The below article was originally published in 2017 and it continues to be a top read, so we have updated for 2022!
All too often, when I speak with teachers about integrating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into their classrooms, I get feedback that it simply isn’t possible.
“I can’t provide options; I teach math.”
“I have standards I need to meet, so options are off the table!”
UDL is a standards-based curriculum design. This means it can be incorporated into any learning environment, regardless of subject, content, or standards. Let me explain.
When creating a UDL lesson plan, you need to start with the standard. First, determine if your standard is a content standard or a method standard.
Content standards are those that show a student has attained knowledge. For example, your student may need to know what photosynthesis is and how it works, know what started the Civil War, or be able to explain the characterization of Boo in To Kill A Mockingbird. To identify a content standard, look for verbs like explain, demonstrate, describe, or analyze. Here are a few examples from the Common Core:
Provide reasons that support the opinion.
Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
Understand that shapes in different categories (e.g., rhombuses, rectangles, and others) may share attributes (e.g., having four sides), and that the shared attributes can define a larger category (e.g., quadrilaterals). Recognize rhombuses, rectangles, and squares as examples of quadrilaterals, and draw examples of quadrilaterals that do not belong to any of these subcategories.
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Describe situations in which opposite quantities combine to make 0. For example, a hydrogen atom has 0 charge because its two constituents are oppositely charged.
Method standards, on the other hand, demonstrate that a student has learned how to do something and has attained a skill. These standards are action-oriented: your students may need to know how to divide with decimal points, conjugate irregular verbs, conduct a series of steps for a scientific experiment, or come up with an intelligent response to a primary source document. To identify a method standard, look for verbs like write, use, measure, solve. Here are a few examples from the Common Core:
Use a semicolon (and perhaps a conjunctive adverb) to link two or more closely related independent clauses.
Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles.
Represent proportional relationships by equations. For example, if total cost t is proportional to the number n of items purchased at a constant price p, the relationship between the total cost and the number of items can be expressed as t = pn.
Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
Measure and estimate liquid volumes and masses of objects using standard units of grams (g), kilograms (kg), and liters (l).1 Add, subtract, multiply, or divide to solve one-step word problems involving masses or volumes that are given in the same units, e.g., by using drawings (such as a beaker with a measurement scale) to represent the problem.2
Think about the end goal you want the students to achieve. Ask yourself, “at the end of this lesson or unit, what do my students have to know or what do they need to be able to do?” Brainstorm all of the possible ways that a student could potentially show you that they have met the standard. Dig deep; it isn’t easy at first!
For example, if a student needs to demonstrate he has met a content standard, you could have the student give a speech for the class, create a skit with other students, design a poster, comic strip, or multi-media presentation, or write an essay. There are so many options available for a student to convey knowledge to you.
If you need a student to demonstrate she has met a method standard, you could give the student the option of working alone, working in a group, using an exemplar or graphic organizer or math reference sheet, or working alongside the teacher.
The level and type of choices you provide will be determined by the standard.
So, next time you find yourself reviewing a standard, don’t jump to a quick conclusion about how your traditional assessment is the only way to measure if the student has met the standard. Instead, ask yourself, “is there any other way my students could show me they have met this standard?” Sometimes the answer will be no. But when we tap into our creative sides, we often find that the options we can provide are broad (and fun!).
By incorporating options into your classroom, you will captivate and motivate your students. It isn’t an easy transition for all teachers. Just like students, there is a lot of variability among teachers. For some it will come easy and naturally, and others will need to try, try, and try again. Regardless of where you start, you will eventually find how well UDL works for you, your classroom, and students. Once you see the results, I promise you won’t turn back.
For more information on how to design universally designed lessons for all standards,