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.

14 Responses

  1. I’d love to incorporate a choice board like the above but I wonder about criteria for measuring a student’s success. Is there a rubric attached? Thank you.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      If your choice board is standards-aligned, you could have a standards-based rubric that addresses each skill. If it is thematic (e.g., offline choice board) or review board, you may not need a formal rubric.

      Take care.

  2. *HELP* Good morning! This might not be specifically about this post, but I need some help and suggestions. I have students that are just not doing work! I have never had so many F’s in a class and I am at a loss for how to intrinsically motivate them. I had them do a self reflective assignment where they evaluated their grades and took ownership and the responses I received were, “I am just distracted”, “I don’t like online learning, that is why I am not doing my work”, “I want to go back to school”, “I would rather watch TV”, etc… Any suggestions on how to overcome this, I am working so hard with little to no results.

    • Hi Kristin,

      You are not alone facing this issue. I would say there is no silver bullet to “fixing” this issue. Below are some strategies that I recommend to the teachers I work with.

      1) Prioritize student choice. Giving students a high degree of agency over what they learn, how they learn, and what they produce to demonstrate their learning is more likely to motivate students who are feeling uninspired by online learning.

      2) Use breakout rooms and leverage collaborative spaces online to build in the human connection, interactions, and collaborative assignments. Over time the emphasis on connecting learners will provide some with a higher degree of investment in the work happening online.

      3) Incorporate weekly self-assessment. Ask students to think critically about specific work samples, score specific skills, and reflect on what they are noticing about their strengths, weaknesses, progress, etc.

      4) Create a routine (e.g., at the end of each week or twice a month) ask students to update their parents on their progress (e.g., email updates).

      I hope others will jump in to share strategies they are using that are working to engage learning.

      Take care.

  3. I am having students reflect on their goals each week, but I can’t read all reflections on top of weekly drafts and everything else. Do you think students would benefit from filling in a Google Form so I would at least know that they have done some kind of reflection? I would love to meet with each student and confer, but I am finding it difficult to find time to even confer about writing in the current format (meeting each class every other day on Zoom). Any tips for holding students accountable for completing their reflection of goals? Any tips for managing the workload of reading through their reflections?

    • Hi Jaime,

      I do not think you should feel responsible for reading every reflection. By nature, reflection is a personal process we are trying to cultivate in the learners we work with. It wasn’t something I ever assessed. It was designed to help the students (and me) understand their progress, growth, needs, etc. I found myself gravitating to an ongoing reflective process either in an ongoing learning log/journal (single Google Doc) that students added to over the course of the semester or a learning blog as part of their digital notebooks. That way, I could pop in and out to check their progress and reference their reflections during our conferencing sessions or in conversations with parents.


  4. You have great ideas but what about schools that are not using Google docs.? We use Office and Canvas to teach. I can use some of the ideas with these but not sure about others.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      I work in the environments I have access to and Google makes it much easier for me to share my work with educators. Teachers using Microsoft can download Google Documents as Word Documents or Google Slides as PPT files, so they can be used in the Microsoft Office environment. Canvas is a learning management system (LMS), so it has the typical LMS features teachers can use to engage students in discussion, post resources and assignments, etc. I write about much of that functionality but you won’t see me mention Canvas specifically. I will usually just talk about using your LMS in a particular way.


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