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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the Two Types of Curriculum Standards

When designing instruction, best practice is to identify standards and then select curriculum and instructional strategies so all students can meet those standards. This process is one-part science and one-part art. The art is capturing your love of teaching, learning, and your students to design an engaging, rigorous curriculum that all students can access. The science of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and an understanding of the two different types of curriculum standards can help you be successful doing so. 

UDL is a framework that encourages educators to design curriculum so all students can be successful. To do this effectively, educators intentionally create learning experiences that incorporate the UDL Guidelines

Content Standards vs. Methods Standards

When looking at your standards—any K-8 standards, for that matter—you’ll notice that some require students to know something and some require them to do something.  To demonstrate, let’s examine the following two standards:

A. Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences (Common Core State Standards Language 1.a).

B. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence (Common Core State Standards Writing 9.10.1).

In example A, students need to know about phrases and clauses. They would need to identify definitions, understand usage, and be able to explain how to use both phrases and clauses in different types of sentences. 

When teaching such content standards, UDL directs you to differentiate your curriculum by providing choices about how students will learn the material and how they will express their knowledge. Students can watch videos, listen to lectures, work in groups, or read books and articles. The possibilities are endless. Once they have the knowledge, they can express it in countless ways.  In the example above, they can explain the function of phrases and clauses in a PowerPoint, in a children’s book or comic book, a skit, a Shakespearean sonnet, a string of Tweets, a rap, a mobile, an oral presentation, a traditional worksheet, or a writing prompt. 

Example B, on the other hand, requires students to write an argument.  They don’t have a choice about it—the standard allows no options such as creating a poster or making a video because it outlines a special action, or method, that students have to do. 

When teaching such methods standards, you won’t have as much freedom of choice when it comes to alternative ways of expressing knowledge. You can still represent the method using multiple means, but when it comes down to it, students have to provide you with a written argument. To teach this type of skill well, you can build graduated levels of support for practice and performance, provide rubrics and exemplars to help students develop a strategy for completing the method, and allow them to monitor their progress by receiving mastery-oriented feedback from you and their peers. 

The next time you look at your standards, think about which are content standards and which are method standards. Then, take a look at the UDL Guidelines and think about how you can leverage those teaching strategies to allow all students to internalize both the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in college, their chosen career, and in the world.  For more information on UDL, visit the CAST website HERE.

- Katie Novak

I am currently the Assistant Superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. With 17 years of teaching experience and an earned doctorate in curriculum and teaching, I design and present workshops both nationally and internationally focusing on teacher implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the Common Core. I am also the author of the best-selling book on inclusive education, UDL Now! (Cast Professional Publications, 2014)