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‘It’s About Increasing Access’: Universal Design for Learning at Tufts

A flexible teaching model that gives students equal opportunity to succeed is gaining traction at the university

Beginning in the 1980s, architects began to embrace the concept of universal design to describe physical structures that could be accessed by anyone regardless of their background, factoring in considerations including age, ethnicity, gender, and disability.

“We can design buildings to be accessible by as many people as possible,” says Kirsten Behling, associate dean of student accessibility and academic resources at Tufts. So why not implement the same thinking for education?

That’s the idea behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL) developed by CAST (originally known as the Center for Applied Special Technology). Inspired by the efforts to increase the accessibility of the physical designs of buildings, CAST has for decades implemented these tenets of equitable learning in K-12 classrooms. The methodology operates under three main principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. 

“When I think about UDL, I'm really thinking about the diversity of learners we have in our classrooms,” says Behling. “How do we effectively meet their needs and provide access points where they can engage in a way that works well for them? If we can provide a little bit more flexibility, I think we're more authentically measuring and engaging students.”

Behling, who has written a book about the concept, is intent on proving the need for UDL practices in higher education. She’s behind Tufts’ UDL Fellows Program, which has been piloting the methodology across the Medford/Somerville campus for a year; so far 13 professors have participated. 

The hope, Behling says, is to have UDL be the standard across the undergraduate curriculum, especially for introductory courses. “Students don't know how to or choose not to seek support their first couple of semesters here for a variety of reasons,” she says. “If we can get them past those gateway courses by diversifying the way we design and teach those courses, they'll be set up for further success.”

For some classes, this could look like offering a 60-question multiple choice test and allowing students to choose 50 to answer; for others, it could be giving students the choice of either creating a verbal presentation or writing a paper. 

“It’s not about changing the rigor,” says Behling. “It’s about increasing access to the course—even if it’s just in one way.”

Tufts Now spoke recently with two faculty participants in the UDL Fellows Program about their experiences testing out the methodology in their classrooms:

Juan Escalona Torres, Spanish Language coordinator, Romance Studies

Can you describe the classes you teach? 

I teach language and linguistics. I specialize in Spanish at beginning levels. And next year, I’ll also start teaching a course on romance linguistics. One focus of mine is sociolinguistics—looking at how social factors affect how we speak, and how language evolves and changes over time. My other focus is second-language acquisition and second-language pedagogy, that is, the most effective strategies for teaching language, specifically Spanish. 

I focus on both project-based language teaching and task-based language teaching. My classes are fairly small; the language classes are capped at 16. My linguistics class is capped at 20. I also coordinate several instructors’ courses over the semester. I design the syllabus and the Canvas page [an online platform for the course], assign the homework, and then make the course materials accessible to all the faculty who teach for us.

In what ways did you find the UDL principles helpful? 

We have a range of generations working here, which means that there are some differences in the use of technology, for example, and learning how to manage that has been a challenge. With a little bit of the UDL background I'm starting to gather from the fellowship, I've been able to rethink how we provide materials for proposals. I have to have both paper versions and online versions. But I also need to produce tutorials on how to do certain things. Having that UDL view helps me understand, “Okay, sure, this is how I do it,” but I have to make it so that anyone can do the task using different technologies than the one I use.

How has UDL affected the way you teach your courses? 

The traditional way of learning is you go to class, the teacher briefly reviews the grammar, you do some exercises in a workbook, and then you're kind of done for the day, right? 

This methodology is largely based on intuition. Language isn’t just something you can just imitate and memorize. Language learning is about being exposed to the language, using it meaningfully and purposefully with other people, and most importantly, making errors and learning from them. 

So, how do you create the optimal environment for students to actually have to use the language? It’s a hands-on approach, which means instead of presenting the grammar and filling in the blanks, you present the students with a problem or a task to compose, and they have to use the language to be able to complete that task. Starting over the summer, students will have multiple ways of getting to a target, using what I learned from UDL. So instead of just grammar readings, I’ll be giving them resources, like a video tutorial. 

In a class with presentations, what I would like to consider is giving them the option to record it beforehand and show it in class or they can perform it live in class. These have slightly different rubrics because it takes different kinds of skills. But at least it still evaluates the language, while also providing students with options depending on how they feel more comfortable performing. 

Starting next semester, I’m also going to be piloting a new program—changing the textbook so it aligns with the program’s pedagogical vision, is consistent with Tufts’ DEIJ mission, and is more affordable for students. It also follows an evidence-based teaching methodology. 

The last thing I want to do is reconfigure the syllabus so that it's live. That's something I started this semester that has worked well, surprisingly better than I thought—using a Google Doc for the syllabus, which seems simple at first, but I realized that students are constantly checking it. 

When I've had it as a static document on Canvas, almost no one looks at the syllabus. With Google Docs, students are up to date with everything, they know when quizzes are coming, they’ve been really attentive to the calendar. But for students who work better with accessing Canvas, that option is there. I’m providing multiple options, which is one of the goals of the UDL framework. 

Nisha Iyer, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering

What courses have you integrated UDL into?

I had gone into the UDL Fellows cohort with the expectation of working on my fall course, EN1: Sci-Fi Bioengineering, a hands-on course for first-year engineering students to engage with engineering design principles. My first year I had 20 students; this past year, I had 30; the sweet spot is likely somewhere in between!

Nisha Iyer, School of Engineering faculty member and participant in the UDL Fellows Program Photo: Alonso Nichols

My spring course is a core class in the Biomedical Engineering department in scientific reading, writing, and presentations. Last year, there were about 50 students, this year, it was split between two sections with about 40 students. It is a junior- and senior-level course to train our undergraduate students in scientific communication styles common to our discipline. For this course, I had not initially anticipated incorporating UDL, but did as a result of the exposure early last spring.

What are some specific ways you found UDL to be helpful in the classroom? 

A lot of prospective engineering students may be uncomfortable with speaking up in a classroom or with research writing, so implementing flexible policies and learning methods—adding things like student choice—was important. 

Between iterations of my EN1 course, I wanted to systematically address student feedback from post-course surveys. In my first year, students reported that some of the assignments felt repetitive, and that they enjoyed our in-class discussions but often there wasn’t enough time for everyone to participate. Generative AI like ChatGPT had become a phenomenon in the intervening year, and I was able to diversify assignments by creating multiple prompts based on student interests self-reported on a pre-course survey. 

I used a similar method to develop online discussion boards to foster asynchronous conversations about the interaction of science with society and policy. The hybrid learning environment helped prepare, extend, and expand on classroom discussions, enabling students to explore their interests more deeply. 

It also helped more shy students share their thoughts, and it allowed those absent due to sickness to participate. So many interesting ideas developed organically, which really broadened information to which students were exposed in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

I also wanted to give students the opportunity to synthesize and demonstrate knowledge in additional ways. In my more technical writing course, I developed elevator pitch and scientific figure-making exercises that allowed students to flex their creativity in these overlooked but critically important audiovisual aspects of scientific communication. Reflections often indicated how important these non-writing activities were to boosting their confidence and ultimately improving the clarity of their writing.

In EN1, I developed a series of low-stakes in-class challenges where students collectively envision a potential sci-fi future and brainstorm potential technologies and companies that could meet the real needs of this society. Students iterated on these speculative designs using generative AI like MidJourney and Microscoft Co-Pilot and created business pitches, which their peers then assessed for their viability. Students said that these really made them “feel like an engineer,” which is the goal of the EN1 series.

How would you define UDL based on your learnings?

UDL is about anticipating student needs by making information more accessible and giving students more diverse ways of interacting with material and demonstrating what they have learned. In my courses, it has been a matter of going from a mostly lecture-based environment to adding more student-driven projects and active-learning elements during our time together in class.

One of the biggest things UDL tries to do is not leave students behind. Even adding small things like Zoom recording in-person lectures, online discussion boards, and a flexible-within-reason late policy are ways for students to have multiple opportunities to stay engaged no matter what’s going on outside class.