UDL at DCU – What’s happening on the ground?

At our most recent Sipping Point, the focus was on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a means of positively impacting the learning experience of all students at DCU. Karina Curley (Student Support & Development), Carol Ellis (Disability Officer) and Karen Buckley of the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU) ran two very well-attended sessions that highlighted principles, survey findings, and forthcoming initiatives aimed at informing and supporting staff in this area.  The following account summarises and reflects on some of the points that were made as the conversation unfolded.

The introductory presentation started out with some definitions of UDL including one that described it as ‘An approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive instructional strategies that benefit a broad range of learners, including students with disabilities’ (Scott, McGuire & Foley, 2003). Setting the scene for the session, it was also acknowledged that while nothing can ever be truly ‘universal’ (Mace, 1998) cited in McGuire et al., we can usually improve on the things we design to make them more usable.

The presenters went on to discuss the work done by University College Dublin (UCD) in formulating ‘9 principles of Universal Design for Instruction’, giving specific examples of how certain principles could be realised in teaching. For example, it was suggested that the principle of Equitable Use could potentially be furthered by consistently making slides available to students before class. In another example, the principle of Perceptible Information could be achieved through efforts to create more readable slides via usage of a sans serif font at a minimum font size 24 pt.

But while few would argue with the thinking that UDL is, in general, a good and positive ideal to consider, the purpose of this session was to unpack how the approach might be supported and implemented in teaching practice. In the conversations that emerged during the open floor discussion, the following comments and questions were made:

St Pat’s Session

  • Is the use of UDL-related terminology a barrier and might it be preventing staff from engaging with the concept (despite the fact that they may actually be adhering to many of its principles in practice)?
  • Is UDL perceived as another, potentially onerous, expectation to be added to an already hectic teaching load? The importance about achieving buy-in from staff was made several times and the point was made that it should be recognised as something that is part of good teaching rather than somehow interpreted as a separate niche activity that is relevant only to certain types of students.
  • Could publication of marking descriptors represent a ‘quick win’ for staff in furthering the reach of flexible assessment? One of the attendees wondered if that might spur students to question/appeal the marks they received which opened a further conversation about the need to develop robust, clear, and inclusive marking criteria.
  • Are many problems due to the restrictions of the teaching space, for example the use of rooms/theatres that are simply not appropriate to the class size or intended pedagogy? The limitations of such spaces was highlighted as a significant issue for some of our staff (e.g. visually impaired or wheelchair using lecturers) as well as students.
  • The need to build in UDL principles across the curriculum was mentioned – the need for programme level (not module level) thinking was emphasised.
  • A number of attendees mentioned the value of developing practical, achievable case studies to highlight what people are doing in their practice with respect to UDL – this was highlighted as something that would potentially be of use/value to staff who want to take these principles on board.
  • Another tool suggested was some kind of checklist that enables staff to evaluate their courses against key UDL standards – as well as identifying strengths, this could help to target areas for improvement. It was emphasised that some form of scaffolding would be needed to exemplify what it means to make progress in each of the 9 principles highlighted above.
Some Participants at Sipping Point Glasnevin UDL
Some of the participants at the Glasnevin Sipping Point Session on UDL

Glasnevin Session

The discussion at Glasnevin brought up a number of similar themes. The UDL checklist suggestion was reiterated again, to help aid understanding of what needs to be done with respect to fonts, labels, subtitles etc. Furthermore:

  • It was acknowledged that “withholding” of resources/notes was happening, generally with the intent of encouraging students to attend lectures in person. This led to a discussion about whether or not it is advisable to do this. The following guidance from University College London (UCL) about making lecture materials available in advance offers several pointers to help you evaluate that approach from both staff and student perspectives.
  • Attendees present from DCU Open Education made the point that their team commits to making all course materials available online from September each year. Acknowledging the high workload involved in making these resources and activities available upfront, the freeing benefits of this approach over the remainder of the year were also noticed.
  • The importance of offering a variety of assessment methods (e.g. an introductory video as an alternative to an in-person presentation) was underlined. However, feedback from the staff survey indicated that providing these important resources requires significant time investment in terms of setting up flexible assessments, and this needs to be recognised when measuring academic outputs. “The investment can often go unrecognised compared to publishing articles etc and therefore this needs more encouragement from the academic system.”
  • The need to better understand assessment equivalences was mentioned. A starting point for exploration and further discussion at School level may be the UCD guide on assessment equivalences (Galvin, Noonan & O’Neill, 2012).

These sessions highlighted forthcoming activities that should be of interest to staff seeking to inform their knowledge and practice of inclusive approaches – watch out for a series of student panel discussions and a visit from UDL expert Dr Abigail Moriarty of De Montfort University in February 2019.  The Sipping Point sessions culminated with an open invitation to join the UDL in DCU Working Group to move ahead and act on the important points raised.

Karen Speaking at UDL
Karen Buckley of the TEU presenting at the UDL-focused Sipping Point. Karina Curley (Student Support & Development) & Carol Ellis (Disability Office) collaborated on this presentation.


Galvin, A., Noonan, E. and O’Neill, G. (2012) Assessment: Assessment Workload and Equivalences. UCD Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/UCDTLA0038.pdf

McGuire, J. M., Scott, S. and Shaw, S. F. (2006) ‘Universal design and its application in educational environments’. Remedial and Special Education 27(3), pp. 166-175).

Padden, L., O’Connor, J., Barrett, T., (2016). Universal Design for Curriculum Design: Case Studies from UCD.

Scott, S., McGuire, J. M. and Foley, T. (2003) ‘Universal design for instruction: a framework for anticipating and responding to disability and other diverse learning needs in the college classroom’ Equity & Excellence in Education, 36(1), pp. 40-49.

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