Practices that Promote Equity in Basic Skills in California Community Colleges

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Universal Design for Learning

As previously described in Appendix D, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was borrowed from architectural concepts that accommodate a variety of users. The focus is on barriers for particular populations that ultimately provide enhanced access to everyone. An example of this practice is the specialized curbing modifications for wheel chairs. While this design provides benefits for people in wheelchairs, it also provides access for people with knee or hip problems, people with no physical problems but who are pulling suitcases or pushing carts and baskets, mothers with strollers, and any other variety of issues. Designed for a particular population, this intervention and redesign of the curbing resulted in a benefit to many.

UDL is a proactive re-evaluation of our practices with intent to make college courses and services universally accessible and beneficial to all students. The focus is on creating a learning environment, focused on success, while recognizing and respecting diversity. Practitioners are encouraged to evaluate the barriers that could be preventing success. UDL fashions educational environments that are usable by as many people as possible, regardless of age or limitations, but it is more than just addressing the American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance measures. It is a student focused plan to provide access that we do not commonly demand for ourselves.

Faculty that utilize Universal Design for Learning in preparing to teach their courses are aware of the learning styles of their students and develop presentations of their course material in a varied formats that engage the various learning styles of their students. Students are provided the option to select materials in the format or formats that suit them. Faculty allow for group and individual work as well as engaging the use of various media and technology in the management of their course material. Ultimately, the materials utilized in the learning environment are designed to reach a wide scope of students such that there is no need to specially adapt that material for accessibility because it is accessible to students in a plethora of ways. UDL is a proactive approach to being prepared to teach to all learners.

To some extent UDL and Cultural Competency complement and overlap each other. Faculty members utilizing UDL must be aware of their own cultural biases in order to consider using alternative approaches to course material that are inclusive of the students’ cultural and ethnic values. By providing information in a variety of formats, delivering instruction using a variety of teaching methodologies, building accessibility to both course materials and locations to ensure meeting the widest range of student needs, and providing adaptable materials that students can chose and customize to suit their learning needs, faculty open access to success by design. Universal Design for Learning is applicable to student support services as well as instructional practices. From the library to learning centers to counseling, student support faculty should endeavor to create accessible and usable services and a welcoming environment to all students regardless of ethnicity or disability.

In a collaborative presentation by the ASCCC Equity and Diversity Committee and Basic Skills Committee, two members shared a visual picture of Universal Design for Learning. The audience was asked where the candy shelves are located in the grocery stores. Resoundingly the response was “At the children’s eye-level.” Seen here in a picture, the committee members demonstrate the picture of eye-level access. By placing the shelves at the lower level, both members can see what is available and have full accessibility. But if it is only at the eye-level of the tallest person, the shorter person only sees the bottom of the shelf and has no concept that something is on that top shelf. In this scenario one presenter shared (as a Hispanic female) how she was clearly told in college that she should pursue less lofty goals: since her academic goals were never achieved by Hispanic females, they were on the top shelf reserved for particular ethnicities and genders. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) seeks to place the candy shelves and the academic achievement possibilities at a level where all students can see and choose what they want to pursue.

Other practical UDL strategies include a focus on inclusive practices that create an environment where all students are called upon by name during class participation and discussion, as well as through team project approaches. These strategies are described in Scientific Teaching, Chapter 4 Diversity (Handelsman, et al 2008, pp.65-82). This chapter differentiates between specific teaching and evaluative techniques that are inclusive versus non-inclusive (Ibid, p. 79). A few examples of inclusive practices that are beneficial to all students and exemplary of UDL include the following:

  • deliberative planning of assignments that are multicultural in nature

  • opportunities to write about personal experiences emphasizing and examining the individual’s culture

  • inclusive content highlighting minority contributions such as African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and women.

The main principles in UDL include flexible and multiple methods of presentation and engaging student participation in the both the learning process and assessment. Additional information about UDL is available at and

Another component of UDL that benefits students involves pedagogical techniques and has as a framework based upon the essential research from brain theory and cognitive neuroscience. Modern scientific methods, such as PET scanning (Positron Emission Tomography), have enabled scientists to determine brain activity associated with specific types of pedagogical techniques. It is clear that specific types of activities lead to deeper and more long-term learning.

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