Introduction to Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a flexible pedagogical framework to minimize barriers and increase accessibility for the fullest range of students possible. A ramp allows the full range of people to access a building while a stairway allows only some. In the same way, UDL asks us to trade “one size fits all” thinking to imagine curriculum designs that open the doors to any student. UDL focuses on increasing flexibility, choice, and relevance within three main components of curriculum design and implementation:

  • Engagement: how students interact with and are motivated by the instructor, content, and their peers
  • Representation: how information or learning experiences are taught and presented
  • Expression: how students demonstrate their knowledge

While standard accessibility practices such as structuring text for screen readers and captioning videos are part of UDL (specifically increasing the range of how content is represented), these practices do not encompass all of UDL. Applying a holistic UDL lens to your classroom means deepened comprehension, accurate assessment of student knowledge, and a truly inclusive learning environment that welcomes physical, cognitive, and cultural diversity.

A Lens, Not a Checklist

So how can we apply UDL to course design? Here are a few ideas to get you started, but the possibilities are truly infinite. UDL is a lens or mindset that prioritizes increased flexibility, choice, and relevance; it should be continually adapted for your particular course(s) and students.

Engagement


What it is:

How students interact with and are motivated by the instructor, peers, and content


Strategy to try:

Use a variety of response options during synchronous and asynchronous sessions.


Examples:

  • Verbal responses during discussion
  • Written responses in chat
  • Artistic responses (doodles, flowcharts, metaphors, etc.)
  • Small group breakout rooms
  • Paired sharing
  • Whole group call and response
  • Self-rating levels of understanding in a poll
  • Written responses in online discussion forum
  • Video responses in online discussion forum (e.g. FlipGrid)


Representation


What it is:

How information or learning experiences are taught and presented


Strategy to try:

Allow students to choose when and how they receive content.


Examples:

  • Optional small-group Zoom sessions
  • Readings from various source types (research articles, primary sources, fictional or artistic interpretations, etc.)
  • Videos (documentaries, news broadcasts, etc.)
  • Audio (podcasts, radio, etc.)
  • Choose Your Own (students find their own related resource and share with the class)


Expression


What it is:

How students demonstrate their knowledge


Strategy to try:

Use key learning objectives as a guide to offer options for how students can show their learning.


Examples:

Learning Objectives:
  • Construct a thesis statement.
  • Support with at least three pieces of evidence.
  • Analyze connections between evidence.

Assessment Menu:
  • Write a traditional research paper.
  • Present with slides.
  • Build a website.
  • Interview experts in a podcast.



Teaching in Inclement Weather

In inclement weather, PSU may have a delayed start, an early closure, or a full-day closure. Here’s how to:

  • Reduce impacts to class meetings and learning outcomes.
  • Accommodate hardships and safety needs — for yourself and your students.

In Advance

At the beginning of each term, discuss the University Closure Policy and Inclement Weather Procedures (Campus Closure) with your students. Include any alternative plans or instructions in your course syllabus, so students fully understand:

  • How to get closure information before traveling to campus
  • What to expect if classes are cancelled or final exams are impacted

During Inclement Weather

When PSU remains open, exercise normal flexibility and make reasonable accommodations for students who miss class, miss an exam, or don’t submit coursework as a result of inclement weather — including effects from other community closures.

When PSU is closed, don’t require or even suggest that students be on campus. This includes early closures. When a closure occurs during a class or exam, release students immediately.

In all cases, it’s important and helpful for you to communicate course expectations to concerned students. You can send your entire class an email through your PSU Gmail account.

During campus closures, OAI and OIT offices will continue remote support. You can submit a support request or chat with the OAI Faculty Support Desk Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please direct students to OIT phone or chat support.

Considerations for Online and Remote Courses

Because online and remote courses don’t require campus attendance, they may continue during inclement weather closures — at your discretion. Although your virtual class may remain open, the library and most other university buildings will be closed. Please exercise normal flexibility and make reasonable accommodation for weather related impacts such as:

  • Loss of access to Internet connections and devices, or even electricity
  • Changes in students’ and instructors’ work hours, childcare schedules, and more

Plan ahead for how you might accommodate power outages or other weather-related impacts. This could include:

  • Extending deadlines
  • Rescheduling exams
  • Recording class meetings
  • Not requiring students to have cameras on
  • Alternative learning activities instead of scheduled class meetings

No matter how you approach your remote or online class during inclement weather, remember to clearly and quickly tell students your expectations and any changes. Email and online course announcements (in D2L or in Canvas) are two good options for communicating with students.


You Don’t Need to Record in a Classroom!

As the campus pivots to remote teaching due to COVID-19, you may be wondering how you can conduct many of your regular class lecture activities without a classroom. Zoom and other technologies can accommodate many teaching practices and use cases.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to seek a non-campus based solution wherever possible. If your concerns are not addressed in the following suggestions, please contact the OAI Faculty Support desk to discuss further.

You teach with a whiteboard or document camera.

There are several great options for this:

  • Zoom has a robust annotation feature that can be used on virtual documents or the virtual whiteboard.
    • If you do not have a touch screen and find it difficult to write with a mouse, pen tablets like those from Wacom can also be used.
    • You can also run Zoom on a tablet and record annotation directly. This option may not be practical to record yourself with the camera at the same time.
  • Document cameras can be plugged into your computer via USB and used as a second camera in Zoom or Kaltura Capture. Using it in Zoom you will be able to switch between the document camera and a shared screen in similar fashion to using a podium. If you are in need of a document camera, the PSU library has a limited number available for check out.
  • Zoom has built in support for screen sharing an iOS device via cable or AirPlay, which you can use in conjunction with a free whiteboard app like LiveBoard.

You don’t have a stable internet connection.

There is a lot of anxiety around running programs like Zoom with lots of participants’ home wifi connections. Our advice is to take stock of what your internet can do, and make plans from there. Are you able to:

  • Watch streaming videos on YouTube with multiple devices at once? Watch multiple YouTube videos on the same device at the same time?
  • Do you have access to a physical network connection to your modem? This will be a stronger signal than wifi.
  • Are you able to download and upload large files into a cloud storage center like Google Drive or a media storage space like Mediaspace or YouTube?
  • Is your internet connection available reliably or is it something that needs special arrangements or a costly additional data plan?

Consider that there is no one way to teach remotely. If you have a reliable signal at home that seems too slow to leverage Zoom there are many other tools you can use to teach that offer amazing pedagogical value. If you can upload large files and want video, consider using a tool like Kaltura Capture to pre-record content for your students and offer a discussion session on Zoom you can dial into with audio if you still want a synchronous component

You use equipment in a lab or studio to teach and do not have access to these at home.

Normally when you create a class that will be offered at a distance, we have time to find or build solutions — unfortunately, this is not the current situation. We cannot aim for perfection; we have to look for creative alternatives, knowing that we don’t have the time or technology to design the way we would prefer. This quarter is somewhat of a shared experiment: we are not going to be able to recreate everything we would normally do.

The global education community has come up with some amazing experiences for students online in situations like this. Contact OAI to set up a meeting with one of our Instructional Designers to look at potential solutions.

You worry your webcam/microphone won’t be good enough.

Standard hardware in computers of the past five to seven years is pretty great and should be able to handle basic streaming and video and audio recording. The things that really hurt audio and video quality are a few basic considerations when setting up:

  • Avoid having a bright light/window behind you.
  • Set your computer up so the webcam is almost at eye height with you. If you have a laptop without a stand, stacked books are an easy fix.
  • If possible, invest in a headset/headphones with a built in mic. Cheap bluetooth ones sell for around $8 and even they will assist you with a better audio quality by keeping your microphone at relatively the same distance from your face throughout the course of your session. Using headphones will also help prevent echoing and feedback during class.
  • Remember to practice! Zoom has a test session available at https://zoom.us/test you can use at any time to make sure your equipment is in good working order.
  • PSU Library has a limited supply of laptops and other equipment available for check out, if your equipment cannot accommodate recordings.

You often co-teach with colleagues.

Your house is a mess and everyone’s home. You have no space to record!

Again, remember you do not have to create video or web conferences to create a successful remote session! If you still want a multimedia feature, why not try your hand at an audio recording? Or, if you have headphones with a microphone, take a stroll around the block with your cell phone and create a pre-recorded lecture. Take your laptop to a park and use Kaltura Capture, just remember that headset! Good audio is the most critical component of video: Viewers will tolerate hard to see/bad video, but we do not typically have the same patience for poor audio.


Student Voices on Remote Learning

Students had a range of responses to the sudden shift to remote learning during Spring term 2020. While many students expressed appreciation for PSU’s efforts to keep them safe and for their instructors’ efforts to support their learning, some areas of challenge also emerged. Students face many situations outside of the control of individual instructors, but here are a few common scenarios along with suggestions for approaches instructors might take to address them. 

Quotes and vignettes are based on student feedback received during Spring 2020. See more details about Spring 2020 remote learning experiences in the Office of Student Success Remote Pulse Survey and the Disability Resource Center Student Survey. Student quotes have been edited for clarity.

Students felt overwhelmed in digital spaces.

“… The zoom lectures often feel like they are moving all over the place and even the instructor is having a difficult time staying on task, as there are more interruptions than typically experienced in lecture halls. … The zoom lectures seem to be more stimulating and exhausting than in person lectures…”

“…One class has a reading list on the syllabus, but the articles on the reading list are in the library, and not grouped by week or in any order, so one has to have the syllabus in one window, and the library list in another window to open the correct articles. Another has videos that are buried in the Table of Contents…”

“It’s much more difficult to read and focus. I feel frustrated with some professors who make me jump through hoops as a person who gets help with DRC. “

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Consider reducing duration and/or frequency of Zoom sessions in favor of asynchronous learning activities to meet course goals.
  • Intentionally plan your Zoom sessions and share interaction guidelines with students. Set standards for how students should ask questions, and whether and when they need to have their cameras and mics enabled.
  • Give extra attention to how you organize your course. Consider a weekly course structure, which may be different from how you’ve previously organized your course.
  • Work with the Disability Resource Center as needed to enact remote accommodations that meet students needs.

Spring term coincided with global crises.

“Trying to survive is hard enough, let alone worrying about class. Trying to maintain eligibility for grants by going full time when I can’t even cook dinner some nights. Sleeping badly which doesn’t help. Eating poorly which doesn’t help. Having to relocate to a different household due to my roommate being very ill doesn’t help. Losing my job doesn’t help. My whole life has been uprooted”

“Mental and physical health challenges that are being felt by most of us doesn’t seem a priority in adapting our course load to this reality.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Anticipate that you and your students will be feeling a variety of emotions that may make teaching and learning more challenging. Consider additional flexibility in how students engage in and demonstrate their learning. Universal Design for Learning offers valuable suggestions. 
  • Balance curricular challenges with a supportive and affirming learning environment. Offering students multiple opportunities to take quizzes or complete homework is one way to support students.
  • Share information about campus services and resources with students. For example, the Food Pantry, SHAC, Learning Center, and Financial Wellness Center are all resources here to help students succeed. The C.A.R.E. Team addresses concerns regarding specific student’s wellbeing. Faculty and staff may submit a CARE report to notify the team of a student concern.

PSU students continue to lead busy and complex lives.

“It is very difficult to sit through a Zoom class session when my child is also home. As a single mother, my resources have been stripped due to this virus and the virtual experience has been hard to manage at home with family.”

“…. I have deadlines almost every day of the week, and many of them can’t be started whenever I want to, as I have to wait for a professor to upload assignments, or for another student to do their work first, that means I can’t control when the work needs to be done, which is hard because I am a primary care provider to a 5 year old, who no longer has school, so I mostly have to do work after she goes to bed, sometimes until 2am.”

“I don’t have a space in my house (a one bedroom apartment) where I can study or attend classes without interruption, and I don’t have childcare for my daughter.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Trust your students and recognize that they may be facing challenges to showing up to your class that you can’t anticipate. Consider the impact of course policies on students at the margins. For example, might a “no late work policy” disproportionately hurt essential workers or students who take care of family members? 
  • Offer flexibility where possible. This might mean offering alternative ways to complete assignments or attend class sessions. 
  • Connect your class to students’ experiences. If you’re not sure how your course content relates to students, ask them to help make the connections. Seeing how what they’re learning in class connects to the real world and their own lives helps sustain engagement and motivation.

Students feel increased time pressure.

“I found some instructors made classes even more time consuming than in the past and this is not the time for busy silly work.”

“… I feel the professors have decided to make up for lack of in-person time with additional assignments which only stresses myself and others out as we try to figure out our life financially and health specifically….”

“Since switching to remote learning there has been an increase in coursework for most of my classes. Since going to remote learning I also have had less access to reliable internet, which has made online learning more difficult.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Plan your course activities and expectations carefully, so that students spend thee to four hours on course work for each credit hour of a course. This total time includes both instructional (“class time”) and homework/study time.
  • Anticipate that students are juggling additional stressors and may benefit from extra time to complete assignments.
  • Ensure strong alignment between your required course assignments and your course learning outcomes.


Create Accessible Course Materials

When course materials — readings, videos, slides, websites, etc. — are accessible, all students benefit.

  • Students with disabilities can engage with your course materials without barriers, often using assistive technologies such as screen readers or closed captioning.
  • Even students without disabilities often use more than one device — such as a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop — and may not have reliable internet access. Accessible materials help them, too.

To support all learners and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s important to include accessibility throughout your course.

Note: At times, you may need to discuss accommodations with the Disability Resource Center.

Images

Images, graphics, diagrams, charts, and tables are key communication tools and can greatly enhance learning. For each image, include alternative text (alt-text) to describe the image to someone who uses a screen reader. Write your alt-text to describe:

  • The intended meaning or use of the image
  • Any included text or visual information (especially in diagrams)

Example: For an image of a course banner on the homepage of a course, the alt-text would include any text in the banner and the name of the course.

It’s important for alt-text to convey the same information as the image — so it’s best to include information-heavy items as readable text rather than images.

  • Rather than images of tables, include readable text-based tables. Make sure the tables have headings.
  • Write mathematical equations using the math editor in Canvas.

Note: Ask the Disability Resource Center about access to EquatIO, an institutionally licensed mathematical equation writing software.

Color

Color in a digital environment requires sufficient contrast between text and background — but don’t use text color as the sole means to communicate information. For example, “assignments in red are due on Thursday” would not be accessible. It would exclude people who don’t see the color red or who use screen readers. Instead, use bold or italic to emphasize or highlight important information.

Another consideration is to use darker bolder colors for text used against a white screen. For best usability and accessibility avoid neon and bright colors in course content.

Headings

For anyone who navigates from a keyboard, headings are important to quickly move through content on a page.

  • Use heading style H1 for only one heading on each page — typically the title or main subject of the page.
  • Use heading styles H2 through H6 to identify subsections.
  • Follow a logical nesting order and don’t exceed six levels.

Lists

Ordered and unordered lists are commonly used in content authoring. Be sure to use list tools to create them.

For ordered lists — in which numbers or letters indicate chronological or hierarchical items — a common mistake is typing each number or letter rather than using the list tool. This does not create a structured list that screen-reading software can use.

Don’t rely exclusively on lists for organization. For example, use accessible headings to begin each major section.

Document Formatting and Layout

Document types such as PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Google Docs, etc. are often part of course content. Consistency among documents is important for readability and findability. Here are a few guidelines to consider.

Make sure PDF documents are selectable, searchable, properly tagged, and in accurate reading order. If you create them by scanning paper, use OCR (optical character recognition) instead of creating an image. OCR allows each letter and word to be read by a screen reader and makes all text searchable. You can scan with OCR in the PSU library.

For all document types:

  • Don’t use underlined text for emphasis. It can be mistaken for a link. Use bold and italics instead.
  • Use the same style and navigation in all documents.
  • Make a document’s title easy to understand — both in the file name and in the H1-level heading within the document.

Checking Accessibility

Canvas has a built-in accessibility checker! Anywhere Canvas has a rich content editor you can run the checker to flag potential issues and accessibility errors. The checker will then prompt you to fix each item it flags. Learn to use the accessibility checker in the rich content editor in Canvas.

Microsoft products such as Word and PowerPoint also have built-in accessibility checkers. Learn about the accessibility checker for Word and PowerPoint..


Flexible and Affordable Teaching Materials: Using OER

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER can be full courses, course materials, lesson plans, open textbooks, learning objects, videos, games, tests, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.”SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)

Consider using OER to:

  • Reduce textbook costs for students.
  • Increase access to course materials (e.g., available on-demand across devices).
  • Build collaboration (between educators, between students and educators).
  • Improve flexibility and material quality (e.g., tailored material for specific purposes, adding current content).

OER reduce barriers to education while increasing the quality of teaching and learning.

Where to Find OER Textbooks

  • In online textbook collections. OpenStax has free learning modules and textbooks both developed and peer-reviewed by educators. Open Textbook Library is another collection that pulls titles from multiple OER sources.
  • By discipline. OER textbooks serve many fields, including commonly required coursework and high-enrollment classes. The PSU Library curates materials by discipline.
  • By PSU faculty. PSU has its own publishing initiative, PDXOpen, which supports faculty in developing open-access textbooks.
  • Using search engines. Two great options to begin your search are OASIS and Mason OER Metafinder (MOM), which search across OER repositories and thousands of entries. These are particularly helpful for more advanced or specialized courses.

How to Use OER

Where to Find Other Forms of OER (and Free Teaching Materials)

Videos

  • Khan Academy: A collection of instructional videos, practice exercises, and other educational videos across many subject areas.
  • Moving Image Archive: Over a million free films, movies, and other videos. Many (but not all) are available for free download. Be sure to check for permissions information in the video description.
  • YouTube Education University: Primarily a collection of lectures in various disciplines. YouTube offers a filter so you can search for videos published under Creative Commons licensing.

Photos and Other Images

  • Wikimedia Commons: Openly licensed and public domain images and visual media hosted by Wikimedia.
  • Flickr: Many photos on Flickr are available for free use and editing with a Creative Commons license.
  • Unsplash and Pixabay: While all photos on these sites are free to use, photographers appreciate being credited to help expose their work. Crediting can simply be including the photographer’s name and a link to their profile and/or photo.
  • The Gender Spectrum Collection: Seeks to add gender diversity and representation to “stock” photos for lecture slides, presentations, and so on. Free to use for educational, non-commercial purposes, but requires you credit the photographer and use photos without editing.

Books and Other Literature

  • Bloomsbury Academic: A collection of books and digital resources in the humanities, social sciences, and visual arts.
  • Project Gutenberg: Over 58,000 free eBooks digitized and proofread by volunteers, with a focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired.

Supplemental Materials

  • OER Commons: “A public digital library of open educational resources,” including syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, modules, textbooks, etc.


Building an Effective Syllabus

An effective syllabus is both relevant and accessible for all students. Along with complete information, it needs organization and formatting that works well in assistive devices.

To help you get started, OAI has an accessible syllabus template with PSU policies and other common elements. It’s organized with Microsoft Word’s heading structure and uses accessible formatting. Keep the structure and formatting to maintain accessibility, but add and delete information to make it relevant for your course.

Note these elements:

  • Headings: Use text formatted as a heading to identify sections of your syllabus.
  • Lists: Use the list tool (bullets or numbering), not dashes, to identify lists of items.
  • Links: Make them meaningful. For example, instead of click here, use a more descriptive link: OAI+ Tech Tutorials.
  • Tables: Use column and row headers on every table.
  • Images: Add alternative text that describes the image for visually-impaired students.
  • Font: Make sure the text color you use has enough color contrast to be legible. Also, don’t use color or underlining to convey information or meaning.
  • Layout: Use adequate line spacing (1.15 or greater) and a large enough font size. (Nine points is the minimum, but 12 to 14 is better.)

It’s also important for a syllabus to be culturally inclusive to all our students. The PSU Library has a guide to making your syllabus — and your whole curriculum — more culturally responsive and inclusive:

Important notes for building your syllabus:

  • Talk with your department or college about any additional syllabus requirements.
  • Be sure to check dates and links before use.
  • Post the syllabus in the content area of your online course so students always know where to find it.

Beyond the Basics

Video Introduction

Particularly in online courses, it might be helpful to also create a video screencast introducing the course syllabus. Consider, for example, this Syllabus Builder Video from UDL on Campus.

Naming Access Needs

Consider adding a statement to your syllabus that invites students to share their access needs throughout the term. An example:

I encourage you to name your access needs in this class and ask that you please communicate as your needs change. Naming your access needs can be asking a presenter to speak slower, or turning your camera off for a moment and letting the class know that you will participate via chat, or keeping your camera on but letting the class know that you may fidget, stretch, or move during class time. Naming your access needs is an important part of how you communicate with the class.

The Negotiated Syllabus

A negotiated syllabus is constructed collaboratively with students, giving them choices about what, how, when, and with whom they will meet learning objectives.

One way to build a negotiated syllabus is to start with what’s required for students to pass the course. Outline those requirements, then allow the class to determine some aspects democratically — such as readings, grade scheme, class activities, major assignments, etc.

Students are often much more invested in classes where they are making decisions and building the class with the instructor and their peers.


Organize Your Course for Success

Imagine this: You visit your local market to pick up some peanut butter, but it’s no longer where you expect it. You ask for help, but still can’t find it. You give up and leave the store with no peanut butter. A disorganized online course is like the rearranged market. When students log in and can’t easily find what they need to complete a task or lesson, their frustration often leads to giving up.

An Organized Course

An organized course creates a pattern of expectations, resulting in routines that are easy for students to follow. Instructional designers often refer to these routines and patterns as the “learning cycle.” A clear learning cycle allows students to anticipate their learning and plan ahead. A consistent course structure and communication pattern will lower students’ anxiety and keep them focused on learning.

Roadmapping

The “three Cs” of good course organization are:

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Communication

In a face-to-face course, you can go over the syllabus to answer questions and verbally roadmap the course. In a digital environment, roadmapping must be explicit in the course design and instructional copy. When a student spends time looking for instructions, content, due dates, etc., their anxiety level increases and becomes a cognitive burden. Good organization reduces that burden.

The goal is to make it easy for students to know:

  • Expected learning outcomes
  • What tasks are required each day/week and how to find and complete them
  • When and how they’ll interact with you
  • When and how they’ll interact with other students
  • What they’ll be graded on and how to prepare for assessments

The most common way to provide this organization is with weekly modules that group course materials and present them in chronological sequence. A module should have links to everything needed for each lesson. Coursework that’s one click away lets students focus on learning rather than finding materials.

Other things you can do to help clarify course organization:

  • Create a consistent weekly coursework pattern
  • Have a prominent announcement area and use it regularly
  • Have a “Getting Started” module or folder for your syllabus and course information so students can easily find and refer to this information
  • Create module introductions and write clear instructions for activities and assessments

It’s extremely helpful if your department or program agrees on some conventions for how to organize courses, so don’t hesitate to consult with your colleagues.

Create a Weekly Coursework Pattern

Even in the best circumstances, students have busy lives. Many need to schedule their Internet access in advance; almost all will need to schedule their studies around work and/or childcare. This means students quickly look for coursework deadlines. Among the most helpful things you can do is establish a regular pattern of study and activity completion, so students can create a schedule at the beginning of the term.

For example, a common pattern for courses with one synchronous session per week is to have all homework due the day before the live session. Within a department these days can be staggered for all required courses.

Coursework patterns can also support a constructivist learning cycle. These follow a basic pattern (with variations):

  • Activation: Connect each topic to something students already know, then get them curious about aspects of it they don’t know.
  • Demonstration: Show students why/how this topic is relevant in the world.
  • Application: Let students practice using each concept or skill, with feedback.
  • Integration: Help students remember this lesson by reflecting on and discussing it.

This pattern has many variations, depending whether learning outcomes are more experiential, inquiry-based, or modeled on apprenticeship to demonstrate, coach, and support independent skill-building.

Examples and Templates

Chunk It Up

A good rule of thumb is that people can pay attention for 20 to 30 minutes before they need to process and connect with the new information. Active learning can take many forms. Students need to process new ideas and skills by practicing them, not just absorbing them. A handy constructivist motto to remember: “Telling isn’t teaching, and listening isn’t learning.”

For every major skill in your pyramid, think about how students can practice that skill fairly soon after it’s introduced. For information retention, give a brief review quiz. For critical thinking or skill performance, ask students how they would choose among different approaches to solving a problem. For a creative process, have students make a low-stakes artifact and share it. This does not mean overloading students with challenging assignments — these should be fun, low-stakes activities.

Sequencing and Pacing

Once you’ve defined your key learning outcome and “chunked” them into 20 to 30 minute lessons with a low-stakes activity for each, the next step is to put them in a logical sequence. Beware the temptation to follow textbook-chapter sequencing. Books are organized by the logical flow of domain knowledge, not the order in which students learn intellectual skill-building. Instead, focus on your learning outcomes and what students need to practice for each outcome.

  • Look at your list of learning outcomes. Now imagine a pyramid with those outcomes at the top and decide what skills students will need to attain them (conceptual, procedural, behavioral, affective or physical skills).
  • List those skills at the base of the pyramid and consider whether they should be learned in a particular order.
    • Decide the best way for students to:
    • Observe this skill demonstrated.
    • Practice and refine this skill with feedback.
    • Self-correct and improve this skill independently.
  • Think of all the possible modes students could work in to gain each skill. If you normally assign multiple essays or exams, consider other ways students might demonstrate needed skills.

Learning Preferences

Research shows that without regular mini-challenges, students don’t learn as well. They need to use each “chunk” of new knowledge/skill to remember it and be able to apply it.
But there’s a problem with this “think and do” learning pattern: Even low-stakes assignments can intimidate, overwhelm, or annoy students. How do you make this pattern transcend “busywork” and become meaningful?

The best way is to let students choose their own “think and do” activity:

  • Students with writing or homework anxiety often benefit from review quizzes with multiple attempts allowed. Such quizzes are learning tools, not assessment tools.
  • Students with quiz anxiety often prefer to create a mini-artifact or write a discussion/journal post to activate their learning. You can assess these on a done/not done basis or with a simple rubric.

Ideally, your course content will have options for content delivery. This can be as simple as making sure students know their computer operating system offers text-to-voice delivery for PDF content. When possible, provide accessible audiovisual options for articles, so students can choose to get information in the way that works best for them.