By: Nathan Murtha, Phd Student (Physics)

Although it is my job to teach as a teaching assistant in the physics department at Carleton University, I have learned a great deal from the time that I’ve spent in front of a classroom and with students. I have had students who excel by working through the textbook on their own, and I have had students who best learnt from seeing multiple worked examples. I have had students who detest hands-on experiments, and I have had students who thrive with hands-on learning. Through teaching, I have learnt that there is no one best way to teach. This observation calls into need the requirement to acknowledge the shortfalls in our current educational approaches and to rectify them.

Carleton University has acknowledged the need to adopt improved accessibility criteria. Through the Coordinated Accessibility Strategy (CAS), Carleton University has adopted the following broad definition of accessibility [1]:

“Accessibility is best defined as the provision of flexibility to accommodate each [individual’s] needs and preferences; when used with reference to persons with disabilities, any place, space, item or service, whether physical or virtual, that is easily approached, reached, entered, exited, interacted with, understood or otherwise used by persons of varying disabilities, is determined to be accessible.”

In reading the definition above it is important to note that the use of the word “accessible” need not apply exclusively to individuals with a disability. Indeed, a provision of flexibility to accommodate the needs of any individual, disabled or not, is called for in order for accessibility to be achieved. I submit that the current methods of teaching physical sciences are not accessible due to the lack of alternative avenues available to students for learning. This notion is captured by the Education and Training broad theme of the CAS, which calls for the adoption of best practises in accessibility for teaching and learning.

A popular philosophy of education known as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has emerged in the past decades. The UDL method of teaching emphasizes flexibility in the curricula and improved accessibility of information for learning [2, 3], giving students multiple methods of demonstrating their knowledge and abilities. The simplest recommendations of the UDL model advocate for the intuitive presentation of materials using multiple methods of presentation, such as through readings, spoken word presentations, and the use of slides in class. The more progressive recommendations of the UDL model suggest that the learning space is made to feel inclusive, safe, and welcoming. It is further recommended that the curriculum be designed to accommodate the variable rates of learning by students in the class and to include multiple methods of assessing student abilities for grading.

Extensive research into the application of the UDL method has been carried out. A recent study of an introductory marketing class comprising more than 600 students investigated UDL approaches for large lecture-based classes [4], a common classroom dynamic for first-year courses. Students in this study were given two ways of receiving the class lecture (either in class or through recorded PowerPoint presentations viewed at home), three ways of accessing the course textbook (printed, electronic book, or audiobook), two methods of in-class engagement (printed notes with blanks to fill in, or clickers with poll questions), three methods of at-home engagement (MindTap flashcards, MindTap dictionary, or MindTap notebook), and four methods of assessment (before- and after-lecture assignments, fill-in-the-blank exercises, and quizzes). The authors found that the use of so many alternative tools was beneficial, allowing for a large classroom of diverse students to learn effectively by the means most accessible to without overburdening the instructor.

With regards to the application of UDL methodologies in science laboratory classes, Miller et al. recently conducted a study of the utility of UDL in chemistry laboratories [5]. Their experience indicates the need to adopt supportive communication techniques in the laboratory, which will significantly aid in reducing the anxiety experienced by many students in a laboratory environment. Additionally, they observed that providing students with multiple organizational tools, such as electronic lab notebooks and lab report templates, assisted students with their organizational issues.

The UDL framework is a proven method for making learning more accessible for a wide range of students. By promoting the use of multiple presentation media, multiple assessment techniques, and multiple methods of assessment, the UDL educational method meets the requirements for accessibility as defined under the CAS at Carleton University. Increased use of the UDL framework at Carleton University should be of utmost priority as the university attempts to increase its accessibility in the classrooms.

[1] Carleton University. “Broad Themes,” Accesses on Dec 27th 2019.

[2] C. Bernacchio and M. Mullen, “Universal Design for Learning,” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 167-169, 2007.

[3] L. Kieran and C. Anderson, “Connecting Universal Design for Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching,” Education and Urban Society, vol. 51, no. 9, pp. 1202-1216, 2019.

[4] T. Dean, A. Lee-Post and H. Hapke, “Universal Design for Learning in Teaching Large Lecture Classes,” Journal of Marketing Education, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 5-16, 2017.

[5] D. K. Miller and P. L. Lang, “Using the Universal Design for Learning Approach in Science

Laboratories To Minimize Student Stress,” J. Chem. Educ., vol. 93, pp. 1823-1828, 2016.