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UDL in 15 Minutes with Kate Stanley – Episode 25

When our learners gain agency, they gain something for life

In the universal design for learning (UDL) community, we refer to learners rather than students because (a) learning takes place both within and outside of the classroom, (b) learning can be guided, independent, and everywhere in between, and (c) learning takes place outside the traditional classroom. There was a shift to learner after realizing that the term student connotes (a) where the learning takes place (i.e., the classroom), (b) from whom the learning is received (i.e., the teacher), and (c) that it ends when the person steps out of the traditional classroom. I think shifting to the word learner also advances how we think about the people we instruct, whether they are 3 or 103. When we place an individual in the role of a learner, we begin to give them agency. When we position them as a student, they are beholden to us.

Suggesting the word learner versus student aligns with this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes because the main message Kate shares is her focus on learner agency. Giving students the power to take charge of their own learning. She firmly believes that learners with agency are stronger thinkers and doers. Kate isn’t alone. Teachers interviewed for this article by MindShift, an education radio show and podcast through KQED of Northern California, offer strategies and their reasons why they support learner agency.

Agency propels our learners forward as the designer of their own educational landscape. Within and beyond the classroom, gaining, understanding, and using agency allows learners to be the commander of their own lives rather than relying on others as the primary decision-makers. This is a learned process, though. Ideas like those shared by Kate and the teachers in the MindShift piece are a start. Another place to look is the literature on self-determination.

Self-determination came from the field of psychology, but made its way into educational psychology and special education. That latter field defines it as “a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults” (Field et al. 1998, p. 115). All learners need to obtain these skills, this knowledge, and these beliefs.

Sounds a lot like UDL, doesn’t it? That’s because self-determination is a concept woven throughout the UDL Framework. Specifically, you can find research linked to self-determination underlying the guidelines of Recruiting interest, Sustaining effort and persistence, and Self-Regulation within the Principle of Engagement.

Often misinterpreted as the ‘principle of entertainment’, the Principle of Engagement is rich with supports geared toward learners gaining skills like self-management, independent living skills, an internal locus of control, choice-making, decision-making, problem-solving, goal-setting and attainment, self-advocacy, self-efficacy, self-awareness and understanding, and self-evaluation and reinforcement (Algozzine et al, 2001), but leaners only gain these qualities if we design those opportunities into our lessons and learning environments. But where do you start?

Pieces like this one from the American Psychological Association get you started in your understanding, but this piece written by researchers at Vanderbilt ties together research and practice. Researchers asked administrators to think about learners with and without disabilities and their needs around acquiring self-determination skills. The results are eye opening (hint: importance is high, but how often the skills are taught is lower). I like this piece because it ties in example strategies for educators in each section.

Helping our learners gain agency is an incredibly important and layered goal. The fabulous news is that you can start anywhere within those concepts and skills related to self-determination and you’ll all be on your way. And guess what? It’s all woven into the Principle of Engagement! So, pull out those guidelines, dig into them to understand them deeply, and move forward! You’ll help guide your learners toward becoming expert learners who have agency.


Algozzine, B. Browder, D., Karvonen, M, Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2001). Effects of interventions to promote self-determination for individuals with disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 217-277.

Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A practical guide for teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.