Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning: Action and Expression

In my last blog, I focused on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principle of representation. I described how blended and online learning can help educators provide opportunities for students to perceived and engage with information presented in multiple modalities. I highlighted some of the affordances available online that can help students to manipulate digital information to make it more accessible.

In this post, I want to explore the third, and final, UDL principle of action and expression. Students have different strengths and limitations, so asking them to express their ideas in a single way (e.g., written response or verbal explanation) may not allow all students to effectively showcase what they’ve learned, or share what they know. It is critical to think about offering students agency when it comes to expression.

Action and Expression

Within the principle of action and expression, there are three guidelines: 1) physical action, 2) expression and communication, and 3) executive functions.

Physical Action

Traditional textbooks or workbooks provide limited means of interacting with information. As schools think about making learning accessible for all students, it is important to consider how instructional materials allow students to interact with information. For example, some educational products pair text with audio recordings to allow students flexibility in terms of their engagement with a text.

Often the devices students are using, like Chromebooks, have accessibility features (shown below) that can be adjusted to meet their specific needs or preferences. Students can enable select-to-speak and highlight the text they want to hear, they can enable diction making it possible to speak instead of type, and they can magnify what is on the screen or dock. It is important to let students know these features are available as it isn’t always possible for teachers to know which features will be most useful to students as they work online. I encourage teachers to record a quick screencast highlighting these accessibility features on the devices students are using so that they and their families are aware of these features.

Similarly, teachers may want to explore the tools available in the technology tools they are already using with students. For example, students who are unable to type can use voice-to-text tools to compose responses to questions or complete written assignments inside of Google Documents.

Expression and Communication

Teachers know that not all students excel at expressing their ideas or communicating what they know in the same way. Instead of requiring that all students surface their ideas or learning in the same way, teachers should consider providing various avenues from which students can choose. This choice allows students to select a strategy for communicating their ideas that is comfortable for them. It also yields a variety of products, which may be more interesting for teachers reviewing student work.

Blended learning and online learning provide a much-needed excuse to reimagine how teachers design learning experiences for students. Instead of planning a single lesson or experience for all students, which still happens in many physical classrooms, the online environment offers students multiple ways to access and interact with information and share what they have learned. If teachers embrace and celebrate that flexibility, students will experience more success when learning online.

Executive Functions

The process of setting goals, monitoring progress, and engaging in conversations with teachers about their academic growth can help students to develop their executive functioning skills. These are critical routines designed to help students build their metacognitive muscles, engage actively in their learning, and partner with their teachers in the learning process.

In my book Balance with Blended Learning, I share strategies teachers can use to support students in setting goals and tracking their progress toward those goals. I also emphasize the value of engaging students in regular conversations about their academic progress and anchoring those conversations in the academic, personal, and behavioral goals they have identified as valuable or important.

As I work with educators adapting to teaching online, I emphasize the importance of variety, flexibility, and student agency. Instead of viewing blended or online learning as inferior to the face-to-face experience, I’d love to see educators leverage the advantages of teaching and learning online by embracing the flexibility it affords and the opportunities it presents to allow students to customize their virtual learning environment and use a range of online tools to express themselves.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning: Representation

In my last blog, I focused on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principle of engagement. I highlighted how blended learning can help educators more effectively provide multiple means of engagement to increase student motivation and ensure all students can successfully engage with learning experiences. I shared strategies designed to develop self-regulation skills, sustain effort and persistence, and recruit interest.

In this post, I want to explore the principle of representation, which is focused on providing students with access to multiple ways of experiencing or receiving information. Different learners enjoy engaging with information in different formats, and some learners have sensory or perceptual disabilities that make it challenging to interact with information presented in traditional print formats.


Within the principle of representation, there are three guidelines: 1) perception, 2) language and symbols, and 3) comprehension.


All learners must be able to perceive important information. That is easier to accomplish if 1) the information is presented in multiple modalities that invite a degree of student agency, or choice, and 2) the information can be manipulated or customized by the student.

Teachers may want to explore using a choice board or hyperdoc format to present information in multiple modalities. That way, students can engage with information in a format that appeals to or is more accessible for them. For example, teachers can provide students with the option to read a digital text, listen to a podcast or audio recording, watch a video, or engage with an infographic/visual information on a topic.

The Google document template below has a choice board format at the top of the document where teachers can link to information presented in a variety of forms as well space below for students to capture their notes, make connections, and ask questions.

In addition to allowing students to engage with information in a variety of formats, it is helpful if students can manipulate the information they are engaging with to make it more accessible. Customizing information is easier to do when teachers make that information available digitally. Digital resources may allow students to enlarge text, slow down audio, access close captioning on videos.

Enlarge digital texts Students can enlarge the print on their computer screens by pressing the Control button and the plus key (+).
Slow down the speed of a YouTube video In the lower right-hand corner of a YouTube video, students can click the Settings cog and adjust the speed of the video.
Add closed captioning to YouTube videosIn the lower right-hand corner of a YouTube video, students can click the Settings cog and turn on closed captioning so that text will appear to complement the audio.

Teachers using Screencastify and sharing video content directly from their Google Drive can also add close captioning on those videos. Click here to access instructions.

Since many classes are happening online using video conferencing tools, like Google Meet, teachers should explore tools that allow them to capture text transcripts of those virtual classes. Tactiq is a Chrome extension that allows the teacher to turn on captions and save a transcript of the entire meeting. Making a text transcript (as well as a recorded video of the meeting) available to students after the class is over will help support them in accessing any information they missed during the synchronous session.

As teachers provide students with feedback online, I would encourage them to explore tools like Mote, which allow them to leave audio feedback. Not only does Mote allow teachers to record audio comments, but it also creates a typed transcript of those audio comments. That way, students can listen to and read the teacher’s feedback.

Language and Symbols

When information is presented in language, symbols, or visual formats, teachers should keep in mind that not all students will have the same understanding or interpretation of that information. A student’s cultural background or prior knowledge may impact their level of understanding or their specific interpretation of a word, symbol, or image. The following strategies can help teachers to improve both the clarity and comprehensibility of the information presented in a class.

Frontload, or pre-teach,
vocabulary and symbols
Start a new unit by frontloading key academic terms, vocabulary words, or symbols to ensure all students know what these words and symbols mean as they navigate the unit.
Make connectionsHelp students orient their new learning in a larger context by making clear connections between their previous learning and the new information being presented. Concept maps and sketchnotes are an effective way to help students to make these connections.
Use multiple forms of mediaPresent important information, or key concepts, using more than one form of media. For example, in a digital text, teachers can hyperlink to dictionary definitions, images, diagrams, or animations to aid comprehension.


Learning is a complex process in which learners take information and turn it into knowledge they can use when making decisions or approaching new and novel situations or tasks. Below is an example of a graphic organizer that teachers can give students to help them improve their comprehension by:

  • Accessing prior knowledge
  • Creating an analogy or comparison
  • Making connections to other classes
  • Asking questions or surfacing wonderings

I created the graphic organizer below in a Google Slide deck so that I could insert an audio file in the upper left-hand corner with a verbal explanation of the directions for students.

Below is a quick video tutorial for anyone who is interested in adding audio instructions to a Google Slide deck.

I would also encourage teachers who are using Google apps to click on “Tools” and select “Accessibility” to review the accessibility features.

Teachers can align blended and online learning with UDL principles and capitalize on the affordances of digital learning environments to help all students learn more effectively. In my next blog, I will explore the UDL principle of action and expression using the lens of blended and online learning.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning: Engagement

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that is based on a scientific understanding of how people learn. The goal of UDL is to design “barrier-free, instructionally rich learning environments and lessons that provide access to all students” (Nelson, 2). The UDL framework helps educators think about and design learning experiences that allow all students to be successful.

When I work with schools that have already adopted the UDL framework, they immediately recognize how blended learning can help teachers to implement many of the principles of UDL more effectively. Instead of thinking about UDL and blended learning as two separate disconnected approaches to teaching and learning, it is worth exploring the overlap between the two. I believe that blended learning models can make putting UDL into practice more manageable. When teachers shift from a one-size-all approach to differentiating and personalizing learning, it is natural to consider what individual learners need to make progress toward learning goals.

The UDL framework is grounded in three main principles: 1) engagement, 2) representation, and 3) action and expression.

EngagementActive involvement in learning that is relevant, valuable, and interesting
RepresentationAccess to multiple ways to experience or receive information
Action and ExpressionSet goals, monitor and track progress toward goals, engage in metacognitive skill-building through self-assessment and demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways


In this first of three blog posts focused on UDL and blended learning, I’ll be focusing specifically on the first principle of engagement. Engagement is the students’ active involvement in learning that they perceive as relevant, valuable, and interesting.

Within the principle of engagement there are three guidelines: 1) providing options for self-regulation, 2) providing options for sustaining effort and persistence, and 3) providing options for recruiting interest.


Teachers can use blended learning to create the time and space necessary for students to:

  • Set personal, academic, and behavioral goals.
  • Track and monitor their progress toward goals.
  • Bring their goals to conferencing sessions with their teachers.

These routines can help students to develop critical self-regulation skills necessary to succeed both in and beyond school.

In my last book, Balance with Blended Learning, I share a range of goal setting strategies and encourage teachers to build ongoing self-assessment routines into their classrooms that encourage students to think critically about their work and their progress. These routines shift students from a passive role in receiving learning objectives, academic goals, and assessment scores to generating their own.

One strategy I like for helping students think about goal setting is using the three-part progression of 1) Where am I going? 2) How will I get there? 3) When will I know I’ve arrived?

Once students have set their academic, personal, or behavior goals, they can revisit these goals to track their progress toward them. Teachers can use this goal-setting document to ground their conferences about student progress, anchoring the conversation in goals that the students have set for themselves.

In addition to revisiting and revising their goals, I encourage teachers to engage students in an ongoing process of self-assessment and reflection. Students need to get comfortable thinking about their learning and evaluating the development of specific skills. Creating an ongoing self-assessment document can help students regularly engage in this metacognitive skill-building.

Sustaining Effort and Persistence

Students are more likely to expend effort and remain persistent in the face of challenges if they feel they are part of a dynamic learning community. I have anchored my own research and work in the fields of blended and online learning in the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework because I appreciate the emphasis on the role of community in constructing and confirming meaning.

Teachers can create a support network for students if they design lessons that encourage communication and collaboration. For example, teachers using the station rotation model can effectively shift the focus from the teacher to the learners so that groups of students must negotiate tasks together. As pictured in the image below, stations can be used to engage students in small group discussions (face-to-face or online) and encourage collaboration by presenting the group with a shared task or challenge.

In addition to encouraging students to learn with and from each other, they need timely, mastery-oriented feedback from the teacher to continue making progress, appreciate the role the effort and practice play in improvement, and develop confidence in their abilities. I encourage teachers to design lessons that allow them to pull feedback into the classroom so that students received focused feedback while they are working. Building this into a station rotation lesson, as pictured above, it one strategy. Instead of focusing myopically on our role as “instructor” transferring information, I’d love to see teachers embrace their role as a coach in the classroom, helping students to develop specific skills. That is much easier to do when teachers are not shepherding an entire class through a single lesson.

Recruiting Interest

Different learners have different interests, strengths, and values. That’s why teachers must prioritize student agency. Teachers will have more success in engaging students if they build “choice and voice” into the curriculum. What decisions can learners make about their learning?

In my research of teacher engagement in blended learning courses, teachers identified student agency as a significant benefit of blended learning. Teachers believed that moving away from a teacher-centered whole group lesson made it easier to provide students with choice and voice.

One of my favorite strategies for integrating student agency into a blended learning course is through the use of project choice boards that invite students to decide how they want to demonstrate their learning at the end of a unit of study.

Blended learning provides a pathway for teachers looking to plan and implement learning experiences that align with UDL principles. Teachers can use the time, space, and flexibility afforded by blended learning to increase student engagement by teaching self-regulation skills, fostering communication and collaboration among a community of learners, and prioritizing student agency. In my next blog, I will explore the UDL principle of representation using the lens of blended learning.

Nelson, L. (2014). Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company, Inc.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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