Student Choice in Assessment
“There is no reason not to use UDL. It is a really important tool to help give our students the best learning experiences” – Dr. Carol Johnson
Dr. Carol Johnson taught in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary before a recent move to the University of Melbourne last fall. She currently serves as an academic staff member in online learning and educational technology for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Regardless of the teaching discipline, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the core framework in her teaching. UDL is a pedagogical approach that aims to make learning accessible diverse student learning needs. This is done through multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. To learn more about UDL, the Taylor Institute Guide Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education provides background and information about UDL and its supportive framework for university classrooms.
Carol believes UDL is one of the most effective and important frameworks to support both students’ learning and their mental health. At the University of Calgary, she taught online courses as part of the online Master of Education (MEd) degree. Most of the 13-20 students in each of her classes were earning their degree while still working full-time as teachers in the K-12 system, post-secondary institutions, or other industries. Taking two online classes while working fulltime, these students had time demands that could lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. From this point of view, Carol’s use of UDL helped reduce this stress in students, as well as promote self-reflection.
Carol believes that the key to helping students feel supported is for them to build supportive relationships with their peers and instructors. This can be challenging in the online environment. To assist in the development of these support networks, Carol has found incorporating videos into the course very helpful. She uses videos to teach content, provide feedback, and as a form of student assessment.
In the first few weeks of Carol’s course, students were required to respond to discussion questions with at least one video response. Discussion questions were straightforward, inquiry-based questions related to readings. For example, in week one of a course, students read about the use of journal clubs in classrooms to facilitate discussions around academic papers. They were asked to make a video response to explore how a similar environment could be fostered in an online class. The question was simple enough that students felt comfortable sharing their answers with their peers in video form. As the course progressed, questions became more reflective on their practice which supported metacognitive skills. Questions scaffolded towards reflection on practical experiences and personal applications. For the remainder of the course, students had the option of either written or video responses.
Many students used the video format, as they found it enabled more room for creativity and expression. Some preferred video because it was quicker and easier to get their thoughts out by speaking rather than writing. Despite the popularity of the video format, Carol always gave students the option to either write or record their response, as some students did not want to appear on video for personal or cultural reasons.
Giving students extensive control over their assessments is a key part of UDL. Carol helped empower student learning by allowing multimedia (i.e. audio, text, and video) to be integrated into their assignments provided their relevance to the assignment, course objectives, and assessment rubrics. Clear rubrics helped students ensure that they answered assignment questions properly, no matter how they presented their work. Giving students options of how to express their knowledge and skills not only helps keep students engaged and interested in the course, but it can reduce anxiety. That is, students can draw on their strengths by incorporating things like original music, visuals, technology, or appropriate humor into their work. They do not feel forced to conform to one way of representing their learning. They also do not feel as worried about their grades when they can use their strengths and do things they know they can do well.
Understandably, some students still experienced stress during the course for various reasons, such as work-life balance, multiple assessments, and time management. To help students feel supported Carol used video announcements and synchronous video conferences. She provided weekly video announcements that provided updates, comments and reminders. These videos were her way to show her students that she supported them. She made sure that these videos were recorded as they were posted (as opposed to pre-recording videos for the entire semester beforehand) so that students got an authentic message that did not feel fake or forced. She even made herself available to speak with students over video if they needed to talk about assignments or just needed some instructor support to get through a particularly busy time. The use of videos was part of the learning experience, as opposed to a novelty tool.
Carol also provided assessment feedback to her students using video capture. Once assignments were submitted, she would use a screen capture tool to talk through assignment assessment. The tone of voice and body language she used helped students clarify the feedback they were receiving. During live video sessions, she was also able to use students’ visual and audio cues to see how they were reacting to comments and to check if they were exhibiting signs of anxiety or stress. She says that something as simple as looking directly into her camera to make eye-contact during a video conference can make a huge impact on how supported students feel.
Students became more comfortable using videos in their learning as the course progressed. Most were willing to share their personal reflections through videos because the online class environment was so supportive and encouraging. Trust had been established within the cohort. Many were surprised at how effective the video method was in helping them learn and develop self-reflection skills. Some also felt that it took less time to work on a video than on a written assignment, which decreased some of the time constraints that often resulted in feelings of stress. Some students, particularly those who taught at the secondary and post-secondary level, began to introduce video assignments into their own teaching practices because of their positive experience with videos.
It was noted that UDL methods are often “front-heavy” in terms of workload for instructors. It requires a lot of initial commitment to learn about, develop, and implement. However, as Carol mentioned, it becomes a natural part of one’s teaching practice over time. Student choice and UDL has become such a fundamental part of her teaching philosophy that it is now quicker and easier to introduce into a new course. She also has to spend less time updating and developing her courses each year.
Carol continues to use UDL in her courses at the University of Melbourne, and she is always encouraging her colleagues to integrate methods that fit within the UDL framework. She believes that it is part of an instructor’s job to share effective teaching and assessment methods so that the student experience can improve more and more. While making changes to one’s teaching can be challenging, she feels it is important to do so in order to meet students’ needs. As an advocate for UDL, Carol often tells fellow instructors that they have nothing to lose by introducing UDL methods into both online and face-to-face courses-only lots of learning to gain.
For more information on Carol’s research in the integration and adoption of multimedia into online classes using UDL, see the references below.
Johnson, C. (2017). Teaching music online: Changing pedagogical approach when moving to the online environment. London Review of Education, 15(3), 439–456. https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.15.3.08
Johnson, C. & Lock, J. (2018). Making Multimedia Meaningful: Outcomes of Student Assessment in Online Learning. In E. Langran & J. Borup (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1542-1549). Washington, D.C., United States: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/182733/.
Lock, J., & Johnson, C. (2018). Playing together: Designing Online Music Courses using a Social Constructivist Framework. In C. Johnson & V. Lamothe (Eds.), Pedagogy Development for Teaching Music Online. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-5109-6.ch009