Support student motivation with Universal Design for Learning

Preparing a course takes a lot of work. But the most elegant scaffolding and well-curated content will be wasted if students do not have access to the course. Further, access means a lot of things, and students have a range of needs: the ability to interact with course materials, options to balance schoolwork with other life responsibilities, and often some support in maintaining motivation and engagement in the course. 

We’ve all probably encountered procrastination or lack of motivation as a barrier to completing the work that we need, even if we’re hoping to tackle a task or project that we know will be beneficial. This can be especially true for college students, as “many students enter college without a good understanding of how to learn effectively, and continuing in that way may affect their mindset towards college-level classes and lead them to feel discouraged that they just don’t ‘get it’ unlike their peers” (MIT Teaching + Learning Lab). While certainly the major focus of the course will be the disciplinary concepts, it is helpful to also integrate some instruction on how to stay motivated and learn effectively in your class, especially if you are teaching in an introductory course. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that aims to bridge barriers to learning, baking accessibility deep into the design of your course. As an instructional design framework, it offers a layered collection of teaching and design actions to help instructors build courses that will be responsive to diverse groups of students. In this Teaching Tip, I will focus on the issue of student motivation and self-regulation to share an example of how you can apply UDL’s layered framework to your teaching practice. 

But what is UDL, anyway? 

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for course design that emphasizes choices that accommodate a range of student variability in learning style and needs.Originally an intervention into the way accommodations were made for students with disabilities, UDL was created in the 1980s by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit CAST with a goal of using technology to support learners with different needs. In collaboration with Harvard University, UDL developed into a broader educational theory, beyond technological interventions, that seeks to create effective educational experiences for all learners. The Guidelines for the Universal Design for Learning were developed in 2009, which has propelled UDL from a theory to a framework that can be applied to course development.

The framework is organized with three different levels of pedagogical concepts. At the top of the framework are three principles: “engagement,” “representation,” and “action and expression.” Within each of these principles are “guidelines,” and under those are “checkpoints.”  All of these elements can help you reflect on your course and make strategic revisions. You can review the framework on CAST’s Graphic Organizer. The design of the organizer is very intentional, so if you’d like to dive deep into UDL, review their organization rationale.   

An example of UDL in action

In what follows, I will move through the three levels of UDL, from the key principle, then to a guideline underneath that principle, then to the corresponding checkpoints, describing them with the lens of supporting students’ self motivation in a course.

Note: There are many ways to use the UDL– the framework was designed to be mix-and-matched. Moving through the levels of the guidelines is just one approach!

Level 1: The Principle of Engagement

Providing multiple means of engagement is the first of three principles in UDL. This guideline encourages instructors to design a variety of ways for students to engage in the course, helping to motivate students across different areas of study, interests, and backgrounds.

Reflection question: Where in my course do students seem most engaged? Where does engagement seem to drop off? What are the factors that might lead to these variations in engagement? 

Action idea: Ask students what helps them feel engaged in a course as part of class introduction at the beginning of the semester. Look for any ideas that can be applied within the term. 

Level 2: The Guideline of Self Regulation

Moving into the guideline of self-regulation narrows the focus to particularly supporting students with their own motivation. The CAST description of the guideline notes that while other guidelines under the principle of Engagement  (Recruiting Interest and Sustaining Effort & Persistence) focus on extrinsic motivation, the guideline of self-regulation supports “learners’ intrinsic abilities to regulate their own emotions and motivations” (CAST). This guideline reminds us that learning is personal and emotional, and it takes perseverance to overcome challenges that come up in the course. Instructors can focus on helping students develop their own plan to maintain motivation, sharing different options and resources for setting and meeting goals. 

Reflection question: What assignments or activities in my course are most likely to require the student’s perseverance? How can I support students making a plan for accomplishing these tasks?

Action idea: Before a challenging project or exam, ask students to create a timeline to plan for their work or study progress. 

Level 3: The Checkpoint of Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies

The final level of the UDL frameworks are checkpoints; these are the more specific objectives that support the goals in the corresponding guideline and principle. Checkpoints often have specific teaching recommendations. To that end, in developing student’s intrinsic motivations, one checkpoint under Self Regulation is “Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies.” This checkpoint reminds us that it takes time to learn self-regulation in an unfamiliar situation. It suggests that instructors interact with students to assist them with their emotional responses to the learning process. For example, the checkpoint suggests that instructors create models to help students in “appropriately handling subject specific phobias and judgments of ‘natural’ aptitude (e.g., ‘how can I improve on the areas I am struggling in?’ rather than ‘I am not good at math’)” (CAST).  

Reflection question: Does my teaching practice recognize learning as an emotional process? How can I design space for the varied emotional responses students may have in the course? 

Action idea: Have conversations about student expectations of your discipline, especially if you teach a course that some students find intimidating. Share about your experience growing in expertise.  


CAST. UDL: The UDL Guidelines.

MIT Teaching + Learning Lab. . Self-regulation | Teaching + Learning Lab.

Elle Fournier

Elle Fournier

Instructional Designer

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