Help One, Help All: Universal Design for Learning

Steve Volk, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Oberlin College (September 18, 2017). Contact:

The headline immediately caught my attention: “Atmospheric scientist at Illinois is on leave after refusing to provide lecture slides to student with disabilities.” Not exactly the Kardashians or the latest scorched-earth quote from Sebastian Gorka, but striking to a pedagogy-nerd like me. As I clicked through to the article, I found that the scientist in question wasn’t just “any” teacher, but a Nobel laureate with 41 years of teaching to his credit.

Although I’m more interested in this article for what it says about the state of “Universal Design” thinking than for the actual controversy at hand, some facts in the case are still in order.

  • The faculty member in question is Michael Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007, he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building and disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change. Conservative bloggers, for their part, prefer to see him as an “environmental extremist.”
  • According to a report in the Daily Illini, Schlesinger refused “to provide a student with electronic lecture notes, even after Disability Services confirmed the need for accommodation.” Further research reveals that the real issue was Schlesinger’s refusal to share his slides with the student. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he offered to pay for the student to have a note taker in the class, but that he opposed sharing his slides because he was unwilling to give one student an “advantage” over others taking the course who couldn’t access the slides.
  • According to the University of Illinois, Schlesinger was “not currently teaching.” Schlesinger insisted that he hadn’t resigned and did not tend to resign. Rather, he wrote, “I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

The story can be read as an example of “nanny state” administrators stepping in to tell faculty how to teach their courses, or of crotchety faculty members who refuse to change their moth-eaten ways, even if it means noncompliance with university rules and federal legislation (Americans with Disabilities Act). For my part, I have no idea whether Schlesinger is the world’s best teacher or the world’s worst; I have no ability to judge him on the basis of a single act reported in the press. What did catch my attention was Schlesinger’s statement that he intends “to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

Universal Design for Learning

At the heart of Schlesinger’s statement is a belief that by accommodating one student (in this case a student with reported disabilities), an instructor is ipso facto disadvantaging all other students in the class. The clearest response to this pinched understanding came from James Basham, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, who suggested that “if the professor has such strong beliefs about sharing slides with an individual student, he should simply share with all of his students.” Basham’s approach is the essence of what has been called “Universal Design for Learning.”

Universal Design for Learning took its inspiration from the architecture and product design processes pioneered by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University in the 1980s. A universal design approach aims “to create physical environments and tools that are usable by as many people as possible.” The curb cut is a perfect example: it was designed so that people in wheelchairs could more easily access sidewalks. But, if curb cuts proved beneficial for wheelchair-bound individuals, they were no less a boon for parents pushing strollers or shoppers bringing home the groceries. Curb cuts equally served old people with walkers and young people learning to skateboard. And that was the point. The idea of universal design is that by planning a design that takes account of the needs of everyone at the beginning of a process, rather than waiting to modify designs later when such needs become more visible or vocal, everyone would benefit.

Universal Design for Learning operates in precisely the same way. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 offers the following definition of Universal Design for Learning:

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can benefit, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. [On this, see Judy Marquez Kiyama and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths (Routledge 2018).] Universal design for learning in higher education recognizes that what needs to be “fixed” is not the learner but the the way in which teaching and learning occurs.

How It Works: Using Visual Materials

I have little doubt that colleagues can provided many examples of how they have used universal design for learning principles in their own classes, sometimes without even knowing that this is what they were doing. I encourage readers to supply further examples from their own practice that I can use to update this article. I include the specific examples below as illustrations of universal design for learning approaches that have worked in my classes. Each instructor will decide what works best for your own classrooms.

This first example, using visual materials with a sight-impaired student, comes from a class I taught many years ago. It was probably the first time that I thought of a universal-design-for- learning approach, although I had no idea it was called that or that such an approach existed.

Matt was a student in one of my Latin American history surveys. (I use his real name because he later wrote a memoir and referenced the incident.) He enrolled in my course having spent the previous Winter Term in Guatemala. Matt was born with cataracts, developed glaucoma as a baby, and soon lost all vision in his left eye while retaining only partial sight in the right. So he came to my class with limited vision: he could read with the help of a computer and got around campus without a guide dog or cane. I made sure he was assigned a note taker and that the readings were available far in advance so they could be recorded for him. Soon after the semester started, however, his limited eyesight vanished completely when a corneal ulcer in his “good” eye became infected. As he was sitting in my class, he later wrote, “Suddenly the lights seemed really bright. Then it got really painful. By the end of the hour I could barely see well enough to get myself to Academic Services.” Matthew had become totally blind.

He returned to class surprisingly soon after, and I had to consider whether to ignore Matt’s new disability, to change my approach to a class that depended substantially on slides with visual (illustrative, not textual) content, or to accommodate him in some other way. I considered asking a classmate to sit beside him, describing the slides as I cycled through them. But the continual, if hushed, commentary would have foregrounded Matt’s disability, making him the center of class attention day after day. I could have sent him the slides ahead of time, but slides without commentary made little sense and I would been have constrained from changing  slides at the last minute to respond to issues that recently arose in class.

The solution I finally hit upon was actually quite consistent with universal design principles, as I later learned. I was forced to think about why I used slides in the class, and when I considered that I realized that some were relatively unimportant, a kind of visual filler designed to hold the students’ attention, and some were critical to the issues we were discussing. By treating each of these two variants the same (i.e., having them up for the same amount of time and not commenting further on the important ones), I was missing an opportunity to enhance everyone’s learning. I decided that when I got to an important slide, I would ask for a volunteer to describe what they saw on the screen; then for a second and a third student who would add depth to the description. Finally, as a class which including Matthew, we could discuss the visual representation and they ways that it helped us understand the subject we were studying. There was no need to call attention to Matt’s visual impairment or to provide him “special accommodation,” and all the students benefited by being made more aware of visual content, by developing their powers of observation, and by hearing others discuss the slide. By leading me to focus more on my goals, Matt helped me redesign my class in a way that helped everyone. The approach didn’t “advantage” Matt or “disadvantage” the sighted students: it helped everyone.

How It Works: Note Taking

One of the more common accommodations faculty are asked to make is providing students with note takers. Indeed, Prof. Schlesinger, it would seem, volunteered to “pay the student” to hire a note taker in his class (something which led me to wonder whether he ever had prior contact with the Disability Services office at his university, since it undoubtedly would have provided, and paid for, a note taker). In any case, instructors generally ask students to inform us confidentially at the beginning of the semester if they require a note taker and are registered with Disability Services. Sometimes we’ll get a letter later in the semester if a student only recently registered or has sustained an injury that impedes note taking. I doubt that anyone thinks that the student who requires a note taker because she has broken her arm in a field hockey match is now getting an unfair advantage over the other students.

But let’s look at this a bit more broadly. I have no doubt that there were students in my class who had more trouble than others taking notes in class. Perhaps it was because English was not their first language; perhaps because they never developed good note-taking skills; perhaps because they just processed what was being said (often at a rapid clip) somewhat more slowly than other students. I also had no doubt that it would have benefited all students to read a set of notes taken by another student, just in case they missed some important in their own notes.

Thinking of the needs of all students a bit more closely, I decided to assign class note takers for my courses. Two students in each class were asked to take notes that they would share with the other students by posting them to Blackboard. (Students were excused if they qualified for a note taker via the Disability Services office.) Note taking became a (small) part of the final grade. I doubt that having class note takes dissuaded any individual student from taking notes, nor did it encourage absences, and my advice to students who had missed class was always to “get the notes from another student.” What had I accomplished? Many more benefited from this approach: students who didn’t qualify for a note-taker from Disabilities Services and yet could have profited from one; students who could have qualified for a note-taker but felt constrained from asking for one for a myriad of reasons; students who suffered a temporary physical problem but didn’t find the time to get themselves to Disability Services; students who wanted to complement their own notes with those from other students. No one was disadvantaged and everyone was advantaged.

How It Works: Assignment Design:

When we think about universal design in terms of assignments, we often think of students who require additional time on exams. The clear design of assignments is another aspect of universal design that serves all students. Mary-Ann Wilkelmes, the principal investigator of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project, has developed a simple protocol for assignment design based on explicitly answering three questions when creating assignments.

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?

Often we think that our assignments are clearer than they actually are because students don’t complain about them. But ask the reference librarians who are called upon to help students figure out what we’re asking for, and you’ll discover something different. Many seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Maybe those who are better able to read our minds are just smarter and deserve a better grade. Um, no. They’re not any smarter, but they might be able to suss out what we’re asking for because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. They have what Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, calls “navigational capital.” Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers know the unwritten rules of the game: they know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

But it also happens that the best prepared students really can’t figure out what we’re asking them to do because we haven’t been clear. In this case, universal design in terms of assignment design serves everyone, ourselves included. By being specific about task, purpose and criteria, we can be clearer in our own minds as to what we’re asking for in an assignment while helping all students, those with a strong academic preparation and those who are newer to the game, do well on the assignment. Once again, everyone benefits, no one is disadvantaged.

How It Works: Extra Time on Exams

One of the more difficult issues logistically is arranging for extra time for exams or quizzes. Here’s an approach from Erik Inglis of the Art Department at Oberlin:

In my intro class, I used to give an in-class quiz, which meant it was limited in time, and cut into content. Now I have the students take the quiz at home–which revealed to me that I didn’t care if it took them 15 minutes or 30 minutes to come up with the answer–instead it was a more a matter of the appropriate length of the essay.  So, instead of students having to request an accommodation, everyone can have as much time as they think necessary–and I give a word-count, not a time-measure, to set parameters.  I tell students that this is one of the many benefits of the honor code (although he worries that students might be tempted to use outside sources for a closed book exam).

Another colleague added the following:

During my…years at Oberlin I have never given any student a timed assessment. To me the issue of how fast a student can produce information or analyze a problem is seldom a good assessment of what they are learning in class. Given that Oberlin has an honor code, it also seems to me to be a waste of valuable class time to have quizzes or tests during class — I have them all outside of class. I assign them pairs that vary on each quiz so that they DO proctor each other. I actually make half the quiz something that they complete working together and half something that complete alone but in the presence of the other student. I believe that the collaborative discussions they have about answers are useful pedagogically.

This colleague further noted that he had been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and that he was always disadvantaged by timed exams in high school. When he reached college, he found many of his professors more sympathetic, giving him more time on exams. But, he added, “As a student I also felt like I had an unfair advantage [getting additional time] and I always made it a point to try to convince my professors…to allow all students to have more time on tests. I am pleased to say that many DID where it was feasible to do so. And I felt like my grade was fairer in classes when they did.”


When Professor Schlesinger remarked that he intends to “fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students,” a universal design for learning approach could be what he is looking for. By encouraging us to design a learning environment that can serve all students, such an approach can move us away from a concentrated focus on students who require “accommodation,” and towards a consideration of changes that can aid all our students. In the end, all students will profit from a classroom in which all needs, spoken or unspoken, certified or not, are taken into consideration. Such would be the case if the professor, so demonstrably wise in matters of atmospheric science, simply shared his slides with all students.

NOTE: For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Hamilton’s article, “Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching” (Oct. 16, 2016).

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d’après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

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