Uid principles in Composition Using Principles of Universal Design in College Composition Courses

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Using Principles of Universal Design in College Composition Courses

Patricia J. McAlexander
The University of Georgia


While debates rage over the best way to teach college composition, Universal Instructional Design principles suggest that there is in fact no single best way; students’ individual learning strengths and motivation require individual approaches, whether or not students have learning or physical disabilities. This article suggests some ways that composition teachers can adapt their teaching to individual learners while following a mandated curriculum and engaging students in common classroom activities.

Using Principles of Universal Design in College Composition Courses

As a college composition teacher, I know that first-year students often dread freshman composition and, even more, the “developmental” composition courses that are often also required for “underprepared” writers. Both types of composition course have fairly standard content. A typical description, this one of a developmental composition course, reads, “Covers elements of effective style, careful proofreading, logical organization, and convincing development of expository and persuasive essays” (The University of Georgia Undergraduate Bulletin 2001-2002, p. 425). Nevertheless, debates have raged in composition journals about the best ways to teach this material. Should assigned writing topics be personal or political? Should the reading on which the student essays are based be creative and literary or analytical? Should the organization of student essays be tightly structured or at least sometimes creatively “loose”? Should the class include formal grammar lessons, or should grammar instruction be mainly through commentary on student essays? Most articles dealing with such questions suggest that there is only one “right” answer—the author’s, of course.

Yet the right answer is “all of the above.” As more students attend college, diversity—not only of races and ethnic groups, but also of learning styles and motivation—is now more than ever the norm. And as composition instructors become increasingly used to modifying their teaching methods for students with disabilities, they realize the general truth that a single method of teaching will not suit all students. It is not surprising, then, that we find a growing advocacy of individual approaches to students as embodied in the concept of Universal Instructional Design (UID).

For several years now, researchers have investigated individual learning strengths and motivation. One influential study, for example, identified seven specific perceptual modalities, preferred senses that an individual uses in the process of learning. Common modalities described were “print” (i.e., learning through reading and writing), “visual” (learning through observation with emphasis upon pictures or visual patterns), “interactive” (learning through participation in groups), and “auditory” (learning through listening, for example, to lectures or tapes) (Galbraith & James, 1985). We also find studies of motivation. Part of motivation is based on students' sense of what they can achieve. As Cross (2001) has often pointed out, “Students must believe that, with appropriate effort, they can succeed” (p. 7). Another aspect of motivation is based on a student’s goals or values—what he or she thinks is the point of the learning process. Biggs (1988) reviewed three different learning approaches based on this element in motivation—surface (found in students who emphasize the pragmatic—i.e., getting the degree), deep (found in students who have an intrinsic interest in the task), and achieving (which may be found in conjunction with either of the other two approaches in students who want to make the highest possible grade) (pp. 186-87).

Students have often been advised to be aware of both their individual learning strengths and the nature of their motivation. For example, in the textbook Lifeskills for the University (2000), Ginter and Glauser provide an inventory to help students analyze their learning styles (p. 67) and recommend that they “take advantage of [their strong] modalities and strengthen the weaker ones” (p. 59). As for motivation, Biggs argues that students should be aware not only of their specific “cognitive resources” but also of their “intentions” (p. 187). A bulletin board outside one university learning center gives students representative advice relating to both aspects of motivation—“Think positively”; “Consider the benefits of completing the task”; “Set specific goals”—while Ginter and Glauser’s textbook emphasizes that “students . . . are responsible for maintaining [their] motivation” (p. 31).

But if college students are often advised to take responsibility for their own learning, federal legislation on disabilities has been a major force that stresses the responsibility of teachers and institutions as well. Teachers and institutions are legally bound to modify instructional procedures to compensate for various disabilities. At the college level, for instance, institutions are to provide specified students with educational aids normally not available or permitted, such as tape recorders to record lectures, taped textbooks, and word processors for essay exams. The students might also be provided with tutors, note takers, proofreaders, private rooms for tests, and special counselors. Teachers of these students are often required to modify testing techniques for these students. Depending upon their disability, the students are allowed extra time on tests or given alternate types of tests (e.g., oral instead of written). Specific teaching strategies are often suggested as well. For example, a letter from a learning disabilities specialist to a composition teacher concerning one of the teacher’s students who has a learning disability (LD) states, “Whenever possible, verbal information should be supplemented visually, e.g. with graphs, diagrams, and/or illustrations” (personal communication, December 10, 1999). Thus, under the influence of federal law, the educational process has become more and more tailored to the individual learning abilities and needs of a particular population of students.

However, such modifications, when given to students with the “invisible” problem of learning disabilities, are not always considered fair. Indeed, many critics of the American educational system charge that it is mainly the children of middle class parents who are diagnosed with learning disabilities; their parents have the money and incentive to have them tested. One such critic is Gerald Coles (1987), who argues that LD legislation serves the interests of the status quo—the government, schools, middle class parents—any agency with an interest in preserving the social (i.e., class) order.

The debate over the fairness of modifications for students with learning disabilities has been particularly heated in the field of postsecondary developmental composition, where questions have arisen about the relationship between LD writers and non-LD but “underprepared” writers. The characteristics of the two groups are often similar. Both types of students may have spelling and grammar errors, confusing organization, sparse development, and lack of audience awareness, along with problems of motivation and attention. Yet, no matter how similar the problems of these students, the legislation on learning disabilities creates an either-or situation: either a student has learning disabilities and is legally entitled to certain modifications, or the student does not, and is not.

How can a student be identified as having learning disabilities in a subject area rather than a theoretically more easily improved “weakness”? In Errors and Expectations (Shaughnessy, 1977), the groundbreaking study of students she called “basic writers,” Shaughnessy suggests that the writing problems of the students in her remedial program at the City College of New York (CCNY) could be explained simply by their background:

Certainly were such errors to appear in the papers of academically advantaged students, . . . there would be good reason to explore the possibility of an underlying disorder. But where students have had limited experience in reading and writing, they cannot be expected to make visual discriminations of the sort most people learn to make only after years of practice and instruction. (p. 174)

In the years following, however, writing teachers have become less certain of that position. Today, Jeff Elliott, Assistant Director of Stephen F. Austin State University’s Academic Assistance and Resource Center, expresses the thoughts of many in a posting on a Basic Writing Listserv: he questions how one can distinguish “between students who have never had an opportunity to develop critical thinking and writing skills . . . and those students who have some disability which makes the development of those skills difficult” (April 5, 2001).

I believe that it is right to give modifications to students who have been tested and diagnosed with disabilities (McAlexander, 1997). However, I also recognize that doing so for them and not for others may discriminate against those others. Thus it seems not only just but also logical that the concept of Universal Instructional Design has arisen, encouraging teachers to adjust their teaching strategies, where possible, to the learning styles, interests, and abilities not just of students with disabilities, but of every student.

With specific content usually mandated for a composition course and common activities needed to engage the class as a whole, how can a composition teacher adapt his/her teaching to each individual learner? As the Universal Design of Learning (UDL) website points out, teachers can provide material that is personally relevant to individual students, offer a flexible curriculum that appropriately challenges each student, and give students individualized feedback (Center for Applied Special Technology, 1999-2000). Here are some ways that college composition teachers may employ this advice.

Providing Personally Relevant Material

1. As much as possible, assign readings that engage student interests. I think we all agree that the best kind of motivation springs from intrinsic interest in the subject (Biggs, 1988, p. 218), and that students will be more motivated to write if they are responsive to the readings on which composition topics are based. Appealing to student interests does not mean that a teacher must assign a hodgepodge of individual reading assignments; students in most classes turn out to have interests in common. As educator-psychologist Hamachek (1995) states, “It doesn’t take long for a classroom to develop its own unique personality,” depending in part “on the students and how . . . their particular mix of backgrounds and experiences blend together” (p. 545). Thus, instead of rigidly planning all reading assignments for a class before even meeting it, teachers might wait to see what interests their students have in common and how the class personality develops. Then they can select readings from a textbook accordingly—or order a special book. When I had a class that included many athletes, I assigned the brief novel A Short Season, the story of football player Brian Piccolo (the movie Brian’s Song is based on this book). Because the novel was not read until mid-term, I was able to order it once the class had begun. The students really enjoyed this book.

2. Give a variety of topics on the readings. Through conferences, student discussions, and questionnaires, determine the direction of individual student interests within the group. Then, for each writing assignment based on a reading unit, offer a variety of topics that appeal to these interests. For example, A Short Season deals not only with sports, but also with race relationships, illness, and family conflicts; topics can focus on these different themes. All the students in the class assigned this novel selected one of the suggested topics to write on. However, if a student does not find a topic that works for him or her, the teacher and student can discuss the problem and together develop a new topic.

3. Use the Internet for material. Traditional hard texts are not the only sources for material on which writing can be based. Now the Internet provides an infinite source of information, allowing a teacher to broaden the range of sources a student might draw from and to do so more spontaneously. A popular comparison-contrast topic I have given asks students to describe travel plans to two places they want to go and then select the preferable plan, using the Internet for information. Students who wrote on this topic found detailed information on modes of travel, places to stay, and available activities in the two possible locations, as well as on the cost for the two trips. Their interest in the topic and their enjoyment of Internet research led them to find solid, detailed information.

4. Use popular television shows and articles in current newspapers and magazines as material. Often such sources (as well as the Internet) can be used for the most timely and controversial topics. Topics on television shows that young people watch (e.g., “Boston Public,” “Dawson's Creek,” “Everwood,” “Felicity,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Real World,” “Road Rules,” “Seventh Heaven”), on new technologies (e.g., the advantages and disadvantages of cell phones), or local and state issues that affect students (e.g., raising the driving age, imposing curfews), often arouse strong student feeling and interest.

Offering an Appropriate Level of Challenge

1. Give students a choice of writing topics with varying levels of difficulty. As Cross (2001) points out, students must feel that they can succeed, at least to some degree. Thus it is important for composition teachers to offer topics that relate not only to a variety of interests, but also to a variety of abilities. For students who prefer the usually “easier” personal topics to topics involving reading analysis, offer topics that combine both approaches, such as “Compare your grandmother to the grandmother in Mary Hood’s ‘How Far She Went’.” For students who have problems with essay structure, provide some topics that set up an organization plan (e.g., give specific points on which to compare the two grandmothers); for more creative or advanced students, offer more analytical topics and leave the structure open. Teachers may need to guide students in their selection of an appropriately challenging (as well as interesting) topic.

2. When possible, offer alternative essay formats. This is particularly appropriate if the composition course is oriented to business or technical writing. In such courses, students might use graphs, charts, and other illustrations as a supplement to the written text. Those who prefer the visual mode do very well with such figures, indeed sometimes creating more and better illustrations than print-oriented students. (However, in one such class, I had to remind a young woman who felt insecure with grammar and mechanics that she needed more “sentences” along with her excellent charts and graphs!) Also, the use of headings and bulleted lists gives students with organizational weaknesses more options for making their writing plan clear to the reader.

3. Use teaching strategies that appeal to various learning styles. For example, while traditional lectures appeal to the auditory modality, charts, diagrams, and outlines on overheads appeal to the visual modality, handouts to the “print” modality, and group discussions or peer review to the interactive modality.

4. Accept varying writing styles as long as the communication is appropriate and effective. To show that writing styles can vary, teachers might give samples of different types of writing and discuss how different styles can be effective in varying situations. There are stories of teachers who recognize and reward just one style of writing, often to the detriment of their students. A colleague of mine was criticized in her freshman composition class for her direct, to-the-point writing style. A high achiever, she never got over this experience. She went on to earn a doctorate in educational psychology, but always felt inadequate as a writer.

5. If a student needs extra time to complete the often departmentally-required in-class essay, let the student finish the essay outside of class. Only students diagnosed with learning disabilities are eligible to take tests and write in-class essays in our university’s LD Center, where they can have extended time. I let other students who need more time come to my office to finish that last body paragraph and conclusion. On some campuses the opportunity to complete papers beyond the limits of a 50 minute class period is made available through the learning center.

6. If a student finds writing in the classroom distracting, try to find another place where the student can write. One of my students would sit staring at her almost blank sheet of paper all period, writing only one or two sentences. A deep thinker, she told me that she just could not concentrate on her ideas in the classroom, yet she did not qualify for modifications that would allow her to use a private room in our university’s LD Center. I found an office down the hall from the classroom where she could write her essays, and she proved herself one of my best writers. (Luckily the office was available, and luckily not many of my students have had this problem!)

7. Allow all students to use word processors, even for in-class essays. Whatever the level of the student’s writing development, word processors help greatly with writing; they are particularly useful to students with poor handwriting and spelling. Yet when writing in-class essays in non-computer composition courses, students who have not been diagnosed with a learning disability generally must write by hand. When possible, I send non-LD students who wish to compose on the computer to nearby university computer labs to write their in-class essays. But when this is not possible, I have students write by hand in class; then after I check the often messy, crossed out, arrowed-about handwritten versions, students type the essay at home. They turn the handwritten essay in with the typed version so that I can see that the typed essay is basically the same essay as the one written in class, and I ask them not to change grammar and mechanics except for spelling, so that I can see areas in which they need instruction. This way, I have the required “in-class” essay, and all students use a word processor. Not only are the essays more legible, but also the word processor file version can be used if the students revise the essay.

It is interesting to note that when I apply these methods to in-class essays, many students eligible to write on the computers in the university’s LD center choose to write their essays in the classroom with the other students.

Giving Individualized Feedback

1. Be available to consult with students as they write. Some students prefer to write without asking the teacher any questions. Others, however, need the teacher’s encouragement and advice, whether with individual sentences or with organization or content. It is helpful for such students, when writing in class, to be able to consult as they write, while those doing out-of-class essays may want to drop in to the instructor’s office to ask questions. Such in-progress consultation provides an excellent, if often brief, individualized teaching opportunity. The Socratic method—asking students questions about their content—can evoke better specific details as well as a clearer organization plan. Student questions on the grammar and mechanics of individual sentences give the teacher an opportunity to present a quick individual grammar lesson to supplement the more formal lessons often given in composition classes. And working on problems with organization with the teacher provides models of the thought processes involved in setting up essay structure.

2. After grading an essay, schedule one-on-one conferences to discuss each student’s essay and specific strategies for revision. Such “conferencing,” which generally involves a longer encounter, further individualizes instruction while giving the teacher an opportunity to learn a student’s interests, abilities, and background. There are many good books and articles on the art of conferencing, but basically I find it a conversation in which a student collaborates with a teacher on an essay revision and thereby learns more about writing techniques. Part of this collaboration involves the teacher playing the role of reader in order to increase the student’s audience awareness; part of it involves the teacher offering specific advice. The focus of this advice will vary greatly from student to student: for a more advanced writer, the conference may focus on style; for a weaker writer, it may focus on such basic elements of writing as setting up a thesis. A teacher might also employ specialized teaching techniques in a conference. In one case, I had a student whose written sentences were incoherent. I asked her to read her paper out loud, recorded her so that she herself could literally hear the incoherence, and then had her record, in more informal language, what she meant. I gave her the tape, and she revised the sentences more as she had actually spoken them into the recorder. At the college level, teachers might cancel one or two class meetings to give time for such personal conferences.

3. Encourage individual tutoring sessions and, if a learning or writing center is available, advise students to go there also for tutoring. These tutoring sessions will be much like the conferences described above, but may not deal with the revision of an essay. Rather, they may simply give individual lessons on such specific writing problems as dangling modifiers, comma splices, or wordiness.

4. In some situations, offer peer review sessions as part of the class. If the class has an appropriate level of writing ability, self-concept, motivation, and social interaction, peer review sessions can be an excellent source of individualized response to essays (McAlexander, 2000). Having fellow students respond to one’s writing, along with responding to the writing of fellow students, develops greater awareness of the reader as well as of one’s own writing weaknesses and strengths. Peer review will be particularly effective for students with interactive learning styles.


Although some of these teaching techniques may involve changes in the overall structure of the composition curriculum, most of them, I think, work well within the framework of standard composition courses. Some teachers may fear that such individualization in teaching will undermine student responsibility for learning or lower standards. These fears are ungrounded. After all, students still need to do their part; further, many of the described individualizing techniques have been used for years, and even when they are not used, students still achieve at different rates and levels. In my mind there is no doubt that the application of Universal Instructional Design principles to the teaching of composition will result in more students—gifted, average, weak, “disabled”—improving their writing while enjoying the process.


Biggs, J. (1988). Approaches to learning and to essay writing. In R.R. Schmeck (Ed.), Learning strategies and learning styles (pp. 185-228). New York: Plenum.

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) Website (1999-2000). Retrieved on May 30, 2001 from http://www.cast.org

Coles, G. (1987). The learning mystique: A critical look at learning disabilities. New York: Pantheon.

Cross, K.P. (2001). Motivation: Er . . . will that be on the test? [The Cross Papers Number 5]. Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College and the Educational Testing Service.

Galbraith, J., & James, W. (1985). Perceptual learning styles: Implications and techniques for the practitioner. Lifelong Learning, 8, 2-23.

Ginter, E.J., & Glauser, A.S. (2000). Life-skills for the university and beyond. (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.

Hamachek, D. (1995). Psychology in teaching, learning, and growth (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

McAlexander, P.J. (1997). Learning disabilities and faculty skepticism. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 13(2), 123-129.

McAlexander, P.J. (2000) Developmental classroom personality and response

to peer review. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 17(1),


Shaughnessy, M.P. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

The University of Georgia undergraduate bulletin 2001-2001 (2001). Athens, GA: The University of Georgia.

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