However, whenever I talk with teachers (both K-12 and higher ed) about UDL, student choice, or personalized learning, I often get the same question: "By providing these modifications, aren't we just lowering the bar?" It's an interesting question if you think about it. If, when we provide choice, the different options don't address the same learning goals or require the same level of rigor, I think they might have a point. But just providing options or choices doesn't mean that the expectations are any different for student learning. In the end, it's all about the learning goal.
Currently, I'm participating in a seminar with faculty members across our university focused on personalized learning and UDL. In our discussion last week, we talked a bit about different pathways to the same learning goal. One great contribution of UDL is the recommendation to consider unnecessary obstacles to students' learning. Sometimes, we unintentionally create unnecessary barriers for our students to demonstrate what it is that they know.
For example, the type of question on an exam can make a big difference for students. One student might tend to overthink things and struggle with multiple-choice questions. Given the exact same topic, however, he might be able to write a very substantive response in a short answer version. Similarly, I might have difficulty conveying my ideas in the form of a written essay. If, however, I was able to create a short video or audio response to the question, I might be better able to articulate my thinking. And in the end, unless the ability to answer multiple-choice questions or write a structured academic essay is part of the actual learning goal, it doesn't seem to me that it should make a difference what format a student chooses to express him/herself.
Providing options without lowering the bar
If you are still reading this, I'm guessing there's a good chance that you agree with the benefits for providing students with some choice in their learning. Even still, it can be difficult to navigate this balance between providing choice and ensuring rigor. What are some simple modifications we can provide for our students to eliminate unnecessary barriers while maintaining the level of rigor?
- Be clear about your learning goal. Before considering how you want students to demonstrate understanding, clearly define the learning goal. What are the critical components? What can be pruned away without sacrificing the intent of the experience? Once you're left with the essential elements of the learning goal, you're better able to determine different possibilities.
- Think outside the box for exams. Rather than having different sections of the exam be comprised of different question types, why not provide a menu of choices? For example, to gauge understanding of a particular topic or concept, you might normally develop a series of multiple-choice questions. Why not offer a parallel set of short answer questions covering the same content? The students could then choose which set of questions to answer.
- Consider different forms of writing. Oftentimes, we default to two or three types of writing assignments for our students - brief reflection statements, structured essays, and longer form papers. Why not stretch our thinking out a bit? Students could share their reflections in the form of blog posts and comment on each other's work. They might also be challenged to write a white paper for public consumption. They could also write an editorial or contribution to a blog or newspaper. Having an authentic audience for their work can be quite motivating to encourage students to put more time and effort into their writing.
- Provide students with voice. Audio recording tools on mobile devices and laptops make it very easy for students to record an oral response to a question or prompt. This can be a great option for students who are not fast typists or who have difficulty expressing themselves in writing. You can even use a tool like Voicethread that enables students to respond to prompts through audio recordings rather than the typical threaded discussion board in BlackBoard or another learning management system.
- Consider different modes altogether. Depending on your content area and learning goals, it can be productive to think about very different types of ways that students can present their understanding. You might provide options once a semester or for every major assignment. For example, a video can be a great way for students to express nuanced understandings of different topics. They might be able to express themselves through artwork – either digitally or in analog form. They could create a concept map to illustrate different relationships. Or why not let them propose a unique approach of their own?
Assessing different options
Once we get past the question of rigor, many teachers worry about how to assess learning in these different formats. It would be a huge effort to create different rubrics or assessment criteria for different student products. Surely you can't assess the quality of an essay and a video project, right? I'd actually argue that as long as you anchor different options to a particular learning goal in most cases, the various products can be assessed using the same grading criteria.
Reflection responses, blog posts, or audio responses can all be judged in the same way when your rubric assesses the clarity of ideas. A video and essay could be judged on the quality of the argument articulated in either. Once we get past focusing on the form, we can consider multiple options that work to maintain rigor and provide them choice at the same time.
What strategies do you employ to provide students with choice?
Please post your comments below.