Skip to content

Universal Design for Learning for Deaf Students

Dr. Christina Yuknis, an associate professor at Gallaudet University, discusses Universal Design for Learning in a hearing classroom for deaf children.
Click here to show & hide the transcript with descriptions

[DESCRIPTION: A woman wearing a black dress stands in front of a green background with various slides and images on the top right corner, signing the following paragraphs.]

Welcome to this webinar on Universal Design for Learning UDL presented by me, Dr. Christina Yuknis. I’m an associate professor in the department of education at Gallaudet University. I used to teach middle school students with a variety of learning challenges. Currently I teach college students who want to become teachers, many of whom also have learning challenges. My research focuses on supporting diverse learners at all stages of their education career.

You may be wondering what Universal Design for Learning, UDL for short means. UDL is a concept that the education world has borrowed from architecture. In architecture Universal Design means that buildings and spaces are created in a way that reduces barriers and allows use by the widest range of individuals. Two examples of universal design in architecture are ramps and automatic doors. Ramps can be used by people in wheelchairs, people with strollers, people on bikes and people with luggage. The image here shows an example of a set of stairs with a ramp integrated into the design. Automatic doors have the benefit of allowing people who use wheelchairs or walkers to enter a building without having to fuss with a button or a door handle. The barriers of door handles are even awkwardly positioned buttons or anything that calls out a person is different are removed by the simple design of having automatically opening doors.

So educators saw this concept universal design reducing barriers and allowing use by the widest range of individuals and decided that it could be a useful way to think about how we design educational experiences for students. They identified three types of barriers; the way that classrooms are set up, the curriculum being taught and the methods used to teach the curriculum. Barriers in the physical space include having room for students who use wheelchairs or walkers to navigate which is what most people think of. However there are other physical barriers such as how furniture is arranged, what type of furniture are present in the classroom such as couches beanbags, only hard surfaces that just chairs or tables and the design and the tone of the classroom. Is it warm and welcoming or is it cold and scary? Barriers in the curriculum includes standards, goals and objectives for which students are not prepared or have gaps in their background knowledge. Perhaps the pacing of the curriculum, it’s too fast and students can’t keep up or it’s too slow and students are bored. Basically how students are supported in learning the content. Barriers and the methods are related to the strategies teachers use. For example many teachers at the secondary and post-secondary levels use only lectures and tests. This approach is not effective for many students and thus if it is your only instructional method then there are barriers to learning for many students in your class. These barriers need to be removed in order to promote access to learning for students in your classroom just as universal design principles are applied right at the beginning of the process for creating a new building your space.

UDL principles are applied at the beginning of planning for an instructional unit. UDL has three principles; multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression We will go more in depth on the principles in a moment but I want to discuss a bit about the neuroscience behind the UDL principles. There are three primary learning processes that occur and they are generally mapped onto where they take place in the brain. Keep in mind this is an overview of the science and that all the parts of the brain work together so the first is that in order to learn the affective part of the brain must be ready. Why am i learning this, what is the purpose, what does it mean, that a person is motivated and interested in learning. Think about a time you were not interested in a topic you were supposed to be learning, how much did you get from that? The same is true for our students. The affective part of learning connects in the center area of the brain. Here’s a fun trick if you make a fist with your hand then you have a mini brain. The affective part is in the middle here. The second learning process is through recognition. What is it that I’m learning? How do I perceive and use this knowledge? This is where we learn the core details of the content in order to do this. It needs to be presented in a way that is comprehensible. The recognition part of learning generally happens in the back part of the brain. Of your hand brain, it is the large part. The third learning process is strategic. How should I go about this task, how am i doing on my goals, how can I get there? This is where we use strategies and processes to guide how we work. The strategic part of learning generally happens in the front part of the brain. On your hand brain, it is the smaller section. It’s small but important. UDL takes each of these learning processes and aligns them to a principle to capture the why of learning. The affective part, there is multiple means of engagement to capture the what of learning. The recognition part, there is multiple means of representation and to capture the how of learning. The strategic part, there is multiple means of action and expression. Let’s dig into these three principles and how they can be applied in a classroom. Each principle has three guidelines and each guideline has multiple checkpoints. We will not go in depth on each of the checkpoints here, so please check out the resources presented at the end of this presentation to learn more.

Multiple means of engagement means that we need to try two different ways of motivating students and grabbing their interest in the content. What interests one student may not interest another. It’s the same with motivation, what gets one student excited and engaged is not the same as for another student. Some of the things that might influence this are culture, personal relevance and background knowledge. Some students respond well to spontaneity and novelty while others may prefer routines that help them predict the day. Some students prefer working alone while others are more made motivated by group work or interacting with peers. Since you cannot plan to meet all of these needs and learning preferences simultaneously, it is important to provide multiple ways to engage students through the unit. The three guidelines under multiple means of engagement are recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence and self-regulation. Recruiting interest is where you try to capture students attention or interest in learning. This can be done through several different ways such as offering choice in activities providing different levels of challenge allowing students to participate in setting goals or outcomes, making activities relevant to student lives and interests or offering varying levels of novelty or routine. One strategy that teachers used to recruit interest is to provide something called an activity menu. Some are themed to restaurants where you can choose an appetizer, entrée and dessert. Some are offered as a tic-tac-toe game and others are just a list of items. Regardless of how the menu is set up, the basic idea is still the same. Students are given a list of activities that they use to select their work activity. Menus may have different parts with different tasks to be completed or it may just be one thing that they need to complete. You can have one required with other choices, for others it’s up to you. Sustaining effort and persistence is where students pursue goals with a purpose. This can be accomplished by providing opportunities for working with different types of groups from a group of one independent to larger types of collaborative groups, keeping a focus on the goal to be achieved, providing varying levels of challenge and resources, providing different levels of scaffolding as needed emphasizing process and effort over products and providing frequent feedback that is specific to students and their goals. One strategy that teachers used to promote sustaining effort and persistence is to use a jigsaw method. Jigsaw is a form of cooperative learning where students become experts on one concept and have an opportunity to teach others that concept. How it works is this, you notice in the picture, there are four circles each is a different color, so each student is assigned to work in a small group and they will explore a concept in depth that could be a vocabulary word, close reading of a particular text or an individual concept that is part of a larger framework and they complete an activity or goal. After students work in their expert groups they then move to a generalist group that has at least one person from each of the expert groups. If you notice in the picture the bigger circle has different part different colors that represent the expert people they then have a second task to complete where each student has an opportunity to share and instruct what they learned in their expert group. Jigsaw allows students to see content in smaller chunks and gives them opportunities to share in collaborative groups. The last guideline in this section is self-regulation. In this guideline strategies are aimed at getting students to participate in their own learning and increase emotional investment in their own growth this can be done by providing feedback to students on their progress and helping them understand their performance. Teaching strategies for managing and coping with frustration and other emotions providing support for personal goal-setting and using coaching and modeling to demonstrate use of strategies. One strategy that teachers used to self-regulate is to ask students to self monitor using a set of criteria in checklist or rubric form. Students can respond to questions about their progress to the goal and the effort they have sustained. For example I completed my research and I’m ready to start drafting or I focused on my work the entire period, students rate themselves then the teacher meets with the student to review the self monitoring tool and discuss the answers. The discussion is not whether the answers are right or wrong, it is not evaluative in nature. It focuses on growth, is the student accurate in their self-assessment? If not, why were they rushing to mark answers or do they not see how they are performing? Maybe they need support to recognize more accurately how they are doing through discussion. Students can learn to improve their self-awareness and identify what steps they can take to improve. The objective of this strategy is to help students learn to identify where they are in terms of achieving their goals and in knowing what they can do to improve how to better self assess.

The second principle of UDL we will discuss is multiple means of representation. Once the student’s interest and motivation are peaked, they are ready to begin learning the content. Students perceive and comprehend information differently and as such content must be provided using a variety of methods. For example students may not be able to hear content and will need visual access or they may not be able to see graphics so auditory or tactile methods will need to be provided. Students may have linguistic or cultural differences that require different ways of explaining or making connections. The three guidelines under multiple means of representation are perception, language and symbols and comprehension. Perception means that information is presented using multiple senses so that students can access the method best for them. This includes providing alternatives to auditory information, providing alternatives for visual information and offering ways to customize display of information. Strategies for this guideline include providing captions to videos, offering alternative text on images and graphics. If you notice the picture on the right shows text when you hover over the image. The image itself is an F but when you hover, it shows Facebook so it’s clear for a person using a screen reader and providing materials such as slide decks or documents ahead of time in a way that allows a user to change the background or resize it. The language and symbols guideline refers to ensuring that important terms and symbols use in class are explicitly clarified and represented in different ways for students. Again students arrive to classes with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, their understanding of concepts will be different from your own. One of my favorite examples to illustrate this idea is a video of a little girl going through flashcards of numbers. She sees each card and says the number 1 2 3 etc until she gets to what is number 11. The way it is written on the card is just 2 downward lines parallel to each other. The girl says pause instead of 11, when her parents try to correct her. She insists it is pause. No it’s 11. No its pause and when you really think about it the symbol for pausing of recording looks just like an 11, so the girl used her own experience with technology and applied it to the symbol. So just be aware of that type of situation. Strategies to promote clear understanding of language and symbols include using multimedia pre-teaching vocabulary or symbols. Highlighting the simpler parts of complex words or symbols making connections to previously learned content explicitly noting relationships between concepts using key term lists allowing text-to-speech for decoding presenting important concepts in dominant language as well as in first language such as English and ASL here and using visual and non linguistic supports for concepts. One approach that teachers used to pre-teach vocabulary which can also embed non linguistic and visual supports is the Frayer model. The Frayer model is a graphic organizer where the vocabulary word or concept is placed in the middle. You notice in my picture the middle has a concept. There are four sections to be completed, the top left is a definition of the term, the top right is a list of characteristics or facts related to the term, the bottom left is a list of examples that can be visual linguistic or even video and the bottom right is a list of non-examples. The Frayer model activates prior knowledge, builds in-depth knowledge of the concept and allows flexibility for how the student represents their understanding because you can use pictures, videos, words and any language. The last guideline in multiple means of representation is comprehension which is teaching students how to get information and make it into usable knowledge. This should be done in ways that support information processing ways to achieve this include providing or activating background knowledge explicitly noting connections to other learning. Highlighting key information or patterns, illustrating concepts using examples and non-examples and linking previous skills to novel problems promoting generalization of skills model and guide each step of processes to be learned chunking information into smaller elements. Providing scaffolds and removing unnecessary distractions or tasks this is a big guideline and one that is really important to promoting student learning. One approach that teachers used to support comprehension is to use a three to one summary. In this activity students are asked to list three new things they learned, two interesting facts and one lingering question. The question prompts can be modified to fit any concept. For example students could be asked to name three things they learned, write two sentences using a new vocabulary word and ask one question or they could draw a picture showing three parts of the body identifying two systems and writing one sentence about how they work together. The possibilities are endless here, the important thing is that students have an opportunity to make connections and demonstrate comprehension.

The final principle of UDL is multiple means of action and expression. This principle centers on how students demonstrate what they have learned. Some students are good test takers and perform well on them whereas others have test anxiety and yet others may have linguistic barriers that make doing well on a test challenging. Some students can explain what they know verbally or demonstrate their skills in practice where some students prefer to write it down as such students need to have a range of opportunities to show and express what they know and can do. The guidelines in this principle are physical action, expression and communication and executive functions. Physical action refers to how students can physically interact with tools and materials. Students have different levels of motor skills and motor planning so tools and materials need to allow for this. How do you do this well? Maybe some students are slow to move and need longer to respond or click or they click the wrong thing and need to go back. Is there an option for that offering alternatives to paper and pencil responses such as typing or voice to text, using varied or customized keyboards and using a switch or a joystick instead of a mouse. Expression and communication is to allow students to compose and share their ideas using a range of methods. This includes using multimedia, creating multimedia presentations, offering scaffolds such as sentence starters or graphic organizers, providing calculators or speech to text tools, offering different strategies to achieve the same result and using differentiated mentors who can offer support in different ways that might match the student better. One teaching strategy that can be used is to have students create posters summaries. Posters summaries are visual representations of a concept in reading. Posters can be used to summarize a text instead of writing a book report in science. Posters are used to share results from labs instead of writing the lab report. In math posters can show the steps used to solve a complex problem. Instead of completing a worksheet in social studies posters can show relationships or cause an effect of complex events. The executive functions guidelines supports students in making plans to achieve a goal and following through on those plans. In this area support is provided to students in setting appropriate goals determining how to achieve the goals through identifying smaller benchmarks or chunks estimating the time needed to accomplish the goal or each benchmark, using checklists to monitor progress, providing models and demonstrations of the reflection and self monitoring processes supporting organizational skills and providing opportunities for self-advocacy. One strategy that can be used is to teach students how to use Cornell notes. Cornell notes is a specific note taking strategy that requires students to identify the main points of a concept, identify a key word to trigger a recall of those main points then synthesize those points into a single sentence summary. There are a number of variations on the Cornell note system but these are the basics. The paper is often set up in a specific way, for example on the right, there is a big column where you put down the big ideas, the small column on the left is for key words to remember the big ideas and a space at the bottom for the summary or synthesis. Students can then study the notes by covering up the large notes section and using the key words to recall the main points and they can ask themselves, why is this important, how does this fit into what I already know, how can I use this information?

So this is UDL in a nutshell. To review, you want to minimize instructional barriers to the maximum extent possible using multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation and multiple means of action and expression. Here are some resources for you to use to get started on your own UDL journey. Thanks for watching!

Dr. Christina Yuknis is an associate professor at Gallaudet University.  She currently serves as the President for the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf and is a founding member of the ASCD Emerging Leader Alumni Affiliate.  Dr. Yuknis’ teaching focuses primarily on special education law and practices, education policy and politics, and field experience supervision and seminar. Her research interests include teacher preparation, specifically in areas of diversity (including disability), and teaching children receiving special education services.


Dr. Yuknis discusses Universal Design for Learning in a hearing classroom for deaf children. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that gives all students equal opportunity to learn. A teacher designs flexible learning experiences with flexible means, methods, and materials to meet the needs of individual learners, especially those who are deaf.

How will you improve your classroom using Universal Design for Learning strategies for deaf students?


View the Presentation (This link leads to the slides shown in the video.)


How did you like this webcast? 1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)


Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

More Webcasts to Explore