UDL meets UbD
Jonathan structured the seminar session around a classic reading in K-12 instructional design called Understanding by Design (or UbD). Developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, UbD encourages instructors to design their instruction “backwards.” In this backwards design approach, rather than jumping right from learning goals to instructional strategies or learning activities, Wiggins and McTighe encourage teachers to think first about what kind of performance or product students could create that would demonstrate mastery of the learning goal. While not rocket science, this is a powerful and productive reframing of what I think is more typical practice. It also connects masterfully with UDL, which we’ll explore below.
In the exercise, Jonathan shared this planning document that we used together to explore a unit of study in one of the courses we teach. He asked us to begin individually first to identify the two to five “priority understandings or skills” connected with the content/skill focus we’d selected. We then shared these ideas with another participant in the seminar. Then, for one of the priority understandings/skills, he asked us what might serve as evidence that the students had mastered the understanding or skill. In this case, he challenged us to identify four different alternatives. As time permitted, we repeated this process for the other priority skills. We then shared these ideas with our partners and often identified several other possible performances/products that might serve as well or better than those we’d identified individually.
The exercise to this point was classic UDL principle II – identifying alternate means for students to present their understanding. The “ah-ha” moment came for me in the next part of the experience. In this next step, for each performance or product identified in the previous step, we were challenged to identify the knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and/or skills (processes, procedures, strategies) that students would need to possess or draw upon to successfully complete the performance or product. We then shared these with our partners. In this process, I identified a major mistake (in UDL terms) that I’d made in a core assignment in a class I teach every year – a mistake I’d repeated 12 years in a row.
The Case of the Unnecessary Barriers
The assignment I unpacked in this exercise was from my Designs for Technology-Enhanced Learning course that I teach in our teacher preparation program at William & Mary. I approach the course like a teaching methods course, encouraging students to bridge theory and practice to identify ways to and design lessons that integrate educational technologies to support curriculum-based learning. One of the signature assignments focuses on how K-12 students learn from digital media and technologies. I’m most interested in students making connections between multimedia research and classroom teaching practice. I’ve always had them complete some form of a research synthesis paper as their learning product.
In this exercise, however, I identified several other possible performances/products that would also connect with this learning goal. I realized that they might also read research to prepare to engage in a case study to apply the findings and principles they explored. They might also create a concept map or table with evidence to present their understanding. Finally, they could create a brief presentation that they could share with colleagues in their placement schools as an authentic means to teach others. If I’d had the Higher Education Learning Activity Types Taxonomy handy, I could probably have identified even more.
When I unpacked the facts/skills, concepts/procedures, and principles/strategies that were required in the research paper assignment, I realized that this type of product introduced a number of extraneous barriers to students’ learning and most likely has limited the utility and effectiveness of the assignment. I realized that in addition to students needing to read, analyze and synthesize the research – the core elements of the learning goal – the research paper also required the students to organize their ideas for writing, adopt an academic tone to convey their ideas, and navigate the intricacies of APA style. I realized that none of these intellectually demanding aspects of the assignment really contributed to the learning goal. Is it important for students to write academic papers? Sure. Was it important for this learning goal? Nope.
In my conversation with my partner, I was able to think through other possible products that my students could create. We determined that some form of concept map or table with evidence would not only reduce the complexity of the assignment, but also make it easier for students to make literal and conceptual connections to the ideas they had explored. This approach would also help them to connect what they learned to classroom practice more effectively. The format and tool that students could use to create their concept maps/tables (e.g., Word, Google Docs, Mindmeister) was not important. In fact, allowing students to choose their tool and how they present their work is a nice way to connect UDL principle III – multiple means of engagement.
I’m excited to try this new approach next semester. I honestly believe that not only will I reduce some barriers I’d inadvertently put in my students’ way; I think I’ll get products that are better developed as well. I’m also excited to have a new tool – Jonathan’s planning chart – at my disposal to serve as a “check” for my application of UDL principles in my teaching.
What projects, assignments or experiences can you offer your students to help them provide evidence of their learning?
Please post your comments below.