Since I began developing a cohesive pedagogy, I have been frustrated with the gap in research focused on UDL in STEM. In some ways, it felt to me like an extension of the erasure of disabled students from STEM in higher education. All this to say, I was excited when the following article appeared in my google scholar alerts:
[Boysen, G. A. (2021). Lessons (not) learned: The troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000280]
I recommend reading the article yourself, but I wanted to share a few of my thoughts.
While this article presents fair and insightful criticisms of UDL, I did feel that the criticisms brushed over what I have considered the underlying goal of UDL (which may differ from the description of UDL in the literature). To me, the underlying goal is to accommodate disabled students without relying on their ability (for lack of a better word) to go through the ADA process and present an official accommodation letter. There are many reasons why this is an important goal.
First, there are financial, social and cultural barriers to receiving a diagnosis or long term care that would qualify a student for ADA accommodations.
Second, many in the rare disease/chronic illness community struggle for years to get any kind of diagnosis that would qualify them for ADA accommodations (if they receive a diagnosis at all).
Third, this proactive approach to building an accessible classroom acknowledges that even with the best disability coordinators, the ADA accommodation process can be extremely taxing on a disabled students’ emotion and physical health.
That said, the author is clear that they do not believe UDL should be wholly abandoned or condemned, and their criticisms has informed my future inclusion of UDL (as a term) in my pedagogy. Here’s what stood out to me:
Variability and experimental design challenges
This one is self-explanatory, but the author provides examples of different conceptions of UDL implemented in the classroom, and discusses how that creates problems for experimental design. Hopefully, with more research, we can see progress on these issues.
Specificity and student agency (a la learning styles)
The lens of the article is presenting criticisms of UDL through a comparison to learning styles. I found this to be very relatable, as I have used the concept of learning styles as an analog to explain UDL, while giving the preface that learning styles is an outdated concept. At the same time, I did not engage with what this comparison said about UDL itself. I have at times also used unsupported cliches like, “UDL helps everyone,” because I felt that the conclusion was intuitive. The author, however, points out why this shouldn’t be an intuitive conclusion.
Sure, if we teach using a variety of formats, students have more opportunities to succeed regardless of their “preference” for specific formats… but that would require that:
a) students have a clear and accurate understanding of what their “preference” is, and
b) students, when given choices, choose that preferred format.
The literature on learning styles has established that there isn’t much in terms of the evidence of these specific categories of learning preferences, such that students would actually be able to make these determinations. Additionally, students are going to make choices based on multiple factors, including convenience.
At the end of the day, I engage with this criticism from a significant bias. I have a rare illness, and I resonate more with this ‘individualized’ orientation towards teaching, because I have had very different experiences than the average student, or the average person in general. At the same time, I have written before about how to me a supportive learning environment includes interactions with other students, and thus, I believe pedagogy should include more generalized considerations of facilitating and supporting group interactions. As the author concludes, the best path is probably one that combines aspects of individualized and generalized theories of learning.
When I talk about my pedagogy, my goal is to help students understand my commitment to accessibility, so that if any access needs come up, they can feel comfortable expressing that need to me. I will be re-working my pedagogy statement and the pedagogy intro to exchange references to UDL and format variety for a description of ADA accommodations and access needs. I think this switch would accomplish the same goals without running into the critiques from this article.
Hope everyone is having a great summer! I am hoping to post a research update soon.