UDL series — Representation: Comprehension

30 June 2022
By Sam Graff

UDL, a blog series…

To recap, the first blog post in the series describes the principles of UDL and how to take the initial small step into achieving a UDL classroom. You can find the link back to the first post of this series.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) “is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights in how humans learn” (Cast.org). UDL can create an equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students in the classroom.

Within the UDL framework, there are three major categories and their subcategories:

Representation: Comprehension

How students take accessible information and turn it into usable knowledge is not a passive process but active engagement. Designing how information is presented can lead to increased comprehension of the material. Students differ in how they process information and what their prior knowledge is when they start a new course. As an instructor, you can provide options for comprehension by supplying background knowledge, highlighting big ideas and relationships, providing guided and scaffolding assessments, and maximizing the transfer of information to new concepts.

Activate or supply background knowledge

Some barriers students face are that they might not have background knowledge of a certain topic or they might not think their knowledge and experiences are relevant to the content. One way to gauge what your students know and what they do not is via a KWL learning strategy.  KWL stands for “what I Know” “ what I Want to know” and “ what I have Learned.” Using this activity at the beginning of a new topic can help students identify their background knowledge and then also give you, the instructor, the opportunity to evaluate and see where you can provide outside resources to help increase this knowledge. This activity can also be used as a reflective assignment at the end of a new topic. 

Here is what a KWL chart looks like.

KWL chart
Figure 1: KWL – Click for larger image

Figure 1: KWL. In column one “What I Know” students write down what they already know about the topic. In column two “What I Want to Know” students write down questions or statements about what they would like to know. In column three, “What I Learned” students write after the class session has ended what knowledge and skills they learned.

Other ways you can supply background knowledge for your students are bridging concepts with relevant analogies and metaphors and making connections across disciplines. Metaphors can be a useful strategy for building previous knowledge onto new concepts. Making connections across disciplines can be as simple as demonstrating or giving examples in class how similar concepts and theories can be found in other disciplines.

Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships

A challenging point for students is recognizing relationships, patterns, and big ideas; here are some strategies to practice these skills in the classroom. If you decide to use digital readings, hypothes.is can be a great tool for highlighting and annotating complex concepts. This plug-in software is connected through Moodle and, all readings you provide can be available to your students in one location. You can also ask your students to annotate back on a reading, thus creating a feedback system to make sure your students are comprehending the reading. 

According to CAST, “using outlines, graphic organizers, unit organizer routines, concept organizer routines, and concept mastery routines to emphasize key ideas and relationships increase accessibility and comprehension to all students.” Depending on the type of class you teach, using an (online) unit organizer routine might be beneficial for your students. Many students have difficulties seeing the big picture among the details, and creating this unit organizer helps remove that barrier. Graphic organizers can also be used to highlight concepts. For example, use a Venn diagram to compare ideas or a concept map to link and show relationships between ideas. The Learning Disability of America website shares tools and guides on how to create graphic organizers. The frame routine, another type of concept organizer, can help students break down topics into manageable ideas and organize thoughts. 

Guide the information processing and visualization

Students can struggle to see how to complete projects or large assignments. They might understand the first step but are not sure what to do next. Providing guided resources and scaffolding may help students achieve comprehension on projects. For example, providing organization methods and approaches on how to complete assignments, like using a rubric, can make the learning objectives and steps more visible. Another way to guide students is to “chunk” information into small elements or create smaller assignments to form parts of a larger project. In Moodle, you can select the completion check marks. One of the options is to allow students to self-select when they complete a reading and or assignment. This visual cue shows students that they completed and understood the assignment, which can lead to increased comprehension and an immediate sense of accomplishment. 

Maximize transfer and generalization

To support the learning of new concepts, students need techniques on how to access the knowledge gained in the classroom and apply it at a later time. Using prompts such as mnemonic devices can help students recall information. Giving them repeated opportunities to review and practice online exams or quizzes will help with faster recall. Finally, through interleaving, offering opportunities for students to recall key ideas and find relationships between ideas throughout the term will build their network of knowledge. This practice can happen on their own time on Moodle or during class with one of the activities from above. 

Taking small steps by providing multiple means of representation through options of perception, language and symbols, and comprehension can lead to one large step in mastering UDL principles in your classroom.