Start the Wave: Deeper Learning and Student Ownership Through UDL

pool waterfall

I am sitting by water right now and listening to a bit of it cascade into the pool. I can’t help but notice how this little waterfall affects the larger body of water. Ripples extend to the farthest reaches.  As teachers, we should no longer be focused on supplying the water, but the waves.

In their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine share qualities of classrooms that foster concepts of mastery, identity, and creativity. They explain that “Identity is becoming more invested in thinking of yourself as someone who does that kind of work, moving from a conception of oneself as ‘I’m someone who swims,’ to ‘I’m a swimmer.’ 

According to Mehta and Fine, one of three key tenants to promote deeper learning in classrooms is to “give up some control.” In an April 2019 interview they relate the following, “Rarely does deeper learning happen when a teacher spends the entire classroom lecturing from the front of the room, Fine and Mehta found. By allowing students some choice in the topics they explore and the methods they use, teachers can let students see the purpose in their learning and be more engaged.”

The UDL framework, first defined by David Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

I want to focus this blog on the connections between choice and ownership and to explore a bit how UDL can help provide strategies for fostering self-directed options in our learning environments. 

Guideline 7 of the UDL framework is to provide options for recruiting interest. There are a set of checkpoints within this guideline. Checkpoint 7.1 is about optimizing individual choice and autonomy. This means that we offer our learners choices. According to the guidelines, by doing this, students develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning.  It is appropriate to offer choices in how [an] objective can be reached, in the context for achieving the objective, [and]  in the tools or supports available. For example, we can allow learners to participate in the design of classroom activities and academic tasks.

Below is a window into what that looks like within a progression of practice. When first starting with UDL, the teacher still owns much of the learning. As the progression of practice occurs, you can see how students start to own their own learning. 

  • Emerging:  Offer choices in what students learn (e.g., “choose a country to study” rather than “study France”), how students learn (e.g., use books, videos, and/or teacher instruction to build understanding), and how they express what they know (e.g., “you can create poster or write paragraph”).
  • Proficient: Encourage students to choose from multiple options to determine what they learn (guided by standards), how they learn, and how they express what they know. Encourage students to suggest additional options if they can still meet the standard.
  • Moving Toward Expert Practice: Empower students to make choices or suggest alternatives for what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will express what they know in authentic ways. Free them to self-monitor and reflect on their choices with teacher facilitation and feedback but not explicit direction.

A lot of colleagues ask me what this “looks like” in a classroom setting. The teaching channel has a great video that depicts a high school classroom that has been built around student choice. If you watch the video through the first 3.5 minutes, you will see overt ways in which this teacher provides multiple and varied options for student expression and communication (and content of study) while aligning to state standards. You see students who engage in learning through a variety of approaches and a classroom that is rich with connections to student experiences and interests.

I welcome you to start the wave. Be brave and use UDL to help hand over ownership to your students to foster deeper learning.

UDL and Deeper Learning: The Intersection of the Cognitive and Affective Domains of Learning

Written by Kristan Rodriguez, Ph.D.

In a series of blogs, I’m going to explore different aspects of the intersection of Deeper Learning with the UDL framework. Below is the first in the series. 

Deeper learning has been defined in multiple ways. Some cognitive scientists such as Bransford, Brown, & Cocking refer to it as learning for understanding (1999).  Here they focus on the transfer of knowledge as a key component of deeper learning.

For me, deeper learning it is the antithesis of a weekly vocabulary quiz where students are provided with words (out of context) and written definitions and asked to regurgitate those words back to the teacher each Friday morning. After all, we have computers for that now.

The Hewlett Foundation (2013) says, “The foundation of deeper learning is mastery of core academic content, whether in traditional subjects such as mathematics or in interdisciplinary fields which merge several key fields of study. Students are expected to be active participants in their education. Ideally, they are immersed in a challenging curriculum that requires them to seek out and acquire new knowledge, apply what they have learned, and build upon that to create new knowledge.”

In their landmark book titled, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Mehta and Fine (2019) discuss the core components of deeper learning. In the text, they discuss the integration of the cognitive and the affective aspects of deeper learning. They write, “while deeper learning stems from increasing the level of rigor of the cognitive processes, it also relies in part on cultivating motivation and identity of the students involved” (p.14).  

If I asked you to remember something special about your education, I hazard a guess that it does not involve rote memorization or a weekly spelling quiz. It was likely something that you cared about. It’s that “caring” component that locked it into your memory. While the importance of academic challenge and motivation are easy for us to recognize as teachers, we are often ill-equipped with strategies for how to effectively implement this within our classes.  I have found that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a very effective framework to support this intersection of the cognitive and affective domains. 

For those of you not familiar with UDL, it  is a framework that reduces barriers in instruction, proactively provides appropriate accommodations and supports, and allows for high- achievement expectations for all students, regardless of their unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, by providing options and choices for students to personalize their learning. UDL is an educational framework based on research in cognitive neuroscience that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate learner variability.

The UDL framework, first defined by David Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990’s, calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn,
  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, and,
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners options for demonstrating knowledge and skills.

Let’s focus this blog on the concepts of providing appropriate challenge for all (resulting in cognitive stretching) and in fostering student motivation. 

According to the UDL Guidelines (2018):  “Learners vary not only in their skills and abilities, but also in the kinds of challenges that motivate them to do their best work. All learners need to be challenged, but not always in the same way. In addition to providing appropriately varied levels and types of demands, learners also need to be provided with the right kinds of resources necessary for successful completion of the task. Learners cannot meet a demand without appropriate, and flexible, resources. Providing a range of demands, and a range of possible resources, allows all learners to find challenges that are optimally motivating. Balancing the resources available to meet the challenge is vital.”

They define the following of what this might look like in practice. 

  • Differentiate the degree of difficulty or complexity within which core activities can be completed
  • Provide alternatives in the permissible tools and scaffolds
  • Vary the degrees of freedom for acceptable performance
  • Emphasize process, effort, improvement in meeting standards as alternatives to external evaluation and competition

The Hewlett Foundation (2013) lays the foundation for the value of engagement in learning when they articulate how “cognitive research shows that students learn more when they are engaged in their studies and see them as important.” Lepper and Woolverton (2002) discussed how engagement and curiosity are interrelated with providing students choices in their learning. A lot of teachers resonate with this concept, but yearn to know what that looks like in practice. Below is a sample taken from the UDL Progression Rubric (2018). 

When you are just beginning with UDL perhaps you can provide options for students to learn content with clear degrees of difficulty. For example, “Explore one of the following resources to learn about the Civil War…” and there may be a rigorous primary source document and a video.  As you move toward more proficient UDL practice, you may provide multiple options for students to learn content with clear degrees of difficulty which will require them to reflect on the standard and their own strategy for learning. For example, “Choose two of the following six resources to learn about the Civil War…” and there may be rigorous primary source documents, summary documents, videos, and/ or a podcasts from a professor. As you move into expert range, you are playing a less central role in the process, and your students are playing a more primary role.  For example, you might empower students to select their own content and/or own assessments, based on standards, and encourage them to collaborate to add to the multiple options offered to challenge themselves and identify appropriate resources that connect to their interests and passions. 

Within the sphere of motivation, one strategy is to promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation. 

According to the UDL Guidelines (2018): “One important aspect of self-regulation is the personal knowledge each learner has about what he or she finds motivating, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. To accomplish this, learners need to be able to set personal goals that can be realistically reached, as well as fostering positive beliefs that their goals can be met. However, learners also need to be able to deal with frustration and avoid anxiety when they are in the process of meeting their goals. Multiple options need to be given to learners to help them stay motivated.” The guidelines provide the following examples of what this looks like in practice. 

  • Provide prompts, reminders, guides, rubrics, checklists that focus on:
    • Self-regulatory goals like reducing the frequency of aggressive outbursts in response to frustration
    • Increasing the length of on-task orientation in the face of distractions
    • Elevating the frequency of self-reflection and self-reinforcements
  • Provide coaches, mentors, or agents that model the process of setting personally appropriate goals that take into account both strengths and weaknesses
  • Support activities that encourage self-reflection and identification of personal goals

If you wish to know more about how this manifests in practice, here too we can go to the UDL Progression Rubric (2018).

As a new UDL instructor, we want to at least teach students about the power of perseverance and use language and feedback that will allow all students to see themselves as capable learners. Moving into the proficient range, we want to foster conversations with students to develop relationships and make authentic connections and use their personal passions and interests to help inspire them and push them toward success. As we progress toward expert practice we create a classroom culture where students are empowered and able to support their own self-talk and support one another’s positive attitudes toward learning.

Want to dive a bit deeper in the concept of helping our students become expert learners?  If so, feel free to read this peer-reviewed article, Helping Students become Expert Learners discusses three specific strategies that align to UDL: 1) meta-attention, 2) meta-comprehension and 3) metacognitive reflection.



Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R., eds. 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Hewlett Foundations. (2013). Deeper Learning Defined. Retrieved from

Lepper, M.R. and Woolverton, M. (2002) ‘The wisdom of practice: Lessons learned from the study of highly effective tutors’, in J. Aronson (Ed.) Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education, Orlando, FL: Academic Press, pp.135–158.

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning. The quest to remake the American high school. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Tiered Models: A Dental Analogy

I often hear people confuse Tier 3 of a tiered support model exclusively as “direct services” to students with disabilities. As educators, we often put students into buckets. I want to offer an alternative narrative, one that best aligns to the true nature of a multi-tiered system of supports. In this version of the framework, we must understand that:

  • some students, irregardless of disability, may need support across multiple tiers at different times during their educational journey, 
  • not all students who are identified as having a disability are “tier 3 students”, 
  • tier 2 is not simply a placeholder that occurs before students are moved to tier 3, and 
  • ALL students are “tier one students”.

To understand the fluid nature of a tiered support model, I share a simple analogy that most of us can relate to. Let’s consider dental care and think about the following two “profiles” of students/dental patients. In the first student profile, you will see that a student without a defined disability may benefit from support at all three tiers. In addition, you are offered a student profile where additional tiered support does not preclude a child from receiving strong, authentic tier one or tier two support.

Profile 1: Child born with little to no indication of dental concerns.

  • This child attend regular check ups and cleanings. This may be done by a dental assistant or dentist. Occasionally, the child needs to have cavity filled by a dentist. At one point in their life, they may need braces through an Orthodontist.  Through an accident, they may need to work with a surgeon. At points in their life, this child may need to receive support from all three tiers.

Profile 2: A child born with a cleft lip/palate.

  • A child with a cleft lip/palate requires the same regular preventive and restorative care as the child without a cleft. However, since children with clefts may have special problems related to missing, malformed, or malpositioned teeth, they require early evaluation by a dentist who is familiar with the needs of the child with a cleft. In addition, they may need to see an Orthodontist since their upper teeth do not fit together (occlude) properly with the lower teeth. The orthodontist may suggest an early period of treatment to correct the relationship of the upper jaw to the lower jaw. Coordination between a surgeon and the orthodontist becomes most important in the management of the bony defect in the upper jaw that may result from the cleft. Reconstruction of the cleft defect may be accomplished with a bone graft performed by the surgeon. The orthodontist may place an appliance on the teeth of the upper jaw to prepare for the bone graft & a retainer is usually placed after the bone graft until full braces are applied.


As evidenced by this analogy, we see how students can receive the support they need across multiple tiers without needing to be “identified” and just by a child having a disability diagnosis, they are not automatically placed into “tier 3 supports” without access to high quality tier one models.  

I invite the readers of this blog to consider the implications of the current version of tiered supports in their schools. In existing systems, are there barriers to students receiving tier 3 supports as a product of a process needed for “identification”? Take the case of a student who may need individual counseling support, not as a product of a social/emotional disability, but because of circumstances happening in their home (a difficult divorce for example). Do we offer those services or limit them to students who have been “tested”? How about students missing out on essential tier one instruction as a product of pull out services to receive tier two or tier three support?  What are the implication of this practice? These kinds of circumstances often exist as a product of our placing students in aforementioned buckets and providing resources accordingly. If this is the case in your school, if there are systems in place that create walls to students receiving the services they need, what can you as an educator do to affect change?

How Pipelines Can Be A Tool Toward Social Justice

Ok.  So, obviously, I am not referencing prison or oil pipelines.  Those are horrible.  I am talking about student teacher pipelines!

“One of the many difficulties with ensuring educational equity in the creation of ‘schools for all’ relates to the preparation of the teachers to meet the challenges of teaching in schools that are increasingly diverse.”

-Florian (2009) as quoted in Equity and social justice in teaching and teacher education by Baljit Kaur, 2012 

Some Background

Effective student teaching partnerships between school districts and educator preparation providers can support the preparation, recruitment and development of teachers in a manner that strengthens student learning and the long-term sustainability of our teaching workforce.

According to evidence from Massachusetts and nationally:

  • Student teachers are three times more likely to teach where they complete their practicum, creating a natural pipeline between student teaching placement and district employment.
  • Student teachers who complete their practicum in urban settings are more likely to stay in urban schools once employed, combating the higher rates of teacher turnover that persist in these districts.
  • Partnerships between districts and educator preparation organizations can result in the development and placement of more effective teachers in the often hard-to-staff roles.
  • An effective student teaching placement model can significantly improve the student achievement of classrooms where that student teacher is placed.

So what does this all mean?  Simply, if we create partnerships with our colleges and universities, we can create a comprehensive approach to providing high quality educators in our schools.

Dr. Elise Frattura is an expert in the field of social justice in education. Her work is built on the premise that educational services must address, but not be driven by, compliance issues, policies, and/or funding mechanisms. All students, regardless of variability, have a civil right to have access to a high ­quality education. Frattura argues that districts must address the components of an effective school educational plan with mechanisms to ensure social justice for the students that it serves (Frattura & Capper, 2007). With limited time and funds, a creative approach to developing a partnership can help ensure a pipepline for staff that meet the needs of all learners.

What Can We Do?

We can create partnerships between districts and universities to develop a thoughtful and deliberate student teaching pipeline. Building effective and sustainable student teaching partnerships involves three stages:

  • Initiation: Forming the partnership, identifying the pipeline needs, and initial visioning and goal setting
  • Implementation: Collaboratively selecting and supporting participants, ensuring alignment between partners, regularly meeting and spending time in partner schools.
  • Continuous Improvement: Ongoing program review and refinement.

Below you will find steps to accomplish each stage.


  • Form a partnership and define expectations.
  • Analyze educator preparation pipeline data and district human capital needs.
  • Set an initial vision and goals for the partnership.
  • Develop a partnership implementation action plan.


  • Jointly select and train Supervising Practitioners and strategically place teacher candidates.
  • Align coursework and field-based experiences with district language and priorities.
  •  Establish systems for ongoing communication and feedback.

Continuous Improvement:

  • Use evidence to assess progress and outcomes.
  • Make adjustments to the partnership in order to improve teacher candidate readiness and PK-12 student outcomes.
  • Secure sustainable funding.

Majority of the information in this blog post was drawn from a new toolkit I authored for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and funded by an EPIC grant.

The FREE Partnership Toolkit articulates an evidence-based model for partnership initiation, implementation, and continuous improvement utilized by a recent group of Massachusetts Consortium members, and includes supportive tools and resources developed through their work. The purpose of this Toolkit is to help other district and educator preparation partnerships develop systems for placing and supporting student teachers with the goal of improving student outcomes and building a pipeline from student teaching to employment.

Want to learn more?  Click HERE for the Full Toolkit. It includes FREE tools and resources.  It’s all in one clean package and all you need to successfully build your pipeline!



Lose Control with UDL: Connecting Student Ownership to Effective Engagement

blog10Recently, I was sharing a choice summer assignment created by a set of fabulous former colleagues in the English department at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School with students in a graduate course I am teaching.  In this choice assignment, a plethora of literacy options were provided to students.  Options for students included such things as forming a book club, reading aloud to the blind through an online program, or participating in live theater. I juxtaposed this with the traditional method of summer reading assignments.  It led to a rich discussion about the difference between assigning a book to a student versus allowing students to explore their own authentic literacy learning. It reminded me of a time I lectured my own child about why he didn’t start his summer reading until the last two weeks of summer.  I called it “lazy”.  He turned to me and called it “strategic”. You see, he knew he would be tested on it in the first few weeks of school and thus wanted the material to be fresh in his mind. So, he read his assigned books in a way that maximized the potential for a good letter grade.  In doing so, sadly, he minimized the potential for his own authentic learning.  One of our challenges as educators is the difficulty in finding ways for students to take an active role in their own learning process when many of us never experienced this as students ourselves. In his book titled, Who Owns the Learning?,  Alan November (2012) wrote, “…the Digital Learning Farm model represents a shift of control in the educational process as students take more responsibility for designing and implementing educational experiences”(p.18). His model focuses on creating learning environments where students are tutorial designers, scribes, researchers, and global communicators/collaborators.

In a recent keynote address to a group of educators in a suburb outside of Boston, November spoke about the “curse of knowledge”.  In essence, sometimes instructors know material so well that it is hard to relate to what first time learners are experiencing.  Whether it is based upon misperceptions, lack of prior knowledge, emotional state, etc., our students often have trouble processing information that for us may seem easy.  Often another student can be a more effective tutor.  He explained that perhaps the empathy and sympathy that comes along with both of them being novel learners to the concept is what makes it work. In his book, Alan provided concrete examples of what he calls an emerging role of “global publisher of student work” as a means of “giving students ownership and purpose in the learning process” (pp. 27-28).  He suggests we encourage students to author tutorials for not only their own classmates but also in ways that reach a global community of learners. For example, he highlighted a group of students who post math tutorials online that are used by people all over the world.

In a demonstration of a collaborative learning technique, November also introduces us to the role of the scribe in the digital learning farm model.  He explains, “While all students can take their own notes, the student scribe collects, organizes, and edits a draft of the notes (p.39). The work of synthesizing the learning and developing an electronic “legacy” of the class’s educational journey offers a “shift in control and pedagogy” (p.45).

In the digital learning farm model, we also learn about the importance of our students as researchers.  In reading this section of his book, I harkened back to a steamy day in August when I sat in a cafeteria of Ringling College of Art and Design.  The president of the college, Dr. Larry R. Thompson, spoke to us about how titans of industry have been approaching him lately looking for his graduates. Ringling’s focus on design and creativity was what these business leaders said they needed.  The Information Age is over, he informed us, and has been replaced by the Creativity Age.  While we can get “information” with a simple online search, Thompson argued that what is needed now are creative problem solvers and thinkers.  In this part of the learning lab model, students develop critical skills through research. They understand the “nuances” of searching the web.  A teacher no longer needs to simply present facts to students.  Rather, they can become facilitators in “teaching students to determine exactly what the information is trying to accomplish” (p.56), how to understand the validity of their online sources, what sources are needed to match the research, and how web based sources are linked to one another within the framework of the “context of the discipline” (p. 64).

Lastly, November highlights the role of students as global communicators and collaborators. He shares how the global market requires our graduates to have the skills necessary to navigate the multiple cultural terrains they will encounter. He explains, “We need to start teaching our students global empathy by developing their ability to understand and appreciate other points of view” (pp. 65-66).  November encourages long distance collaboration and communication and highlights tools such as Skype as mechanisms to engage in that global collaboration.

In order to be open to November’s digital learning farm model, we must allow ourselves to lose control. Unlike traditional models (which is how the system was set up for most of us as students and in many of our teacher preparation programs), we can free ourselves from lecturing in front of the neatly rowed classroom and branch off to become facilitators of learning. Now I realize that this is not a novel idea. Many teachers have begun to spend less time lecturing and more time facilitating learning. The challenge is doing this effectively with thought and purpose.  The difficulty is in the execution.  Do we have the resources and know-how to engage our students meaningfully in their own learning? How can we lose the facade that to be a teacher we need to be “in control” or  “in charge” of learning? How do we hand control over to our students while offering them a framework for success?  UDL can help!

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?  UDL is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience.  The concept came out of researchers from Harvard University 30 years ago.  The term UDL was coined in 1995.  In simple terms, there are three networks in the brain that need to be activated to achieve authentic learning.  In a universally designed classroom, student engagement is central in planning, multiple means for representing information occurs, and multiple means of planning and performing tasks are used to demonstrate understanding.

Many of us (including myself) have planned “grand lessons” but spent little to no time considering student engagement during this planning process.  Yet, we know from practical experience (and all the research) that we need to engage our students in order to achieve authentic learning.

In UDL, we are forced to consider engagement in our planning process. We must organize our work around offering choice and autonomy to our students.  We must be vigilant about optimizing the relevance, value, and authenticity of the work and we must minimize threats and distractions.

In his presentation to those educators in Massachusetts, Alan spent time sharing and motivating staff to use technology as a means to engage students.  It was not simply a demonstration of fun tools and neat websites.  Rather, it was a call to show examples of how technology was used as a means to allow students to own their own learning.  He used tools to show ways to demonstrate what students struggled with (in anonymous and safe ways), how to ask and answer questions, how to debate their own learning, and how to demonstrate information.

For many of the areas defined in November’s digital learning farm model, strong alignments exist with the principles and practices of Universal Design for Learning.  Below is a simple table that demonstrates these connections. After the table, I selected a few areas to show what it looks like in practice. The text from the table and implementation examples provided are drawn directly from the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines: Full-Text Representation Version 2.0. For samples of practice, I simply screen-captured tweets that came from the Groton-Dunstable Regional School district. Thank you to those amazing educators for publicly sharing their work!

Table 1. 0 Crosswalk from Digital Learning Farm Model to UDL

Digital Learning Farm Model Connections to Universal Design for Learning Checkpoints
Students design more of their own assignments and rubrics Checkpoint 7.1 – Optimize individual choice and autonomy

Offering learners choices can develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning.  It is appropriate to offer choices in how [an] objective can be reached, in the context for achieving the objective, [and]  in the tools or supports available. E.g. Allow learners to participate in the design of classroom activities and academic tasks.
Checkpoint 6.4 – Enhance capacity for monitoring progress

When assessments and feedback do not inform instruction or when they are not given to the students in a timely manner, learning cannot change because students do not know what to do differently. Especially important is providing “formative” feedback that allows learners to monitor their own progress effectively and to use that information to guide their own effort and practice.  E.g. Prompt learners to identify the type of feedback or advice that they are seeking

It has the capacity for worldwide, authentic audience Checkpoint 7.2 – Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity

Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their interests and goals. In an educational setting, one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility and relevance, of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities.

There is an opportunity for intrinsic rewards Checkpoint 9.1 – Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation

One important aspect of self-regulation is the personal knowledge each learner has about what he or she finds motivating, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. To accomplish this, learners need to be able to set personal goals that can be realistically reached, as well as fostering positive beliefs that their goals can be met. Multiple options need to be given to learners to help them stay motivated.

The critical skill is to learn how to learn. Checkpoint 9.3 – Develop self-assessment and reflection

In order to develop better capacity for self-regulation, learners need to learn to monitor their emotions and reactivity carefully and accurately. Individuals differ considerably in their capability and propensity for metacognition, and some learners will need a great deal of explicit instruction and modeling in order to learn how to do this successfully. It is important, moreover that learners have multiple models and scaffolds of different self-assessment techniques so that they can identify, and choose, ones that are optimal.

There are more opportunities for mastery Checkpoint 8.4 – Increase mastery-oriented feedback

Assessment is most productive for sustaining engagement when the feedback is relevant, constructive, accessible, consequential, and timely. But the type of feedback is also critical in helping learners to sustain the motivation and effort essential to learning. Mastery-oriented feedback is the type of feedback that guides learners toward mastery rather than a fixed notion of performance or compliance.

Technology is used as a transformational tool to change the culture of teaching and learning. Checkpoint 4.1 – Vary the methods for response and navigation

Learners differ widely in their capacity to navigate their physical environment.  Learners differ widely in their optimal means for navigating through information and activities. To provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, an instructor must ensure that there are multiple means for navigation and control is accessible.

The crosswalk above is great in theory, but I often feel it is necessary to demonstrate authentic connections through practice. Below are some examples of what this looks like in real classroom settings.

In this first section, I was able to correlate the concept of students designing more of their own assignments and rubrics with UDL Checkpoint 7.1’s focus on optimizing individual choice and autonomy and Checkpoint 6.4’s attention to enhancing our student’s capacity for monitoring their own progress.  In the implementation examples of Checkpoint 7.1, students have autonomy, participate in the design of the classrooms activities and tasks, and set their own personal academic and behavioral goals. In the implementation examples for 6.4, students are encouraged to ask questions to guide self-monitoring and reflection and allowed to personalize self-assessment strategies and peer/instructor feedback to maximize their own learning.

So what do students designing their own learning look like in practice?  Below is a photo of a high school classroom where students had the opportunity to choose how they shared what they understood of the material.  In this case, a student designed and taught his classmates a lesson on multiple intelligences, with a kinesthetic focus, by demonstrating how to make waffles.

Below is another example of this in action.  In this photo, a group of students in a robotics club collectively and collaboratively design their strategy for the building of their robot.

One of the core principles of a digital learning farm is the concept that our students need to enhance their capacity to work with, publish toward, and learn from a worldwide authentic audience. In UDL Checkpoint 7.2, the emphasis is on varying activities and sources of information so that they are culturally and socially relevant and responsive, and appropriate for different racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups.  It also emphasizes the design of activities that end in learning outcomes resulting in authentic communication to real audiences.

In practice, a district focusing on UDL can make this overt.  Below is a tweet from the Technology Director of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District sharing the practice of using digital portfolios to engage students in reflecting on their own practice as well as a way to empower the creation of authentic work. Next to it, is a screen capture of the online digital portfolios that share student work with the world.

In the classroom below, students in Massachusetts are using Google Hangout to speak with a Venezuelan teacher about historic elections in his country.


My last example of this work in practice is around what November describes as “more opportunities for mastery”.  In UDL, mastery is often a product of purposeful feedback geared toward improvement.  The concept in UDL is called “Mastery Oriented Feedback.” and is highlighted in Checkpoint 8.4.  Implementation examples are given such as providing feedback that “encourages perseverance, focuses on development of efficacy and self-awareness, and encourages the use of specific supports and strategies in the face of challenge.”  It calls for feedback to be frequent, timely, and specific and asks instructors to model how to incorporate evaluation, including identifying patterns of errors and wrong answers, into positive strategies for future success.

Below are two examples of how effective feedback is being offered in 7th grade English classrooms. One is a low technology application of engaging in feedback on student work through post-it notes.  In this case, classmates are providing the feedback to one another.  The other offers the use of online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and its chat features so that high school students can provide feedback to seventh grade students (about their poetry) while at completely different campuses.

So why should we do this?  After all, universally designing is hard work.  Planning for students to take an active role in their learning is time consuming!  In my mind, the simple tweet below is both the answer to that question and a call to action for more us to change. The image reflects a classroom that solicits and models reflection and mastery-oriented feedback and culminates with a student who wishes more classes provided him/her with authentic strategies for improvement.


What is UDL (And What Isn’t It)?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience.  The concept came out of researchers from Harvard University 30 years ago.  The term UDL was coined in 1995.  In simple terms, there are three networks in the brain that need to be activated to achieve authentic learning.  These three networks are explained in this short video if you are interested in learning more about them.

You may notice the term UDL being used by educators a lot lately.  Why is that you ask? One of the main reasons is that UDL is gaining national and state momentum due to the inclusion of it in our laws and regulatory guidance from departments of education.  For example, UDL was written directly in the new Federal Education Act entitled,  Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which Congress passed and was signed by President Obama in December of 2015.  This Act replaced No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the nation’s general K-12 education law defines and endorses Universal Design for Learning.

What you may not know is that UDL is well represented in countries such as Belgium, Singapore, New Zealand, England, India, Spain, Chile, Portugal, Malta, and Canada. It is believed that this work originated with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  This work set out to address the rights of people with disabilities to full participation in life. Article 26 specifically addresses the equal right of persons with disabilities to an “inclusive, quality, and free” education. UDL helps educators address the widest range of learner variability, reduce barriers, and improve access for all students to a full and rich inclusive education.

A lot of schools participate in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. The IBO’s guidelines include references to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a framework that can be used for inclusive education. Here is a recent study entitled “UDL and Inclusive Practices in IB Schools Worldwide”. It concludes, “Instructional practices consistent with UDL are widely used at IB schools. With strong administrative support for inclusion, IB teachers and staff are encouraged to use effective 123 practices and integrate inclusive instructional strategies into their teaching. Participating schools regularly give their teachers PD opportunities and emphasize the need for teachers to be trained and proficient in creating classroom environments that include and engage all students. As a result, IB educators strive to use instructional approaches that maintain high standards and rigor, while concurrently creating welcoming and supportive instructional environments for all learners.”

If you are interested in learning more about UDL, below is a handout and  video that may be of interest.

I want to take a few minutes to clear up some misconceptions about UDL that I have heard.

1. One misconception is that UDL is only to support students who are struggling academically. While a lot of UDL literature is focused on students with disabilities, UDL is a Tier 1 approach, meaning it is used with all students. It is intended to meet the needs of all learners, those at, above, or below grade level.

2. One thing I hear is that we “purchased UDL”. UDL is not a set of specific textbooks or resources.  It is not one particular delivery method for instruction. There is no “canned” UDL version out there that all need to do. It is not easy to implement and even though many of our staff are working towards implementing UDL practices in their classrooms, it will take years to authentically integrate completely (and will always need constant refinement).  It is a time consuming process and staff need the support and focus to do this over multiple years.

3.  Another misconception is that UDL is “all fun” and reduces rigor in our classrooms.  When done correctly, UDL maintains rigor while addressing all students needs by reducing barriers. One misconception I hear is that because choice is a large part of UDL, that students are not challenged to do specific tasks (such as writing an essay). This is not the case. All teachers need to be responsive to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Some of these frameworks require students to complete specific skills. For example, in math, students are required to solve an equation or graph a line; in English, students are required to write informational text with a firm thesis and a clear introduction, body and conclusion. Students are still expected to do this in a universally designed class.

4. A last misconception that I will address is the concern that UDL will not challenge a student who lacks motivation as they will choose the “easy way out”. The choices we provide are intended to have similar levels of rigor. In addition, students are encouraged to have a “growth mindset” and are encouraged to engage in choices that may go outside their comfort zone. Mastery-oriented feedback is provided by the staff who will work with the students to ensure they challenge themselves. In fact, the student who lacks motivation is often not engaged. Engagement is one of the three main principles of UDL. This topic also relates to executive functions. The guidelines share the following, “Associated with networks that include the prefrontal cortex, these capabilities allow humans to overcome impulsive, short-term reactions to their environment and instead to set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed…The UDL framework typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed.”  Building these executive functions includes UDL checkpoints in the areas of goal setting, planning and strategy development, managing information and resources, and monitoring progress.

Did You Know UDL is EVERYWHERE lately?

Why does a leader need to be knowledgable about and apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in their own practice? There are many scientific reasons why UDL works.  There are also many peer reviewed pieces that will illustrate its instructional relevance.  But there are also very practical reasons why administrators need to become knowledgable about UDL and incorporate the principles in their leadership lives. Did you know…


  • Universal Design for Learning is a component of the 2015 The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and incorporated into Title I Part A, Title II, and Title IV.
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for reducing barriers and maximizing learning opportunities for all students, is referred to explicitly in the 2016 U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan.
  • The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 emphasizes that pre-service training through teacher education programs incorporate instruction on strategies consistent with UDL.

In Massachusetts?

  • If renewing a professional ­level license with an expiration date that falls on or after July 1 2016, you must have at least 15 PDPs related to training in strategies for effective schooling for students with disabilities and instruction of students with diverse learning styles (UDL counts towards this requirement).
  • UDL is a key part of DESE’s Multi Tiered System of Support Blueprint.
  • UDL is a part of the new educator evaluation model (Guidebook of Inclusive Practice).

In Maine?

  • UDL is  as part of a state sponsored professional development program under Maine Improving Schools Professional Development Series.
  • UDL is included in language related to assistive technologies for Maine State Teacher Quality Action Plan.
  • UD is highlighted in Maine State Plan for Assistive Technology.


Where do you live?

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