UDL and the Call to Remove All Barriers to Learning in AP

Much ado about nothing?

At my school‘s monthly UDL training, we have learned that UDL (aka Universal Design Learning) can best be defined as an educational framework that calls for the removal of barriers to learning.

In other words, asserts our trainer, UDL calls for the creating of a curriculum that provides learners with various ways to:

  • Demonstrate what they know.
  • Tap into learners’ interests

This training has resulted in me asking myself (and at the same time wanting to ask all AP teachers) the following questions:

Regarding the question of summer assignments:

  • To what extent do you require the students who have been admitted to your course to work on one or more summer assignments?
  • To what extent do you view summer assignments as “in the spirit of UDL”?

Regarding the organizational structure of your course:

  • To what extent have you aligned your course with the CED’s “Unit Guides?”
  • To what extent do you require your students to know more than what College Board’s CED requires students to know?
  • To what extent do you view your course’s organizational structure as “in the spirit of UDL?”

Regarding the pacing of your course:

  • To what extent do you follow the CED’s pacing guide?
  • To what extent do you view the pacing guide that you’re employing as “in the spirit of UDL?”

Regarding your course’s unit tests:

  • To what extent do you provide your students with various ways of acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to do well on the unit tests?
  • To what extent do you hold your students accountable for the watching of the unit-relating AP Daily videos and the answering of the AP Daily video-relating Topic Questions?
  • To what extent do you provide your students, before every unit test, with a chance to answer the Progress Check MCQs and FRQs?
  • To what extent do you provide your students with unit-ending alternatives for demonstrating what they know?

Regarding your unit test retake policy:

  • Do you provide your students with a chance to take a unit test retake?
  • To what extent do you limit the number of students who may take a retake? Do you, for example, allow a student who earned a B+ on a unit test to take a retake?
  • Do you require students wanting to take a retake to present, on the day of the retake, a “retake room entry ticket,” with this entry ticket to describe in detail the specific things that a student did to get ready for the retake (amount of time spent studying, test corrections, etc.)?

Regarding your grading practices:

  • What do you do with the unit test score and the retake scores? Average the two together and place them in the grade book? Only place the higher score in the grade book? And what do you do if the retake score is lower than the original test score?
  • To what extent do you add elements other than content understanding into grading?
  • To what extent do you report opaque scores like “Quiz 4B: 71?

Regarding your course’s final exam

  • To what extent do you require the students, whose unit test scores suggest that they have mastered the content, to take a “high stakes” AP-style, final exam before the May exam?
  • To what extent do you require the students, whose test scores suggest that they have not yet mastered the content but who are satisfied with the grade they are receiving, to take a “high stakes” AP-style, final exam before the May exam?

Regarding project-based learning:

  • How do you define project-based learning?
  • To what extent do you provide your students with one or more project-based learning opportunities?
  • To what extent do you provide your students with an opportunity to tap into their interests?
  • To what extent do you view project-based learning as “in the spirit of UDL”?

Regarding your note-taking policy

  • To what extent do you require that notes be taken without the use of a laptop?

Regarding UDL and AP:

_____

Post Publication Sidenote

Since publishing what appears above, I’ve asked a number of educators: Do you believe that the call for UDL in AP is much ado about nothing?

Below, a representative sampling of the responses I’ve received.

From Dr. Katie Novak

Dr. Novak is an internationally renowned education consultant, author, graduate instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Massachusetts. She is also the creator of two very good UDL-relating Youtube videos: What is UDL? and Why Implement UDL?

“I firmly believe that all places where learning happens should be universally designed including AP classes because more students should have access to advanced coursework and those students in those courses need to think critically about their learning needs and recognize there are multiple ways to reach the same rigorous goals. UDL is about embracing variability and differences, holding strong to firm goals, and creating flexible means so that all students can learn more about themselves as learners — or become expert learners in UDL. The alternative is that students are excluded from advanced coursework because the one way is not the best way for them.

I was an English teacher so it is the subject I know best. As an example, students need to be exposed to an incredible amount of text in AP Lang. Providing students with options to read some of the texts in hard copy, access ebooks and/or listen to Audible versions is an example of UDL. Before writing a response to text, you can provide options for students to explore exemplars, create graphic organizers, create outlines and/or write or type first drafts. That would also be an example of UDL. Asking for students for feedback about what is working and what they need support with and then creating options to support them is UDL.

So if anyone is struggling with the question of whether UDL applies to PBL, my best advice would be to learn more about UDL!

I am an Instructor at UPenn which offers incredibly advanced coursework and I UDL the heck out of my courses.”

From Michael C. Ralph

Michael is a former AP Biology teacher and CB Consultant, a member of the team that created the AP Insight program, and a master teacher with the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Kansas. Michael is also the author of the 2021 Edutopia article How Universal Design for Learning Can Help With Lesson Planning This Year.

I think a call for increased application of the UDL framework in AP course design is needed as one of multiple steps that can remove barriers to participation in challenging coursework for students. UDL is built from a fundamental recognition that variability exists across all of humanity, and any group of learners will have a breadth of learning needs. Many classrooms stand to benefit from a greater variety of learning options and an increase in the affordance of autonomy to learners, and AP classrooms are no exception. I’ll emphasize that the UDL framework is something we apply within our pedagogy; we reconsider elements like our grading, our collaboration techniques, and our content creation through the UDL lens. From this standpoint, UDL is an opportunity to reconsider “how” we do our particular AP discipline, and I have found it pushes me to learn about making my instruction more accessible while simultaneously pushing me to expand my definition of what it means to “do science.”

From Various AP Teachers

  • I think that UDL is primarily for the benefit of the special education student and since there are no special education students in my AP classes, UDL, for me, is much ado about nothing.
  • If your tests consist of MCQs, SAQs, LEQs, and DBQs, you’re already doing UDL. Giving students different types of assignments to show mastery, that’s all UDL is.
  • UDL is nothing more than an attempt to answer the question: how many different ways can I teach the content?” Since I use readings, videos, projects, music, art, etc., I’m already doing UDL.
  • Isn’t this just another way of saying learning styles? If so, from what I have read recently, that whole movement has been debunked.
  • UDL is not about learning styles (which have been discredited over the years). It is about purposely creating instructional material and assessments that are accessible. And that doesn’t mean making things easier. That’s a common misconception.
  • UDL asks teachers to allow students to demonstrate their mastery of content in a way that best showcases their talents, but the AP exam does not allow for students to do this, as it has a very specific way students must demonstrate mastery. Hence there’s no real place for UDL in AP.
  • UDL is just another name for differentiated instruction.
  • In its simplest form, UDL means that teachers, textbook authors, website developers, etc. are thinking about the assignment/text/whatever in terms of making it as accessible as possible from the beginning. Honestly, it can be as simple as making directions bold or as elaborate as allowing alternative forms of assessment.
  • UDL is just one more way for a company offering professional development to make money . . . and this by having us all redo what we have been doing for years.
  • One of my AP students this year has a learning plan with accommodations and he has told me that the AP Daily videos have helped him learn the content better than my in-class lectures have helped him to learn the content since, with the videos, he can pause, rewind, and play again. That said, I’m guessing the AP Daily videos probably would probably prove of great benefit to many other students too, even the high achieving student. Tools that reduce barriers to learning are good for all students.
  • I’m not a UDL expert, and admittedly I think about it less with my AP classes, but UDL has helped me to recognize that many students benefit from the “stuff” normally only offered to students with IEP’s.
  • I’m not particularly familiar with UDL but the prioritizing of making everything “accessible” (which in practice generally means “easier to get high grades on”) situates the student in the center and forces content to come to the student, rather than making the student come to the content. The result is the pretense of intellectual growth that fulfills school learning objectives on paper while leaving students profoundly handicapped after graduation.
  • UDL is what us old fogies call, “teaching”. It means helping kids to understand the important concepts when they don’t get them the first time around. It means teaching multiple logical approaches to thinking through a particular problem-solving strategy. It means being flexible about grading, and giving partial credit. It means presenting course material in multiple formats, not just what the instructor is “used to”.

From Dr. Kimberly Coy

Dr. Coy is a Fresno State University Associate Professor and an expert in inclusive education, specifically using the lens of Universal Design for Learning in digital environments. She has done research and published extensively in this area.

I was surfing “the Insta” this morning and came across this article about a zero-gravity research flight with people with physical disabilities. This was a happy start to my day. As a committed Star Trek fan, as well as a teacher, scholar, and researcher who incorporates the UDL framework every day I was thrilled, and then frustrated.

Thrilled because it’s about damn time someone executed on this, I mean really. In zero gravity, in a spaceship, being “disabled” physically is a non-issue. It was an excellent example of how disability is only within a specific context. I mean, if the earth was completely covered with water, and I was not able to hold my breath at all, I would be considered disabled. Context.

Frustrated because when Peter reached out to me for comment on UDL in AP classrooms he gave me an example of how one AP teacher said that UDL was a non-issue for her because she did not have students with disabilities in her classroom because they did not qualify for AP classes. I wondered what would she think of the research of people with disabilities in zero-gravity?

So, for AP, UDL, CER, and other education-specific letters there is one bottom line for me: What are the structures in which we operate? What structures exist that mostly white students who easily interact with text are in AP courses? And how do educators push into and against these systems? If using a framework based in solid research on neuroscience and how humans think works, then yes, I’m going to advocate for using it.

The barriers in education are real, and these barriers are based in the society in which these barriers were constructed. I posit that it’s every educator's job to bust these down with purpose. Make it so.

From Dr. Elise Yerkey

Dr. Yerkey is a UDL Implementation Specialist and an LA County Office of Education Inclusive Literacy by Design Coordinator

To deny that there is a place for Universal Design for Learning in AP courses, would be to deny the variability of students in those classes. Your prompt raises a couple of questions for me: 1) Do we operate in a system that tends to limit access to college pathways for certain groups of students (e.g., English Learners, students with disabilities, etc.)? 2) How can we eliminate the barriers to those pathways so they are inclusive and equitably accessible?

One of the ways to prepare students for a 21st-century world is to use the resources and technology that make learning possible. Consider a student who qualified for special education services for a reading disability who scored at the 99th percentile in spatial reasoning on psycho-educational assessments. Should we deny access to upper-level math and science courses for this exceptional student because we can’t offer universally designed options for her to access content in modalities other than written text? UDL in AP classes and other specialized programs increases access for all students and reduces barriers that violate students’ civil rights.

With the above said, here are some resources that AP teachers may find useful:

From Dr. Kavita Rao

Dr. Rao is a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Hawai‘i, College of Education. Her research agenda includes technology-based instructional strategies for the K-12 classroom, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive education for diverse students (including students with disabilities and culturally and linguistically diverse students.) Dr. Rao is also the author of the 2019 book UDL for Language Learners.

UDL-based design is as relevant to AP courses as to any other pedagogical undertaking. UDL can be applied to courses, programs, lessons, and learning environments. Although the principles and guidelines of UDL look familiar and consistent with practices teachers already do (e.g., differentiation and other initiatives to make learning more flexible), UDL focuses on proactive and intentional design with consideration of learner variability.

Whatever content/skills are being addressed, UDL focuses on considering learner variability in the classroom and then making instructional design decisions to address that variability. Learner variability includes students’ preferences/interests, backgrounds/experiences, strengths/abilities, and support needs. Learner variability is the norm in all classrooms and UDL is not limited to serving any particular type of student and is relevant for all learners.

As an instructional design framework, UDL can be used to proactively reduce barriers in the context of any learning experience. Using the UDL Design Cycle, teachers can build in flexibility to specifically support learners in relation to specific lesson goals. The UDL design cycle begins with identifying goals of a lesson (or any unit of instruction), identifying where the barriers lie in mastering those goals, considering other variability factors (e.g., student experiences, backgrounds, strengths, preferences) and making pedagogical decisions that support learners in reaching the goal. UDL goes beyond just the provisions of options, and focuses instead on intentional design with learner needs in mind.

From an AP Teacher Who Wishes to Remain Anonymous

I’m finding myself increasingly convinced that it’s the AP teachers who, more so than any other high school teachers, need to respond to the call of UDL, because it’s these teachers who are most likely to place one or more barriers to learning before their students. For a sampling of just some of the “barriers” constructed by the AP teachers I know, see below.

  • A class admission policy that excludes students for one reason or another.
  • Any/all required summer assignments.
  • A no unit test retake policy.
  • A retake policy prohibiting high-scoring students from taking a retake.
  • An unwillingness to align one’s course with the CED, thus making it very difficult for students to take full advantage of the AP Classroom resources.
  • An unwillingness to provide students with the AP Classroom Progress Check Questions.
  • The requiring of homework for students who continually demonstrate that they have mastered the content and skills.
  • An unwillingness to provide students who are easily mastering the content with a pass on whatever homework is to be assigned in the future and to instead provide these students with a subject-relating learning opportunity that they will find infinitely more engaging and that just might lead to some work that will open-wide the eyes of the student’s college admission officers.
  • An unwillingness to apply a no-zeros grading policy.
  • A required high-stakes final exam for students whose test scores suggest that they have not yet mastered the content but who are satisfied with the grade they are receiving.
  • A required high-stakes final exam for students whose test scores suggest that they have mastered the content.
  • The use of the “semester killer” — the single project, test, lab, paper, or some other assignment that can make or break students.
  • The practice of using the average of all scores throughout the semester (aka grade averaging)

From Paul Cohen

Paul Cohen is a retired Adjunct Chemistry professor at Brooklyn College. He has taught AP chemistry for more than 40 years, in Brooklyn high schools, both public and private, and served as an exam reader for ETS for 14 years. Recently, I asked Paul a number of questions relating to UDL. To view the questions and Paul’s answers see below.

Paul, how do you respond to Dr. Katie Novak when she implies that all teachers should “UDL the heck out of their courses?”
My “edubabble” alarm goes off when an English teacher starts telling me that what works for her should apply to chemistry teaching. For those who don’t know what edubabble is, where I might write “we should attempt to adjust our methods and materials to our students’ needs”, here is Dr. Novak’s version…””I firmly believe that all places where learning happens should be universally designed including AP classes because more students should have access to advanced coursework and those students in those courses need to think critically about their learning needs and recognize there are multiple ways to reach the same rigorous goals.”

Is that to say that you think the call for UDL is “much ado about nothing?
I find it alarming that so many are willing to impart educational “clothes,” to the nude “Emperor UDL.” UDL is nothing new–it’s just good teaching.

How do you respond to those who say that “a class admission policy that requires students to have “a passion” for the subject constitutes a barrier to learning?”
A future computer programmer who just likes science shouldn’t take AP chem? I shouldn’t, as a chem major, have been permitted to take a course in German lyric poetry in college? Ignoring the “barrier to learning” phrase, I’ve never heard of a “passion” policy in admissions to AP science….. “So you have a 99 average in science and math, and you want to take AP chemistry. But do you really have a PASSION for chemistry?” said no decision maker ever….

How do you respond to those who say that “a class admission policy that excludes students for any reason constitutes a barrier to learning?”
Admitting completely unprepared students to a college-level course is a barrier to learning for the prepared students! This is really one of the sillier questions here. I would respond to those by saying “What planet are you from? Have you heard of concepts like classroom capacity? Do you believe in honor classes? Shouldn’t non-honors students be excluded? “

How do you respond to those who suggest that “any/all summer assignments create a barrier to learning?
Summer assignments are not a barrier to learning. They are immoral. During the summer, we do not have any students. They become our students in September. We have no authority to impinge on their vacation time, have no idea what their summer plans are, and would probably be rebellious (I hope!) if a supervisor told us what we had to do during OUR summer vacations. I do provide summer assignments, but they are RECOMMENDED, not required.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a no unit test retake policy constitutes a barrier?”
A no-unit retest policy is not a barrier to learning; it’s an individual system, reflecting one’s grading policies. I give retests only to absentees with legitimate excuses.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a retake policy that prohibits high scoring students from taking a retake constitutes a barrier to learning”
I don’t understand why one would bar high-scoring students from taking a retake.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a teacher’s unwillingness to align his/her course with the CED (thus making it very difficult for students to take full advantage of the AP Classroom resources) creates a barrier to learning?”
I don’t align my course with the CED, because I believe that the order I use is logically superior to the order they use. That didn’t make it “difficult” to use the classroom resources, ( and we taught very well before those resources existed…) it made more work for ME, as I had to skip around when assigning “classroom” work.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a teacher’s unwillingness to provide his/her students with the AP Classroom Progress Checks constitutes a barrier to learning?
I don’t care for the Progress Checks, and the program makes it impossible to “pick and choose” the ones we want. Their omission is certainly not a barrier to learning. I write better questions myself.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “the requiring of homework for students who continually demonstrate that they have mastered the content and skills” constitutes a barrier to learning?”
That is really absurd. Requiring homework is a “barrier”?? Do you stop practicing a piano piece because you have “mastered it?”

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a teacher’s unwillingness to apply a no-zeros” grading policy constitutes a barrier to learning?
Grading policies are a function of students, school and community. A “no-zeroes” grading policy is just silly. Students should get what they earn. But if a teacher prefers to go with “No zeroes,” fine with me!

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a required high-stakes final exam for students whose test scores reveal that they have not yet mastered the content but who are satisfied with the grade they are receiving constitutes a barrier to learning?”
???? A required high-stakes final for EVERYONE!! Isn’t that how college courses work??

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a required high-stakes final exam for students whose test scores reveal that they have mastered the content constitutes a barrier to learning?
See my response to Question #7. Isn’t the AP test itself a high-stakes final??

How do you respond to those who suggest that “the use of the ‘semester killer’ (the single project, test, lab, paper, or some other assignment that can make or break a student’s grade) constitutes a barrier to learning?”
Never heard of that phrase. In my subject, there are no such projects. Grades are overwhelmingly exam-based!

How do you respond to those who suggest that “a teacher’s unwillingness to provide the students who are easily mastering the content with a pass on whatever homework is to be assigned in the future and to in turn provide these students with a subject-relating learning opportunity that is designed to have the student produce some work that will surely open-wide the eyes of the student’s college admission officers constitutes a barrier to learning?”
All my students do the homework, which is never excessive. Other subject related out-of-school opportunities to impress college admissions officers are made available to all, as I learn about them. They have NOTHING to do with the students’ grades.

How do you respond to those who suggest that “the practice of using the average of all scores throughout the semester (aka grade averaging) constitutes a barrier to learning?”
What?? Are there teachers who DON’T use average scores? I don’t understand this question at all. Bad teaching is a barrier to learning. Worrying about the acronym du jour is time wasted that could be better spent designing lessons and curricula, and so THAT is a barrier to learning.

Is there anything you want to say in closing, Paul?
A lot of supervisory intervention is a “barrier” to learning. What works for one teacher, in one academic environment, may not work for another. Staff development should be within subject area. It should focus on effective delivery of the required content — methods, materials, exam construction. Come to me for staff development, and I will ask “What is it that you wish to teach? Tell me about your students.” Then we will design methods, materials, assignments, and tests that are suitable for that teacher in that environment.

From Anthony Palma

Anthony Palma is an Appleton, Wisconsin high school math teacher with more than 21 years of teaching experience. He’s taught Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, College Prep, Pre-Calculus, AB Calculus, and BC Calculus and currently teaches Geometry and BC Calculus. Below, Anthony addresses the question of whether a no-test-retake policy constitutes a barrier to learning.

In my 2019 Edutopia post entitled The Case for Not Allowing Retakes I argued that the traditional no-test-retake policy is better than a retake policy for the majority of students. Today, I’m more convinced than ever that this is true.

From Derek Boillat

Derek Boillat is a Grand Rapids, Michigan, AP Psychology teacher who authored the 2019 article, It Might be Time to Reconsider Your School’s Retake Policy. Below, Derek addresses the question of whether a no-test-retake policy constitutes a barrier to learning.

If we teachers are truly about learning, shouldn’t students be allowed to fix their misunderstandings in hopes of mastering the content? Isn’t mastery the goal of teaching? While it may take a shift of mindset to allow retakes, the benefit is more knowledgeable and successful students, and as a result, more successful educators.

To dive deeper into my classroom, it is a space filled with messy learning. Students have the autonomy to make mistakes, to reflect, and to grow. Demonstration of mastery is not limited to a single attempt on a day and time I have dictated. Whereas I can control the content, standards, and assessment, I can not control countless variables which might impede a student’s ability to show their knowledge (i.e. lack of sleep, working late the night before, three tests the same day, or test anxiety). These are on top of the potential that students may have just not grasped the content fully the first time. What I can offer is a chance for students to continue to learn. To not move on from mistakes that they will inevitably make again. In an AP classroom, if a student does not understand a term or concept and gets it incorrect on the test, without remediation, they undoubtedly will get that concept wrong on the AP test. So my policy is for students to go back and correct their mistakes, reflect and learn from them, and then prove their knowledge on a new assessment of similar style and rigor. It is not a free ‘do over’, they must earn the chance to retake it through proving that they did additional studying (a completed teacher created review sheet: a reflection log on what they missed, why they missed it, what the actual answer is, and an explanation). I full-heartedly believe that it is my job to help students master the content even if that doesn’t always fit the mold we would prefer.

From Emelina Minero

Emelina Minero is an Edutopia assistant editor who writes journalistic articles covering a range of topics. Her passion lies in equity and amplifying the voices and stories that are often left out of the conversation. Below, Emelina addresses the question of whether a no-zero grading policy constitutes a barrier to learning.

No-zero grading policies spur serious — and productive — debate among teachers. In my 2018 Edutopia blog post entitled Do No-Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students, I looked at the big insights on both sides of the argument.

From Alexis Tamony

Alexis “Lexy” Tamony is a high school mathematics teacher at Sonoma Valley High School in Sonoma, California. In her 19-year teaching career, she has taught every math class from sixth-grade intervention to high school calculus, and in 2021 she authored the Edutopia articles entitled 3 Grading Practices That Should Change and The Case Against Zeros in Grading. Below, Lexy’s response to the question of whether a teacher should average scores over time and offer test retakes (with this response drawn from her 3 Grading Practices post.)

Most grade books average scores over time. We teach for a semester and evaluate students at different intervals. For a student who comes in with strong skills, this feels like a fine practice.

But think about this scenario: Marisa came to class with super-strong skills and aced the whole year. Jacob’s performance was fine to start out, it improved over time, and he ended up at the same place as Marisa. Elias’s and Taylor’s journeys were more of a struggle, but they worked hard, and you did a fantastic job teaching them! If at the end of the semester all four students have the same level of understanding, shouldn’t their grade reflect their current level of knowledge?

Everyone learns at a different pace. Should we penalize students who had a bad foundational experience, may have experienced some trauma that caused a temporary dip, or just take more time to learn something new? No. I think all four students deserve the same grade if they demonstrate the same level of understanding. Grade books communicate teacher values.

Over the past few years, teaching students a growth mindset has pervaded teacher blogs and ed speak. However, I think that the way teachers typically grade completely undermines the talk about a growth mindset. If our grading practices don’t promote, encourage, and reward growth, then we don’t value it. How do we show kids that their growth matters? We eliminate averaging scores over time and do something else instead.

This is how my practice has evolved: I consistently update old performance scores with new and more accurate ones. Students get unlimited retakes on assessments. I require them to continually practice essential content and demonstrate retention of that content. I tell students that learning doesn’t stop after an assessment. An assessment isn’t a final judgment, it’s a progress marker. I believe that every student can succeed in my class.

I tell them, “I will not give up on you just because you don’t know how to do something yet.” I stick to that statement, and it’s reflected in my grade book. If a student scores below proficient on a standard, mandatory retakes are assigned and completed during class time. Students are given individualized opportunities to practice and are reassessed after they’ve learned more. I only keep the most recent reports of demonstrated proficiency. This also requires retention of content knowledge, which has always been a problem in math classes.

From Steve Heimler (on the issue of summer assignments)

Steve Heimler is a high school APUSH and APGov teacher who tries to help students get a five on their AP History exams with his Heimler’s History YouTube videos. Steve also grades essays for the national AP exam. In the video below, Steve explains why he thinks summer assignments should not be assigned to students and what teachers should do if they decide to give summer assignments.

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Peter Paccone

High school APUSH teacher with much in-class and online teaching experience. Also a blogger, keynote speaker, editor, podcast host, and conference presenter.