Recently, a teacher posted a comment to my blog lamenting that direct instruction consumed much of the class period. Like many, this teacher felt intense pressure to teach the standards and wasn’t sure how to embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and blended learning. This is not unusual. There is often a tension created by the pressure put on teachers to cover content with the student-centered approach to learning described by UDL and blended learning. I understand the pressure teachers feel to cover the standards and move through their curriculum. We can indeed cover more ground when we present information in a traditional lecture format, but that doesn’t mean students understand the information.

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggens point out in Understanding by Design that understanding is not simply acquiring information or facts. Understanding is demonstrated when students do something meaningful with that information. In other words, can students transfer that new learning to a novel situation? So, we can present information via direct instruction to help students acquire facts, but that doesn’t mean they understand. The goal of our design must be to remove barriers and help students progress from simple acquisition of information to meaning-making and then to transfer.

Whole group direct instruction is often used to transfer information. Yet, this approach to instruction creates barriers that make it challenging for all students to be successful. The class may include students with a hearing impairment, auditory processing disorder, or attention deficit disorder. The same class may have students who don’t have the necessary prior knowledge or language skills to understand the information presented. The teacher may use academic or subject-specific vocabulary unfamiliar to a student with limited background knowledge or who is not a native English speaker. Other students may struggle to stay focused because they are distracted or having an off day. These issues can be exacerbated by the speed at which a teacher talks or presents new information.

So, if a teacher wants to present information, UDL encourages them to present that information in multiple formats, allowing students to engage with information in a way that feels accessible. For example, if a science teacher wants to present information on biodiversity, they can offer students multiple options to engage with the concept of biodiversity. They can find a podcast (e.g., Listenwise), an online article, or a video on biodiversity. Then students can decide whether they would enjoy listening, reading, or watching information on this topic. The benefit of these formats is that students have a higher degree of control over the experience as compared to a whole group presentation. They can pause or rewind an audio recording or video, look up an unfamiliar word in a text, enlarge the font size on their screen, or add closed captioning to a video. All of these adjustments can make the information more accessible.

#BlendedUDL Tip: When you design a lesson, think about the parts and consider the barriers that may make it challenging for students to be successful. How can you proactively remove those barriers?

After engaging with information in a format that feels accessible, students can transition to an activity of their choice designed to help them make meaning. This is where blending active, engaged learning online with active, engaged learning offline can provide learners with meaningful choices. For example, teachers can merge a “choose your own adventure” mentality with the station rotation model. Instead of requiring that all students visit each station and complete every task, teachers can present students with a series of learning activities and ask them to visit at least two stations. That way, students get to decide which learning activities they would benefit from and enjoy. This type of student-directed learning can also help teachers cultivate expert learners who know what they need from a learning experience.

Station 1: Teacher-ledThe teacher provides follow-up instruction complete with additional visuals and examples for any student who feels like they need more support understanding the concept of biodiversity.
Station 2: Online StationStudents spend time engaging in an asynchronous online discussion/debate about possible threats to biodiversity.
Station 3: Offline Station Students create a flow chart or concept map with paper and markers that visually display the meaning of the word biodiversity.
Station 4: Online Station Students select a specific habitat to research and share their learning about the biodiversity in that habitat in writing, video, or a visual format (their choice).

#BlendedUDL Tip: Leverage a strategic mix of online and offline learning to give students agency and create time to work with small groups of learners.

Once students have had time to work with and make sense of the new information and concepts they’ve acquired, teachers can challenge them to take that new information and do something meaningful with it. Instead of asking them to regurgitate facts, how can we encourage students to apply their learning in a new or novel way? As teachers design tasks that challenge students to transfer their learning, it’s another opportunity to remove barriers by inviting them to decide how they’ll most successfully communicate and express their learning. Just like the transfer of information can create barriers, so can our strategies for measuring learning and assessing understanding. Some students may prefer offline strategies involving writing, drawing, or designing, while other students will prefer to use technology and create digital artifacts of their learning. The variability among learners demands flexibility in our design and assessment of learning.

Teachers want all students to be successful. Yet, some teaching strategies create barriers that impede student progress. If we take time to assess potential barriers for learners with disabilities, second language learners, and students who have unique strengths, weaknesses, or learning preferences, it’s clear we need to think about the design and facilitation of learning with that diversity of needs in mind. This is where the combination of UDL and blended learning has the potential to be so powerful. Teachers can universally design blended learning experiences that proactively remove barriers and allow students to make key decisions about their learning.

Want to learn more about UDL and blended learning? Dr. Katie Novak and I wrote UDL and Blended Learning: Thriving in Flexible Learning Landscapes and designed a self-paced online course. If you would like to order books in bulk to facilitate a book study with your staff, you can submit your requests here.

16 Responses

  1. Great article and great ideas, however it needs more examples and structure on how implement this and plan it.
    Congratulations on your book, can’t wait to read it.

  2. I absolutely love these ideas. I would love to see an example of how to do this using StudySync in an ELA classroom.

  3. I love this! It makes so much sense! I encourage my sixth-graders to try to figure out the ways in which they learn best, and then they can adapt whatever they are learning into this(these) mode(s), but this way they can explore even more which ways work best for each of them! :0)

  4. I love these ideas, but find them so hard to adapt to reading in ELA. When it takes several days to read a story together this seems to lose its effectiveness, but maybe I’m just tired. Maybe the key isn’t to read all of the text together. I have yet to unlock this for reading.

    • Hi Joan,

      It has been an exhausting year. I hope the book helps teachers design and facilitate learning that removes barriers and encourages students to develop into expert learners. There are so many ways to consider removing barriers in ELA with audio recordings, student-selected texts, differentiated small group instruction, flexible groupings, etc. Katie and I both have an ELA background, so there are concrete examples that will likely speak to your teaching assignment.

      I hope the summer is a time to rest and recharge!

      Take care.

  5. Where can we preview your new book? We are considering it for a staff book study, but we’d like a sneak peek first!

  6. Thank you so much for responding to this comment. I think the feeling of pressure to go back to old ways is felt by many of us. I know personally, I grew so much over the last year as an educator. Being forced to explore new modes of teaching and learning was a blessing in disguise that has allowed me to look even deeper at what my students’ individual needs are. Now that things have returned to semi-normal ( I am in hybrid) there is a push to get students caught up via traditional methods of instruction. I am looking forward to the release of your new book, I see it being utilized not only in my classroom but across my school building. I am wondering is there a section for administrators?

    • Hi Sarah,

      You make an important point about the pressure to “return to pre-pandemic norms.” I hope leaders use this year as a catalyst for positive change. This book is written for all educators (leaders, coaches, teachers, and teacher candidates). Administrators must understand why UDL and blended learning are so powerful together, how to implement these ideas, and what this looks like in action in classrooms. Without a clear sense of the why, how, and what, it is impossible to support teachers implementing universally designed blended learning.


      • Dear Caitlin,
        I couldn’t agree with you more regarding support from all stakeholders. I appreciate that this book will have questions and activities to offer additional guidance.
        Thank you for all that you do!

  7. Looking forward to digging deeper into to this topic! When can we expect to see the new book UDL and Blended Learning? I’m facilitating a summer reading group for Instructional Technology Coaches and would like to select the new book you co-wrote with KNovak but need to order soon to get the book out to participants. Thanks!

  8. Great bog post. I support the thought that Twitter is a powerful tool for the classroom. I believe that it is also an excellent way to help students to learn the art of summarizing.

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