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Chapter 6: Using UDL to Support Every Student's Learning

Designing Instruction to Support Affective Learning

Affect is the fuel that students bring to the classroom, connecting them to the "why" of learning. The work of Goleman (1995) shares the UDL perspective that motivation is at least as important for school success as the capacity to recognize and generate patterns. Affect goes beyond simple enjoyment, and among other things, it plays a part in the development of persistence and deep interest in a subject. If we emphasize skills and knowledge to the exclusion of emotion, we may breed negative feelings towards learning, especially in students having difficulties. Were we to focus on affect more explicitly in our learning goals, we might be more successful at one of the most important tasks for teachers—developing students who love to learn.

Theodore Sizer (1992a, 1992b), Grant Wiggins (1989), Heidi Hayes Jacobs (1997), and Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Martin Brooks (1993) are among the many authors who advocate making important and engaging questions central to learning. Their recommendations underscore the importance of connecting learning to students' own lives and interests and giving students choices of content, methods, and materials whenever feasible.

Giving students the flexibility to pursue their interests is an extremely successful teaching technique—and one that can be achieved without sacrificing learning objectives (Hayes Jacobs, 1997). For example, a teacher might relate a unit focusing on the U.S. Bill of Rights to the school’s student handbook, thus connecting a distant, abstract subject to students’ personal concerns and experiences.

This kind of "hook" makes school subjects more interesting and engaging. But no one hook will work for every student. Over the course of development, unique individuals' constitutions and experiences intermix to create their affective profiles-a combination of what attracts, motivates, and engages them. These differences partially explain why print materials and lectures suit some learners, but leave others yawning. Based on what we know about how affective networks function, which teaching methods are the most effective for reaching diverse learners?

Teaching Method 1: Offer Choices of Content and Tools

Certain activities are widely appealing—listening to music, watching movies, or getting outdoors. However, few of us love all music, movies, and outdoor activities. We are selective in our taste, and, for example, might even prefer silence to music we dislike. In other words, we don't like concerts in general; we like them "in specific."

Giving students choices of content and tools can increase their enthusiasm for learning particular processes. For example, mastering the skill of long division in the abstract may seem uninteresting, but learning to calculate batting averages can be exciting. When affective engagement links background knowledge with strategic or recognition tasks, students are more likely to build skills, sustained interest, and deep understanding. They are also more likely to pursue the extended practice needed for automatization. How can teachers provide content appealing to each of their students? Digital media and materials can offer the needed flexibility.

A staggering array of digital content is available on compact disc and on the Internet. With these kinds of resources at teachers' disposal, creating innovative ways of engaging learners in anything from long division to historical analysis is relatively easy to do. Students might take a QuickTime 3D tour of a pyramid ( or learn about the physics behind skateboarding and basketball ( Through online "WebQuests" they might learn about Ancient Rome from the perspective of a chosen Roman figure—a senator, a child, an Olympian, or a historian (").

Software programs also offer an array of engaging options. Write, Camera, Action! (description at lets users take on the role of movie producer, developing key writing and language skills in the process. Students who find affective barriers in textbooks or lectures can explore scientific principles through virtual simulations online (see The online game Secrets@Sea ( offers students the opportunity to learn about biology by acting as the detective in an interactive mystery.

At CAST, we have found that working with multimedia and the World Wide Web can break the cycle of discouragement and re-engage learners who are stressed by or indifferent to conventional learning media. We have seen students with writing disabilities use sound or images to develop the key elements of a composition and then spend the next 45 minutes enthusiastically writing text. Enjoyment and competence fuel students' motivation to learn. Suitable programs include Paint, Write and Play; Write, Camera, Action!; HyperStudio; and Kid Pix. In addition, more and more Web sites are dedicated to providing varied content and tools for instruction. The Web site for this book includes an expanding set of online resources for obtaining digital content and tools that fit with a variety of curricula, are easily accessible, and are flexibly presented.

Resource Resource: Tips and tutorials on how to obtain digital text and multimedia materials and put them to work in your classroom.

Teaching Method 2: Provide Adjustable Levels of Challenge

We know that students learn best in their "zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky, 1962), where challenge is just beyond their current capacity but not out of reach. Students' comfort zones—the level of difficulty, challenge, and frustration optimal for them—vary considerably. Teachers who hope to sustain students' engagement must be able to continually adjust the challenge for and among different learners.

Although learning software is not as tightly calibrated as the best electronic games, most products do offer adjustable levels of challenge. For example, 7th Level's Great Math Adventure (description at http:// offers a variety of math problems and games with five different skill levels. Many of the learning games from Edmark, such as Let's Go Read! An Island Adventure, offer sophisticated management systems that enable teachers to select difficulty levels and specific content for individual students.

Adjustable levels of challenge have advantages beyond the immediate power to engage. Providing such choices for students makes the process of goal-setting explicit and provides a structured opportunity for students to practice setting realistic goals and optimal challenges for themselves. Discovering the consequences of setting goals that are too high or too low helps students develop the meta-skills they need for independent learning. Students with ADHD and other problems with strategic skills, who often have difficulty setting appropriate goals, can benefit from practice and experience in a supportive learning context.

Teaching Method 3: Offer a Choice of Rewards

A common way to motivate students is to provide external rewards and punishments. These include deferred rewards like grades, concrete rewards like stickers or money, increased or decreased privileges like recess and field trips, and social rewards like affection and attention.

There are two problems with this practice. First, each student has different ideas about what is or is not a reward. A trip to the ballet, for example, might be a reward to one student and a punishment to another! Fear of punishment (or failure) spurs some students to work hard, but may discourage or frighten others. A true UDL environment solves this problem by offering students choices of rewards—effectively leveling the affective playing field.

Second, external rewards tend to be inappropriate and ineffective in motivating learning over the long term. Research shows that extrinsic rewards can result in unintended negative consequences for learning, such as "turning play into work" (Lepper & Greene, 1978). The answer might be to look a little more closely at play. Most highly motivating video games give no external rewards at all; rather, the motivation they provide comes in the form of immediate feedback and knowledge of results. Building students' meta-awareness of accomplishment and progress—an important tenet of UDL—may be one of the most effective ways to instill intrinsic interest in learning and support students' long-term engagement.

Teaching Method 4: Offer Choices of Learning Context

Many of us can remember the months of haggling that preceded the Fischer-Spassky world championship chess matches. The combatants negotiated intensely—not only about the geographic location (finally ending up in "neutral" Iceland), but also about virtually every aspect of the setting: the lighting, the size of the room, the placement of the table and chairs, the soundproofing, and the camera locations. These seemingly irrelevant details were crucial to Fischer and Spassky because they understood how important small details of context might be in chess matches that would last for months.

The importance of context extends beyond cerebral contests like chess matches. Think about home-court advantages in sports. In basketball, for example, even though the basket is the same height, size, and color on every court, odds makers always assume that members of the home team will be more adept than their visiting opponents at getting the ball through the basket. Although the physical components of shooting a basket are the same at home and away, the knowledge that friends and family fill the gym and the supportive roar of the crowd can activate greater affect and success. These effects of home-court advantage can be attributed to the broad connectedness of our neural networks—almost any aspect of the environment is included when we learn.

In the classroom, factors such as noise and activity in a room or structure in a task contribute to the learning context students experience. By choosing to present a task as an independent in-class assignment or as homework or as a small- or large-group discussion, teachers may inadvertently lend "intellectual home-court advantage" to certain students who are more comfortable in those learning contexts.

Consider this example: One of us has a son named Nick who, as a high school student, drove his parents crazy by doing all his studying with radio, television, computer, or CD player blaring. (Most aggravating were the times when all four devices were on at once and competing for the highest decibel level!) To Nick's parents this seemed lunacy—an impossible context for learning. But for Nick, the amount of background noise was just right. This cacophony followed him as he became a National Merit Scholar and a Harvard graduate.

Context preferences are individual. An optimal context for one student is not necessarily optimal for another. Some students like to explore ideas and create their own individual approaches. Others would be paralyzed by that degree of freedom. One student might prefer to create a story or painting with minimal direction, whereas another would be unable to start unless provided with a topic and some initial, short-term goals. By offering students a selection of materials from which to choose, each with varying degrees of structure, we can offer all students an appropriate learning context. As an example, The Great Math Adventure provides adjustable supports and an optional interactive, animated helper—allowing students to choose between figuring things out on their own or having their learning experience structured externally. Teacher-designed WebQuests can be individually tailored to a student's structural preferences. For students who like many signposts, we might preselect sites that contain the sought-after information. For students who prefer to locate information on their own, we could remove these signposts.

It is even possible to provide electronic options for distracters and background noise. When CAST was newly founded, we operated a Learning Lab where students experimented with educational software. One of these was an Apple II program called Dragon's Keep, where students built vocabulary by "exploring" a big house and summoning the names of the items they found with a mouse click. The program's one unexpected event—or distracter—was the occasional, random entrance of a fire-breathing dragon, which signaled the player to beat a rapid retreat to another room.

One day we tried Dragon's Keep with an autistic youngster. Disaster! At the first appearance of the dragon, the boy was so startled and terrified that he was afraid to approach the computer for months. This reaction contrasted strongly with the reactions of other students, who not only enjoyed the program, but enjoyed the dragon especially. Some students with ADHD considered the dragon the only good thing in the whole game! For them, no dragon meant no engagement . . . and no learning. Had Dragon's Keep been universally designed, the program would have included a built-in option to turn the dragon on and off, and consequently, it could have engaged both of these kinds of learners.

Now let's see how our classroom example teachers are using UDL to offer content and media choices, adjustable challenge, and varying degrees of structure to engage their diverse students in learning.

Supporting Affective Learning with UDL

Students in both Mr. O'Connell's and Ms. Abrams's classrooms are pursuing the Algebra benchmarks provided by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (available online at

Mr. O'Connell's 4th grade class is working toward the following goal: "Students should recognize a wide variety of patterns and the rules that explain them." This goal affords a lot of leeway for content choice, and Mr. O'Connell decides to focus on graphic patterns with budding artist Miguel, thus engaging Miguel's interest in art without sacrificing the teaching purpose.

The goal Ms. Abrams is working on with her 6th graders is to "Understand various representations of patterns and functions and the relationships among these representations." The negative sentiment Kamla has attached to academic tasks is a concern for Ms. Abrams. To engage Kamla in this pre-algebra task, Ms. Abrams builds some exercises around basketball, Kamla's favorite activity. She challenges Kamla to collect data from her basketball performance and use that data in math class. The use of digital cameras and computer spreadsheets make this an operable plan.

Mr. O'Connell and Ms. Abrams are both eager to offer their students alternative media choices. Mr. O'Connell encourages Miguel to create and duplicate a variety of patterns using paper, textiles, mobiles, and mosaics. Miguel scans these patterns into the computer and then manipulates the digital images, creating new designs and structures that apply the patterns in different configurations. The ability to experiment with patterns he's created himself keeps Miguel focused and on task. Mr. O'Connell adjusts levels of challenge by using templates when more support is needed and by providing an open-ended, creative task when Miguel's confidence is strong.

A break from traditional media is perhaps even more important for Kamla, who associates textbooks and worksheets with low achievement and frustration. Ms. Abrams attempts to break the cycle of negative affect by incorporating new tools into the activity. With her teacher's help, Kamla uses a spreadsheet program to develop Venn diagrams, bar graphs, and other graphic displays of her on-court performance data. Ms. Abrams closely monitors the degree of challenge this presents. She begins having Kamla answer questions that require simple observation of the data ("How many points did you score in February?"). As Kamla's competence and confidence improve, Ms. Abrams keeps pace by posing questions that require Kamla to reconfigure and explore the data ("Against which team do you have the best shooting percentage?").

Print media's domination of classrooms is giving way to new materials that provide new visions and possibilities for flexible learning tools and methods. Students' affective differences demand that we apply this flexibility to vary challenge, media, content, rewards, and learning context as we individualize each student's instruction.

It takes time and thought to build a repertoire of media, content, and techniques to individualize teaching while simultaneously considering instructional goals and individual student characteristics. UDL Classroom Template 3, available in the Appendix (p. 189) and online, offers guidance to help you plan and develop an appropriate, useful collection of media, tools, and resources that will give your students the supports they need.

Classroom Template Classroom Template: Use the UDL Solutions Template to expand your repetoire of materials and methods.

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