Fostering student choice

As regular readers may know, I’ve talked about the Universal Design for Learning in past posts on this blog.  UDL is a blueprint for selecting, creating and planning instructional materials and assessments.  UDL focuses on the variability of learners and their academic differences and seeks to overcome the “one-size-fits-all,” inflexible curricula that is a barrier for many learners.  Built upon the learning sciences, UDL is a research-based initiative that can help instructor redesign their classroom delivery and assessment to better reach all students.  I think many people think the UDL is only applicable to students with special needs or K-12 learning environments.  The reality is that UDL principles can be applied in any learning environment with any types of students.  The final assignment in two of my undergraduate classes this semester can demonstrate how this can be done.

For the final presentation in two of my Instructional Technology classes, I’ve asked the students to examine the educational impact of the instructional materials they designed and used with some local elementary classes.  The overarching goal of the assignment was to demonstrate how the instructional materials impacted the elementary students’ learning.  I told my students that I ultimately didn’t care how they presented their findings to the visiting elementary teachers but should develop their presentation to answer a series of prompts.  I offered a variety of options to the students as means of sharing their examinations.  I said that they could create a PowerPoint presentation or use Google slides.  They could use Prezi or emaze to create livelier presentations or develop a video using Powtoon.  Ultimately, I explained, the decision was theirs.  They could choose whatever means they wanted to communicate their findings.

Providing this option ties directly into Principle 2 of UDL.  In this principle, instructors are directed to “provide multiple means of expression and representation.”  One of the guidelines for this principle recommends that students be given options for communicating their work.  By providing students’ choice in how they communicate their learning, they can play to their strengths. For instance, a student who may have difficulty with written expression can still demonstrate what they’ve learned in another way.  While some students may choose to write papers, other students may choose to make movies.  While some students may be successful with artistic representations, others may excel with a verbal presentation.   In the end, most instructors are assessing what students have learned and not the medium in which it’s presented.  Providing choice also has huge motivational impacts for students.  Since they’ve chosen the medium, they develop more ownership over the process and the product.

Returning to my undergraduate’s final assignments, some students have chosen traditional technologies (PowerPoint) to support their face-to-face presentations while others have used more emergent technology (Powtoon and emaze, for instance) to create stand-alone multimedia.  Others chose to use very little technology and just tell a story.  Looking across the students’ work, I’m seeing a diverse range of creations.  That’s to be expected, however.  Whenever instructors provide students with choice, the results will be as varied and diverse as the students who created them.

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