Designing for Student Success


Have you ever been involved in a project with a group of people that you’ve never worked with before? Or joined something as a member and had new people to get to know and work with on committees? A lot goes on in getting a group to become cohesive as a working team or community. Everyone brings something different to the table: personality, comfort level working with others, leadership experience, life experience, skills set, knowledge that is specific to completing a certain task or goal.

The same is true for learning environments. Someone is the lead in directing the environment, usually the instructor or facilitator or whatever you wish to call it.   But the direction that the learning takes within a course or workshop can go in many different ways, even with the leader’s agenda spelled out in advance. The learning objectives are the same, but getting to them may take the group down many different paths.

And then there is the stuff we bring to the table that we’ve managed to accumulate along the way. Some of that are positive experiences and others are negative. You know, the baggage we all have.

Everyone learns in different ways and has different ways of expressing themselves in certain situations. Some may call it personality, some may call it individual preferences. Whatever it is called, we all have them.  One way or another, we learn along our life’s path what works best for us. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow and change and lose some of that baggage in the future, but I believe that we all have our strengths and weaknesses that we use in learning and daily life.

What worked in one situation doesn’t always work in the next, either. Here’s a good example: say you were always a good student all the way through high school. Sure you had to study hard, and certain subjects weren’t easy but you made it through, and got to college. Maybe you even were successful all the way through college, and started your career. Then you found you would like to do something else- something outside your skill set.

So if someone who had become used to being a successful student, who had always worked hard, did well and didn’t need much assistance, was rudely awakened by a seemingly sudden inability to succeed in a new area- let’s think about our students now. Maybe the transition to learning new information goes well, but maybe it doesn’t. When it is clear that a learner is struggling, or needs a different approach to become successful, how does that knowledge impact how we teach?

Best practices in teaching show that information needs to be offered through different options and presented in a variety of ways. If learning is acquired by listening, the information needs to be presented verbally, but only if that works for the student. In the case of someone who is print impaired or hearing impaired, we will need to provide additional supports such as electronic means that can be captioned or read with text to speech software.

For someone who cannot see at all, if the auditory information is about a picture, or about an image with details, then it needs to be described well enough for the information to be fully understood. If it is conveyed on a web site, the web site needs to be designed so that assistive technology can be used. Textbooks need to be in alternate formats that are accessible to those who struggle with print but can comprehend material when presented auditorially.

Even this may not be enough to convey the material, and additional models of the content may need to be added that demonstrate the concepts in more than two dimensions, such as models of human anatomy or chemical components.

The same is true for how the learner participates and shows mastery of the content. Assessment measures may also need to be offered in multiple options, to allow students to show what they know.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help us to help our students be more successful, in learning and mastering new content across subject areas.

UDL is defined in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 as a “scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice.”  It takes into account how learning occurs for each student, and includes strategies for presenting content in a variety of ways, by offering multiple options for ways to act upon materials to gain understanding. It offers a blue print for creating goals, materials and assessments that work for everyone. Ultimately, everyone can participate and all skills, needs and interests brought to the learning environment are addressed.

Here is a good website for UDL in Higher Education- UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education- a guide.

What does this all mean? It means that we need to assess diverse learner needs. Barriers must be analyzed so that student needs can be addressed.   It may mean that changes need to be made, or that new tools need to be added to the tool kit. And to be open to options as the course content unfolds.


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