Universal Design for Learning: EDUC 430

Learning Partnerships and Discussion of Assessments

“A big part of making the student experience great is opening up the decisions we are making” – Dr. Amy Burns

Background

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) acknowledges that every learner has different strengths, so in order to best promote learning for everyone, a variety of opportunities and styles of assessment should be used. In EDUC 430, Pragmatics of Learning and Teaching, Dr. Amy Burns uses UDL by giving students a series of different assignments throughout the semester. UDL is commonly used in the K-12 school system, so it is valuable for the pre-service teachers taking the class to see it in action. In the past the assignments for this course include reading response cards, an annotated lesson plan, a group teaching assignment and a photo essay. These are all very different assessments but all of them have specific reasons for inclusion in the course. Dr. Burns makes sure all of her students know and understand these reasons.

Strategy

Teaching in the Werklund School of Education is a unique experience because students are not just learning from the course content. They are studying to become teachers, so how content is presented and assessed is just as important. Instructors have to ensure that their pedagogical methods are transparent to students in order for them to learn from their experience.

In EDUC 430, this transparency starts on the very first day of class, when Dr. Burns dissects the course outline. It is extensive, and it contains all of the information about the course and the assessments. All of the assignments, rubrics and expectations are presented, along with an explanation of their importance. Students have to understand what the point of the assessment is in order for them to see the value. They can come up with high quality work when they understand how it is helping them develop the skills they will need in their profession.

For example, one of the assignments in the course is Reading Reflection Cards. Students are given a question and use evidence from assigned reading, as well as other relevant sources to answer and reflect on it. The course outline contains a rubric, which explains how their grades will be assigned and what the expectations are. It also contains an explanation of its relevance.

“First, they will prompt students to link the scholarship of teaching and learning to the pragmatics of teaching and learning.  Second, they will provide students with a useful summary of the course conversations and readings to be used in other assignments.  Third, they will allow students to gradually improve their abilities with academic reflection.” – Taken from EDUC 430 Course Outline, Fall 2016

This shows students that the assessment is not meaningless and that the skills it requires are important. They have to demonstrate understanding and make connections between literature, class discussions and their own perceptions. Critical analysis of personal opinions is important in teacher education, because everyone has a unique experience as a student that have informed these beliefs. Through these reading reflections, students have the opportunity to challenge their opinions in order to transition from student to teacher.

Outcomes

Students give a lot of positive feedback about the course and the assessment methods. Students appreciate being explicitly told why they have to do something. Even if there was an assignment that they did not enjoy or that was different to their learning style, they could see why it was used and its importance. They see the links between what they want to get out of the course and what they are doing. This helps to get them thinking about how they will design assessments in their own careers.

Dr. Burns admits that because her students are pre-service teachers, she is able to focus a lot of time and energy on explaining relevance and thought behind her assessments and other teaching strategies as part of the course. This does not mean that transparency is less important in other disciplines. It is important that students understand the expectations and motivation for the assessment, regardless of the subject or level. When students understand why they have to do something, they see the value and put in the effort.

-Ashley Weleschuk