Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for alternative assessment methods during a time of a pandemic

What was the activity?

For the Wider Professional Practice module of our Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, our trainee teachers complete a poster presentation where they critically evaluate aspects of quality assurance and quality improvement in education. Prior to the pandemic, poster presentations used to happen as an ‘academic fair’ where half of the group would present academic posters while the rest would circulate and engage with the presenters. Due to lockdown, my team and I at the School of Education* reviewed how the learning outcomes could be met in an alternative way.

The underlying theory for the redesign of the assessment follows the principles of Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2021) where educators are advised to provide multiple means of:

a) engagement
b) representation
c) action and expression


As the task involves the production and presentation of an academic poster, we focused on providing alternative forms of ‘action and expression’ (UDL, in Cast, 2021) for trainees to meet the assessment criteria. The criteria’s focus is on the presentation of information, rather than on the poster itself.
The strategy was to move from a strictly physical presentation of academic posters (audio-visual and synchronous) to hybrid approaches. We now have some students producing a physical poster by sticking bits of paper with text and graphs on to a cardboard (or design it digitally and print it) and present the information live or pre-record the audio. Alternatively, some use digital means to produce and present the information either live or pre-recorded, for example via a PowerPoint with a voiceover. These options offer alternative ways not only to produce and present the information, but also to engage the audience and the assessor.

A noticeable difference now is that during the latest ‘academic fairs’ where the posters are assessed (synchronously) some may not even need to talk but press play and let the voiceovers, audio files, digital posters, PowerPoints, or video recordings, engage the audience and assessor via asynchronously recorded presentations. This has been particularly useful for learners with anxiety.

In order to keep clear parameters for a fair assessment, we have kept the timings for the presentation and core contents the same. However, alternative ways of ‘action and expression’ (CAST, 2021) have allowed us to witness mostly three ways to engage with the task, as follows.

1) The poster is produced physically or digitally, and the information is presented live.

2) The poster is produced physically or digitally, and the information is presented via an audio recording. These asynchronous recordings can be played during the synchronous assessment, or the assessor may choose to listen to it asynchronously.

3) The poster is produced using PowerPoint and the information is recorded using the program’s ‘record’ function. This integrates both audio and visual components within the same file. A PowerPoint with voiceover can also be exported as an mp4 video file, which can be uploaded to a private YouTube or Teams channel, thus offering an additional way to engage the audience synchronously or asynchronously.

The meaningfulness of the assessment came from a reflection of what would be more relevant to support our trainee teachers’ professional practice, rather than what was more convenient for us as assessors.

In summary, as educators present information all the time, and ‘multimodality’ (Andrews, 2011, p. 106), multimedia pedagogies (Roberts, 2021) and diverse ways for ‘engagement’ and ‘representation’ (UDL, in CAST, 2021) are embraced in higher education, the use of digital technologies can be explored not only for teaching and learning but also for meaningful assessments. Having now the options of physical and/or digital ways to produce and present the information required to meet assessment criteria has allowed our students to play to their strengths. For example, in one of my groups, approximately 60% chose to pre-record while the rest presented their posters or PowerPoints live. The feedback received from trainees has been very positive, in that they felt that choosing the focus of their tasks and the way to produce them made it engaging and relevant to their professional and academic interests. A drawback of these alternative methods is that during the previous ‘academic fair’ there were aspects of interaction and peer learning that are limited now with the digital pre-recordings. To overcome this, I have asked some of my trainees to consider sharing their work via our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for peers to engage with it asynchronously.

How did it impact students?

This assessment task is generally challenging due to the preponderance of quality assurance processes in education. Comparing the outcomes and experiences of previous cohorts to more recent ones where we adopted alternative assessment methods, we can see a considerable difference in the outcomes and overall student experience. For example, by allowing flexible approaches, we have seen higher quality work and reduced stress amongst the learners. As articulated by one of them: ‘The choice allows the learner to play to their strengths when presenting their acquired knowledge. However, it also provides an opportunity for learners to challenge themselves’.

An important consideration here is that many of our trainee teachers complete the programme on a part-time basis whilst working full time. In addition to this, some have families and caring responsibilities, making the need for flexibility a matter of fairness and equity. As a couple of the trainees observe:

‘The option for assessment method helps to manage stress/anxiety around assessments. I know we present all the time but being able to record a couple of slides at a time means that the entire assessment doesn’t rest on your performance in one specific timeslot’.

‘The most beneficial part of the flexible assessment for myself was that the flexibility helped relieve the pressure I usually feel during assessments’.

Any advice for others?

Working as part of a team is extremely useful to critically evaluate the effectiveness and appropriacy of current assessment methods. Even though the need to incorporate flexible assessment stemmed from a need to find ways to function at the time of a pandemic, there were valuable lessons that needed to be carried forward. As advice, I would suggest both aspects: first, work with colleagues and, if possible, involve students or alumni to evaluate the advantages, limitations, and practicalities of current assessments. Also, consider alternative ways to assess where choice of action and expression are built into the task. Above all, you should factor in flexible parameters to make it fair for everybody. For example, regardless of the ways in which the contents were to be presented, for this task we set time limits that all students had to adhere to, as well as clear assessment rubrics that ensure clarity of expectations from the outset. In choosing any flexible assessments, a final and important consideration is to favour those that advantage the students more than the assessor. Instead of changing the task from a poster presentation to an assignment, we wanted to preserve those communication skills which are most important in professional practice, rather than changing it to a method which would make it easier for us to assess.

References

Andrews, R. (2011) ‘Does e-learning require a new theory of learning? Some initial thoughts’, Journal for Educational Research Online, 3(1), pp. 104–121. https://doi.org/10.25656/01:4684 

CAST (2021) About Universal Design for Learning.  Available at: https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl (Accessed: 23 June 2022).

Roberts, D (2021) ‘I see, therefore I learn: pedagogic innovation in the cognitive-visual era’, Journal of Business and Social Science Review, 2(5), pp.16-26. DOI: 10.48150/jbssr.v2no5.2021.a2

*With thanks and full acknowledgement to the team of teacher educators at Newcastle College School of Education: Dr. Lisa Fernandes, Shona Dunn, Kate Harries, Jane Pollinger, Mike Abraham, and Stuart Moor. Also, thanks to the PGCE trainee teachers who provided insightful feedback.

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About the author

  • Leonardo Morantes-Africano

    Leo is a teacher educator working in college-based higher education. He is currently completing his doctorate in education at the University of Glasgow, and his main areas of interest are social justice, queer and critical theory, and technology in education.

How to cite

Morantes-Africano, L. (2022) Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for alternative assessment methods during a time of a pandemic. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/applying-universal-design-for-learning-udl-for-alternative-assessment-methods-during-a-time-of-a-pandemic/. (Accessed: 30 November 2022)

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Posted in Edition 2, Recipes for Success