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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
Home > Blog > UDL in 15 Minutes with Liz Hartmann: The Follow-Up

UDL in 15 Minutes with Liz Hartmann: The Follow-Up

Isn’t it funny how we interpret rigor throughout education? As Liz Hartmann points out during our podcast conversation, many educators fall into the trap of more, more, more. They pile on the reading assignments, projects, and things to do. Liz shares how they decided to add rigor by closely investigating the way they had students engaged with the content. Realizing that their desired amount of reading was occurring but the level of comprehension and subsequent application was not, the team turned to the UDL framework and challenged themselves to redesign how their learners were using the background knowledge as well as their learning strengths to gain new knowledge.

I want to break this down a little more, though. In the podcast, I comment that, “we’ve got some folks out there who unfortunately misinterpret UDL, and this concept of lowering barriers, and they see that as, “making things easier.”” When I hear that belief, I immediately know that the person does not understand the purpose of the framework. One way to show the difference in mindset is to provide comparison. In the table below, I’ve used the definition of rigor (from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary) that some might unfortunately bring into the classroom. Alongside each breakdown of the definition, I’ve written out the mindset of UDL and its intent.

Black and white photo of open dictionary on a table in a library
Dictionary by greeblie is CC by 2.0
Rigor (noun) UDL (noun); UDL implementation (verb)
Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement. Believing there must be an infiltration of flexibility within the design of learning environments so as to challenge students to become self-determined thinkers and decision-makers.
The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. The quality of recognizing, designing for, and implementing based on student variability.
An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty. The development of an environment upheld by neuro-science research which supports educators and learners acquiring and applying social-emotional learning.
A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable. An environment design that minimizes the level or threat a learner might feel, but supports the student to learn ways to mitigate or negotiate around those stressors in the future.

Instead of making things easier, when we have a better understanding of educational rigor and use the UDL framework to design our learning environment (e.g., the physical things and social-emotional structures present), we can truly move our learners toward rigorous learning. I like the way Robyn Jackson talks about rigor. When students have to (1) make meaning of things, (2) organize what they are learning in a way that makes sense to them, (3) figure out how small pieces and parts become part of a bigger process, and (4) then apply that new knowledge to other situations, they are doing something rigorous.

Linking back to the podcast, having students read 3 articles and watch 2 videos to understand a UDL guideline is not rigorous. Requiring students to share their interpretations as well as how they connect what they’ve learned to what they already know establishes a base for rigor. This is further amplified when the learners know they will receive feedback and assignments/challenges that push them further into the content and to connect that guideline to the entire UDL framework. Finally, they have to apply their knowledge of UDL to a new product, be it an app or the design of a future lesson. Instead of being pushed into the deep end and told to sink or swim (the falsehood of read+watch = understand), they have their choice of flotation device, swimming style, and beginning depth (the truth of guided goal-driven reading and watching = a new interpretation. Now, rinse and repeat). Ultimately, the learners know they are all moving toward the same goal in a rigorous way.