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UDL in 15 Minutes with Kyanne Obrock and Carrie McSwain

Using UDL to Find Flexibility within Specificity

Toward the end of my conversation with Kyanne Obrock and Carrie McSwain, they talked about the conundrum of required summative and formative assessments. We all know that most of the time, those required assessments aren’t designed with flexibility in mind. Often, they are in a fixed format and that means they have inherent barriers.

For example, the assessments might: be text-based, require the students to complete the assessment in a certain amount of time, end abruptly after the student has made a certain number of errors, or only be provided in a single language. All of those are potential barriers. In addition, any barrier can be experienced as an academic, emotional, or physical barrier. That experience depends on the individual’s interaction with the barrier.

The table below lays out barriers that learners might experience when taking a fixed assessment. The left column lists the characteristics often seen in fixed assessments and the right column lists the barriers associated with the characteristics.

Assessment characteristics Naming the barriers
Text-only Single language, font style, font size, font color, color contrast, color of graphics, the layout
Time limited Timed assessments
Frequency of error After X-number of errors, the assessment ends. The student doesn’t have the opportunity to go back to an earlier question and change their answer
Language Single language

We know that the barrier is what the individual experiences and the barrier is in the environment. That point of view aligns with the social model that stems from the disability community. When we design, create, and plan based on the social model versus the medical model, we look at the environment first and try our best to lower any and all barriers for all learners. That way, we’re immediately welcoming in more and more learners from the beginning. When we seek a diagnosis or analyze the individual’s needs, we shift to the medical model.

This is a tough thing, though, when we’re faced with fixed assessments. Removing diagnostic assessments from this conversation (i.e., assessments that are validated and are designed to diagnose or categorize learners), fixed assessments are, well, fixed. So how do we add in flexibility?

Let’s go back to the three areas we think about when designing for access: academic, emotional, and physical. What can be done that does not alter the assessment but allows the learner to demonstrate their knowledge and skills? If there is any room for negotiation, apply these ideas.

Academic: Ask the what the goal of the assessment is. Is there another barrier you can lower that isn’t directly aligned with the goal? For example, if the goal is to test comprehension, reading the text out loud does not affect the goal. If the goal is to test the application of an algorithm, having the student verbally explain the steps does not affect the goal.

Emotional: If you are involved with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), then you know that it is extremely important to support learners’ emotional connection to learning. When it comes to emotions and assessments, there are lots resources that discuss things like lowering test anxiety and coping with test anxiety for high schoolers, but there are also tools for middle school students and elementary aged students. These can be powerful supports and are useful at any time and for any learner. When emotional access isn’t supported, that becomes a barrier.

Physical: Any kind of physical barrier that is associated with any assessment should be addressed regardless of the assessment, but there are many ways to think about physical access that don’t alter the assessment. Also, we often think of physical barriers based on the individual, but everything from writing utensils to seating affects all learners. For example, if the assessment requires the use of a writing utensil, something as low-tech as a pencil grip can lower that barrier. If the placement of the desk makes a difference for the learner, then move that desk! If sitting on a different type of surface makes the learner more comfortable and less distracted, pull up that ball chair! It should be obvious that assistive technology should be made available to all learners who can benefit from it, but think about your entire environment. How do your learners physically interact with the assessments you give? What senses are they using? Could any of those interactions be a barrier to their successful participation?

Finally, asking your students what works for them is a great place to start. It’s also the most student-centered way to gather and apply the information. Fixed assessments are a tough part of any educational environment, but there’s usually a way to provide some level of flexibility. And when you do that, guide your students to see what you did in your design. This helps them discover what works well for them and how they can advocate for themselves. You are helping them continue their journey as an expert learner.