In Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, I appreciated the authors' conceptualization of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an approach to meeting the ever-changing and diverse needs of learners by advocating "for a new way of framing our interactions with our learners" (1). Co-authors Thomas J. Tobin (a faculty associate on the Learning Design, Development & Innovation team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Kirsten T. Behling (director of student accessibility services at Tufts University) state in their first sentence: "Access. That's what this book is really all about" (1), distinguishing their conceptualization of UDL as an approach to creating inclusive access, not just for making accommodations. They argue that creating more access for everyone allows teachers, learners, and support staff to more easily and effectively achieve their goals.
Tobin and Behling begin chapter one by explaining that they build on the work that was formalized by the neuroscientists at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s. The authors borrow CAST's definition of UDL as "an approach to the creation of learning experiences and interactions that incorporates multiple means of engaging with content and people, representing information, and expressing skills and knowledge" (2). They also build their ideas from the earlier concept of Universal Design by providing the example of how curb cuts accommodate not just wheelchairs but also bicycles, shopping carts, and rolling luggage (3), and then they help us think through how we can apply this design to our interactions with learners. Throughout their book, Tobin and Behling repeatedly argue that "UDL is a way of thinking about creating the interactions that we have with our learners so that they do not have to ask for special treatment, regardless of the types of barriers they may face—time, connectivity, or disability" (130).
The authors make their book inclusive to anyone working in higher education, providing a chart of what chapters might be most useful to various campus stakeholders (e.g., compliance issues for administrators, assessment advice for instructors). Their audience includes faculty and teachers of all kinds, including staff of student services, campus leaders, and administrators who support teaching efforts. This is why I chose Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone for a campuswide summer reading group I was invited to co-facilitate through my university's teaching and learning center. This book choice attracted diverse faculty (administrators, professors) and staff (instructors, advisors), including teachers and administrators in Composition, Physical Therapy, Art History, Social Welfare, Nursing, Political Science, and Psychology as well as student support staff from the Student Success Center and Library Services.
In our reading group meetings throughout the summer, this book sparked fruitful discussion on how we can apply Tobin and Behling's ideas to our own contexts. When providing suggestions in chapter four for how teachers can apply UDL in twenty minutes, twenty days, and twenty months, the authors give us helpful questions to help identify what they call "pinch points" where previous students have expressed confusion, questions, and struggles (118). The authors constantly advocate for providing different multimodal learning options to increase student engagement, and yet, they are careful not to overwhelm readers by pushing them to completely overhaul their courses over one summer. Instead they break down the process and help us consider options through the "Plus-one Approach" by asking us important questions, such as "Is there just one more way that you can help keep learners on task, just one more way that you could give them information, just one more way that they could demonstrate their skills?" (134). To demonstrate this approach, the authors provide many helpful anecdotes of how other teachers have implemented UDL. For example, they describe how one professor captioned and posted lecture videos and then surveyed his students' attitudes toward captioning. He found 92 percent of his students actively used the captions, and while only 1 percent reported working with the university's disability services office, 13 percent said they identified as having a disability and had not yet registered (30). This example clearly illustrates how multiple modes of learning can be helpful to all students, a core concept of UDL.
The summer reading group also discussed Tobin and Behling's suggestions for assessment, a relatable source of stress for both students and teachers. The authors position UDL as reliant on the concept of "construct relevance" to ensure that we are actually assessing students on the objectives we want them to accomplish (179). This means providing assessment choices with measurable objectives that match what we want students to learn (e.g., assessing students' practical applications of learning instead of assessing students' recall of information on an exam if we're not really intending to assess them on their timed test taking skills). The authors include a helpful example of "construct relevance" by describing how an instructor allowed his students to read, listen, or watch To Kill a Mockingbird, providing his students choices of how to experience the book since "knowledge construction and analysis were the stated learning objective for the unit," not reading skills (27). This instructor's UDL approach was successful because he tied the choices given to learners directly to the learning goals and interactions (27). The summer reading group agreed that this book pushes us to make more reflective and purposeful choices in our pedagogy to teach and assess a wide range of learners instead of just teaching how we were taught.
Another part of this book the reading group and I found particularly helpful is when Tobin and Behling include an anecdote about an instructor's "UDL awakening" accompanied by a visual example of his UDL-transformed assignment sheet. When the instructor was asked to accommodate a student with a vision impairment by making his photography course materials in larger font, he ended up identifying a "pinch point" for all students in one of his assignment sheets that was packed with small, dense text. He decided to use UDL to transform this assignment for all students by using 16-point font and by adding illustrations and screen captures to the instructions, demonstrating an example of the "Plus-one Approach." His students were able to complete the assignment twice as quickly as before with less trouble (214-5). While the summer reading group appreciated this visual example, we wanted more examples of these transformations and more of these examples in multimodal formats, like the ones CAST provides in their book Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice.
At our last reading group discussion of the summer, all participants articulated how Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone influenced them to revise their practices and interactions with students. This book also inspired significant discussions that helped to shift group members' perceptions of what constitutes ableist assumptions of "good" writing, participation, fairness, and rigor, and I suggested Margaret Price's work on student mental health and Asao Inoue's work on inclusive, anti-racist assessment for further reading. Discussing this book with a diverse group helped me think through accessibility in different contexts, sparking new ways of conceptualizing and creating inclusive access.
I especially applaud Tobin and Behling's emphasis on making UDL a campuswide effort, which is helpful to my own work of including UDL to create a culture of access in higher education. They even include suggestions for creating UDL teams with goals and agendas. Perhaps most significantly, the authors also encourage readers to collect and use feedback from students on how the components of UDL are working for them. I frequently read work that neglects to include this important part of the UDL cycle, and I appreciate how pointedly the authors emphasize this practice since effective UDL needs to be user-responsive.
I was already an advocate for UDL as a pedagogical approach before reading this book, but the authors have pushed me and my colleagues to think about it in collaborative and innovative ways that I know will create more effective teaching and learning across higher education contexts.