CETL: Neurodiversity and UDL in Course Design

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a learning framework for curriculum and course development rooted in three areas: multiple means of representation of information, multiple means of student action and expression, and multiple means of student engagement. The CAST organization shares in-depth resources and strategies for creating an inclusive classroom and learning environment that may have profound impacts on learning for all of your students.
Universal Design for Learning: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. CAST, 2018

UDL Strategies to Support Neurodivergent Learners 

Although UDL strategies will benefit all your students, some areas may help Neurodivergent learners in a greater way to build success in your course. Neurodivergent learners showcase diverse minds that process information in many ways. Our classroom benefits from having students who display a wide variety of strengths and perspectives in their learning. It also means we want to create an environment that supports the learning needs of all. Not all students may disclose being neurodivergent with you, as their instructor, or with the SSD office on campus, which makes proactive design crucial.

Tufts University shares how to develop a “plus-one” approach to integrating UDL into your courses. Instead of thinking of the many ways you want to make changes and feeling stuck being overwhelmed with the numerous changes you may consider, try to add just one new approach to something you are already doing to give you more options for communicating and engaging with your content.  
For example: Do you share in your syllabus how points are broken down or how grades are weighted in the course? Instead of only typing the numbers, consider adding a graphic or chart that shows how each area of assessment in your course comes together to make up their final grades. By adding one additional strategy, you’ve already doubled how students can understand and engage with important information they need for the course.

Below are some considerations on how to support neurodiverse learners in your course. 
  • Utilize multiple ways to communicate information. If you give a reminder in class about a paper due in two weeks, send an email or post an announcement in Canvas. If you give verbal directions in class, have a slide that shares the same steps that students can refer back to while their working.
  • Consider various options for assignment formats (when applicable). If you ask students to share a self-reflection on their work in the class through midterms, could students either write that reflection OR record a short video? Could they create some drawings and annotate their successes and areas for improvement for the second half of the semester? Use the “plus-one” approach to consider one other option for students to show you what they know when the format of the assessment is not tied to your learning outcomes or specific skill/task. 
  • Share timely feedback ahead of add/withdraw deadlines. This can help all students know their current progress in the course and avoid extra stress later in the semester if a change in registration is needed. 
  • Use multiple structured assignments to scaffold large assessments. Scaffolding or chunking your large assessments into smaller deliverables allows for offering feedback sooner and helps students stay on track for completion.
  • Avoid large run-on sections of text on Canvas pages and assignments. A lot of text on a page may be overwhelming to navigate and make meaning of the content. Chunk texts into small amounts, use bullet lists to share groups of information, or add a horizontal line on the page in Canvas to start a new section.
  • Offer content in a variety of ways. Use the “plus-one” approach where the content in another format is available to support student learning (e.g. share a video that goes along with a textbook chapter or a podcast that focuses on the discussion topic for the day to help them prepare their written notes). Use alternative text (alt text) or written explanations for images and captions/transcripts for video and audio files to create an accessible learning environment for all students. 
  • Use active learning engagement strategies. Diversifying the way students connect and interact with materials by creating opportunities for “learning by doing”. Review additional active learning strategies to incorporate into your teaching. 
  • Consider offering a short break during class. The “Pomodoro Technique” has a person work in intervals with short breaks in between. This can help learners better manage their expectations to focus while giving them a break to switch between topics or activities. 

Wondering more about UDL or what course design changes you may want to consider? Contact CETL (cetl@uwec.edu) to talk about strategies in your course.

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