Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL Magic

It was a bad morning in Room 155 North.  My friend and colleague, Mark Richardson, had been working to “UDL” a project on the energy pyramid, opening up his current assignment to include a technology element.  Originally, the assignment had been to draw and color pictures of animals on a paper version of a pyramid, which was then cut out and assembled in 3D to hang in the classroom.  This year, as part of his work in a course on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Mark was offering a second option, allowing students to work digitally with their pyramid, rather than on paper.  We thought that option would eliminate a barrier for students who struggle with drawing and labeling and who might be turned off by the project as a result.

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It all sounded great…until the morning of, when the truth about pdfs came crashing down–you can’t put images in them using software we have readily available for students on the ChromeBooks.  Frantic conversations with colleagues got us to exactly the same conclusion, with the kids headed in the door in 12 minutes.  It looked like the attempt to “UDL” the project was a bust.

But there were some valuable things happening in the scramble, some good questions like:

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    Does it have to be a pyramid?  Yes–that’s the standard and UDL is about teaching the standards.

  2.  Okay, but does it have to a three-dimensional pyramid?  Oh.  No.  Nothing in the standards calls for it to be three-dimensional, just that students have to understand that the base of the pyramid (producers) is much wider and that the apex of consumers is much more limited.  There is a lot more grass in the world than hawks.

And, with that, the project not only resolved itself but blew open into something a million times better, something along the lines of “represent the concept of an energy pyramid,” with the how left to the students.



The results were awesome.  Creating a Google Slides presentation with a pyramid with animals on each level?  Check.  Using Google Draw to create a pyramid image that could be written on?  Check.  Programming a three-dimensional version of the pyramid using a program currently in beta testing?  Um, check, but then eventually had to be rethought since the program doesn’t allow for images.  Near-100% engagement from the students?  Check.


Mark did a rough headcount and he thinks that 25-30% of the students in three of his classes and closer to 50% in his fourth class opted for a non-paper-and-pencil version of the assignment.  That’s about 40% of his students who were not optimally served by the original assignment.  Now, with the newly designed version, those students were given opportunities to use a format that worked for them, thereby meeting the needs of students across the entire spectrum, while still requiring them to demonstrate knowledge of the content standard Mark was assessing.

As Mark and I informally discussed the experience, he agreed that the amount of prep work, even including the morning’s panic and scramble, was no more than he usually has to put into an assignment.  The kids did the heavy lifting in terms of finding different ways to design their projects; Mark’s job is just to check the content.



Thanks to Mark Richardson for letting me use his bad morning in this blog post.


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