I was told once by my Cooperative Teacher (CT) during student teaching that she often wrote the answers for certain students on tests. It wasn’t that she gave them the answer, but they dictated what they wanted to say. They struggled so much with hand-writing that in many cases the test became frustrating and overwhelming. It wasn’t because they didn’t know the answers, but because they couldn’t write fast or accurately enough to be understood.
My CT also told me that what she does is frowned upon. That the students are expected to be able to write their own answers. If it’s something they struggle with, though, why shouldn’t an accommodation of some kind be allowed? Unless it is a hand-writing test, writing the answers dictated by a struggling student shouldn’t be considered cheating. To really get a full understanding of a student’s comprehension level, there is only a need to hear their thoughts.
By allowing for accommodations such as a teacher writing for a student, students are given the opportunity to shine through and show what they know. How is that any different than using a program that types what a student is saying. Sure, a student that struggles with writing should still be practicing handwriting, but not during a test.
With the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), students are given a wide range of opportunities depending on the learning target and the student’s need. A flexible learning environment helps reach a diverse population of students. By differentiating instruction through content, process, and product possibilities, students can grow and become independent, goal-oriented learners. As adults, we learn differently. OF COURSE our students are going to learn differently as well! The biggest mistake is simply teaching the way we like to learn. It is so easy to stick with what is comfortable. However, if we reach outside our comfort zone it will make a world of difference with our students.
There are three important pieces that go into creating a differentiated classroom using UDL. We need to bring in different ways to engage, represent, and express the learning within our students. Not everything needs to happen in every lesson, that would be madness, but an attempt at some differentiation should be made. A great explanation of what each piece really means can be found on the CAST website. In a condensed form, the engaging element changes the content students are learning, the representation element changes how the students are accessing the information, and the expression element is how the students show what they know.
Let’s move on to some examples now. I’m going to keep it simple as I am learning about differentiation just this quarter of school as well. To begin with, content or the engagement factor. This could be as simple as having various books at different reading levels available for use during a research project. By varying the information available, the student can find comfort within their Zone of Proximal Development. Moving on to process or representation, the means through which a student finds their information. This could simply be allowing students to choose a book, the internet, interviewing an expert, listening to podcasts, or watching videos. Finally, product or expression can be varied in so many ways. Rather than testing students through an exam, you can allow them to express themselves through a chosen means. This still gets across their knowledge on the subject while allowing them to find comfort and excitement in their learning. Another wonderful resource that walks through the process of differentiation is the Reading Rockets website. Not only do they give explanations of each, but also give examples of ways to differentiate.
Some prime examples of how UDL can benefit students of variable abilities can be found in the following videos:
1. Meet Mason
2. Meet Jean
3. Meet Brody
If you would like to see an example lesson plan using UDL and differentiation, check out this lesson on the Food Pyramid for 1st and 2nd graders.