Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Assessment for Learning and Universal Design for Learning

UDL and Assessment for Learning

Last month a colleague (Dr Lenore Adie) and I presented a paper at the International Conference: Assessment for Learning in Higher Education 2015, in Hong Kong. We presented an alignment of the principles of assessment for learning and universal design for learning. We are interested in the alignment between the framework of UDL which provides principles of inclusive education and AfL strategies which are evidence-based and practical to focus or teaching and the learning in higher education (HE).

Our proposition

We propose that the combination of the principles of UDL and AfL is key to enhancing the student learning experience and achievement as well as contributing to our teaching effectiveness. A cornerstone strategy of AfL is to explicitly provide students with intentions for learning . For this presentation we have the following learning intentions for you – Demonstrate alignment of UDL and AfL principles Illustrate how these can be bought together as a conceptual framework for teaching in HE Provide examples of practice that we have used that demonstrate the application of the conceptual framework in HE.

UDL Background

 UDL has its origins in architecture. Universal design means designing contemporary buildings and spaces and everyday tools that cater for differences in people. For example, ramps that are intentionally planned as integral to the design of buildings for people who use wheelchairs but also benefit parents with prams, bike riders, and people attempting to control shopping trolleys.
Image result for universal design

 The intentional and purposeful planning for diversity negates the need for retro – fitting such as we see when ramps are attached to the front of older buildings. Universal design for learning is a phrase coined by the CAST organisation to describe the intentional design of teaching and learning that meets the needs for a diverse range of learners in the planning stages. Therefore reducing the need to retro-fit adjustments for the learning needs of students. 

Principles of UDL

There are 3 overarching principles of UDL linked to neuropsychology, human development and educational research. For further detail, I highly recommend visiting the CAST website. The 3 overarching principles are 1. recognition learning means how students acquire and process their learning and requires us to plan multiple methods of presentation of information. 2. strategic learning is how students express their learning and requires us to plan multiple, flexible methods of expressing learning 3. affective learning which students engage in their learning and requires us to plan multiple flexible methods for engaging in learning

UDL in higher education

While UDL has previously been used in schools and HE for SWD we propose that the application of the principles of UDL in HE benefits all learners. By implementing combined principles of UDL and AfL we are addressing the wider participation agenda in HE.


For example, we can incorporate inclusive strategies that support engagement by all, and that are flexible to meet the multiple contexts and demands of HE Of particular interest to us as teacher educators is the concept of modelling good practice to our students. As the quote attributed to Ghandi says “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. And this principle of modelling is applicable to others outside of education as we develop professionals who can work inclusively with and for a diverse range of people.


We respond to the recognition principle by providing multiple, flexible methods of presentation of information that we want students to understand. We provide multiple examples through a range of strategies for example by having a print and online text book, having guest lectures and going on excursions. An important UDL strategy is to highlight critical features of knowledge and how we want students to demonstrate their knowledge.



An AfL strategy that enhances multiple and flexible methods of presentation is the clear identification and articulation of learning intentions. Our unit outlines provide subject/course learning outcomes but we need to also identify for each lesson , the specific learning intent and the criteria that will enable students to identify if they have been successful in this learning We need to purposefully repeat this slide at key points in our lecture/tutorial, including at the end of the lesson for self- assessment and reflection. Another example are strategies to support students to understand the expected standard of performance. For example, rather than just supplying a criteria sheet, we involves students in identifying qualities that illustrate a standard or in activities such as ordering standards descriptors which involve them in rich dialogue regarding standards.
Other UDL strategies that I use to provide multiple methods for presenting information include providing multiple media and formats and supporting background context to the knowledge we are asking them to develop. The expression or presentation principle refers to the ways in which a student can express or present their knowledge, understanding or expertness. To do this we plan multiple opportunities for students to experience models of performance such as in small group work, online activities and individual meetings. We plan and provide opportunity for students to practice and express their knowledge through peer assessment, diagrams and role play.
An AfL strategy that supports multiple flexible methods of presentation is the purposeful planning of strategic questioning that probes thinking and that allows for collaborative thinking. For example, incorporating strategies such as T-P-S provides students with an opportunity to practice their thinking before exposing this to the whole class. Requiring all students to respond through polls, individual whiteboards, show of fingers etc ensures all students are engaged and receiving ongoing and relevant feedback.

When we provide ongoing relevant feedback to students about their progress and they self –assess their progress we provide a method for expressing or presenting their understanding and knowledge. Individually or together we can set goals for improvement. We use an exit card we use after a session. We ask students questions about knowledge but also how they would rate their learning. In this case how confident they would be to teach someone else the content. The strategy of the open-ended assessment task where students can choose the mode in which they demonstrate their understanding allows for students to use their expertness. An example is a poem written and read by a student to reflect upon the experience and learning they had during the unit. 

The problem of engagement

Engagement is the principle that we believe we have done quite poorly in HE. Meaningful and inclusive teaching that engages all learners takes focussed thinking and planning which academics may delegate to the too hard basket because of the competing demands we experience in HE. Teaching in HE needs to move beyond a transmission model to one where the learner’s needs are considered in planning as well as responded to in teaching.

The opportunity for a student to choose their content or tool of expression is vital to engagement. Opportunity to demonstrate expertness of interest engages learners in the assessment beyond just the need to pass or get a good mark. Examples of response to assessment include online, artistic or written. These examples are extremely creative which in themselves demonstrates the students higher order thinking and ability to deeply demonstrate understanding but is also highly engaging to complete. Opening the assessment folders or emails is always an enjoyable task for me also instead of being presented with 55 folders of 2000 word essays (not that there isn’t a place for these!). Goal setting is a method in which we can adjust the level of challenge for students so that they are engaged in the task.
Educators who employ Afl work to empower students to understand themselves as learners. They can take control and are self-motivated. AfL learning is understood as collaborative action, dialogic pedagogy and mediated learning opportunities. Incorporating AfL strategies into our classes can be as easy as a quick quiz that engages students in prior learning and sets them up for the new learning to come. A group activity is where students respond to a task and roam around the room looking at the response of others and revising their work. This is the collaborative learning culture that supported by AfL strategies. It may sound inappropriate to some but providing a choice of rewards for achieving learning goals is necessary even for adult learners. 

I provide a number of choices but particularly use feedback about performance that is supportive and challenging. We even have a bag of enthusiasm which is like a lucky dip for exceptional expression or presentation of student understanding. When we provide feedback , we state what has been done well because we want students to repeat this. We then put in a full stop (no buts or howevers) before identifying a skill to work on and a strategy to achieve this. Students can self-assess their own work through guided questions that reflect affective as well as cognitive understanding.

Conceptual framework

This is our conceptual framework. We have sorted AfL principles under the headings of UDL principles for teaching and learning in HE. To explain this further we liken it to the development of a laser that requires alignment of light waves. The light waves in our analogy are the principles of UDL and Afl that when aligned create the laser. The laser is sharp, focused and has impact. We relate this sharpness, focus and impact to the resulting teaching and learning in HE when we align the principles of UDL and AfL.

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