the focus area is, why it is important, how to bring it to life, how it impacts students, and questions for evaluating effectiveness. Below is a sneak peak of the look-fors. We would love your feedback on how you and your team use the tool!

1. Learning Objectives

Firm grade-level learning objectives, based on the standards, are visible to students and referred to throughout the lesson.

UDL is about firm goals and flexible means. Teachers need to be clear about the purpose of a lesson. The goal must be identified as a method or content standard to plan for flexibility and autonomy in the lesson. Standards posted on the board or a student handout but not discussed exclude students who may struggle to decode them.  If the teacher shares the lesson's purpose through a lecture, some students may struggle with auditory processing. Additionally, standards and learning goals that are discussed but not posted require learners to expend cognitive resources remembering why they are engaged in a task or activity. Therefore, it is important that the standards are visible and discussed, so all students know why they are learning.

2. Student Identity

The learning environment and lesson design affirms the identity of all students.

Neurodivergence is a product of both genetics and socio-cultural influences.  What students know, how they know it, and how they process new information is largely influenced by their lived experiences.  Identity-affirming classrooms create feelings of safety and trust for students while also honoring their funds of knowledge and models they use to understand the world – models based on their cultural experiences and social relationships. Teachers need to build safe, positive relationships with students and model what they look and sound like to foster collaboration and community and affirm student identities.

3.Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

The learning environment and lesson design addresses the social and emotional needs of all in the classroom. 

Feelings of safety and belonging are essential for students to be able to engage with their classmates, teachers and the content. Addressing students' social and emotional needs is an essential foundation for academic engagement.

4.Collaboration & Community

The classroom fosters engagement, collaboration, and community.

All learning is both social and emotional.  Research shows that brain networks supporting emotion, learning, and memory are fundamentally intertwined. It is neurologically impossible to think deeply about or remember information without an emotional connection. Brain development is also socially contextualized – we learn through, with, and from our relationships with others. Many learners improve sustained effort and persistence when they have options to collaborate with peers. Collaborating with diverse peers is also a critical life skill.

5. Flexible Methods

The learning design provides students with flexibility in how they learn, make sense of language, and build understanding.

Students have a variety of learning needs and preferences. Their learning profiles are jagged based upon the task, the content, outside circumstances, etc. By providing students with a variety of options to interact with and make meaning of language, content, concepts, and skills, students are more likely to engage in deep learning. 

6. Flexible Materials

The learning design provides students with flexibility in the scaffolds, strategies, and tools they use as they work toward the learning objectives.

Not all students need the same level of support to work toward mastery of grade-level standards. Too often, teachers provide scaffolds and accommodations to students with disabilities or English language learners but the scaffolds and supports are not available to all learners. UDL practitioners embrace intrapersonal variability and the importance of context in learning. What is necessary for some students may be valuable to other students so it is critical that all students know the tools that are available to them so they can become more expert in their learning.

7. Formative Assessments

Formative assessment data is used to target instruction and frame feedback.

In inclusive classrooms, it is critical that teachers both universally design and differentiate instruction. Using diagnostic and formative assessments provides in-time feedback that teachers can use to meet the needs of all learners.

8. Flexible Assessments

Assessments are flexible and construct relevant so students have options for how they share their thoughts, ideas, and skills. Construct-relevant assessments connect directly to the learning goal, measuring growth or proficiency relative to the target.

When we design construct-relevant assessments, there are flexible pathways for all students to show their progress toward firm goals. Too often, one-size-fits-all assessments prevent students from sharing their thoughts and ideas and demonstrating their skills. When teachers highlight firm goals, they can ask, “Is there more than one way for students to share what they know? What they can do?”

9. Self-Reflection

Opportunities are provided for students to self-reflect on their choices and their work.

Learners differ in the ways to stay focused, and self-regulate to stay motivated when learning gets challenging. In order to engage our learners, they need opportunities to think about what strategies are working for them to remain focused, what they are learning and what choices they used to move towards the learning goal. The concept of metacognition is important in all aspects of school and life, as it involves self-reflection about one's current position, future goals, potential actions, strategies, and outcomes.

10. Feedback

Feedback from students, both formally and informally, is encouraged and welcomed.

UDL is about choice and voice. We cannot serve our learners if they don’t have opportunities to co-create their learning spaces. In universally designed classrooms, students have numerous opportunities to share feedback about what is working for their learning and how the learning environment could better meet their needs.

Download resource

Download the "10 Focus Areas for UDL Observations" resource PLUS get the bonus materials: a "Cliffsnotes" version of the resource, highlighting UDL look-fors at a glance, and a UDL observation form to be used alongside the UDL observations resource. Access the resources here

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