Designing a course with equity in mind largely appeals to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). By emphasizing flexibility and diversity in teaching and reducing reliance on base assumptions about where students are coming from, UDL “opens up” your course to a broader spectrum of learners. This page emphasizes the importance of multiple means of expression in designing for equity and inclusion in this way. For an overview of accessibility and UDL, take a look at this interactive post.
What does “multiple means of expression” mean?
“Expression,” in universal design-speak, refers to the “how” of learning. In practical terms, providing multiple means of expression refers to offering students multiple ways to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes. This can mean offering multiple ways to complete an assignment or multiple ways to practice the skills they need to do well on an assignment, that offering options for summative or formative assessments.
There is not one assignment type that is optimal for all learners. A learner with dyslexia, for example, maybe a great storyteller but not a great story writer. Add to this example cultural differences in practices around storytelling. Having multiple options to express learning will help enable all learners to find the one that will work best for them.
Focus on your outcomes to determine if offering multiple summative assessments is right for your class. For example, if your outcomes ask for students to “explain” an important concept, to what extent can they show mastery of the outcome by explaining in written or oral formats?
Focusing on the outcomes heightens the “construct relevance” of an assignment. Universal design relies upon the concept of construct relevance or assessing students on the skills we want them to demonstrate. For example, a learning outcome where students “explain” important course concepts in an essay relies on them being able to write an essay. This may be great if there are course outcomes about the ability to write essays. If, however, we wish to have students develop their skills at explaining, then presentations, videos, or an oral exam will also assess this outcome. See this page about alignment or this one on backward design for more.
Sometimes multiple means of expression are not possible, either because the class is large or because the assessment is to prepare students for a credentialing experience, such as a licensure exam. In these cases, you may wish to offer multiple ways for students to practice the skills they will need for the assessment: time management, retrieval of information in practice quizzes, etc. Alternatively, you can offer students examples that demonstrate multiple ways that students can complete the assignment. If the assessment itself is set, then offering ways to practice or examples to follow can be an alternative route to meeting the multiple means of expression assignment.
How it helps students
Offering multiple means to express knowledge helps students in multiple ways. First, adding new means of expression will likely involve using contemporary over traditional tools to complete assignments which will provide practice in using tools – such as video creation software – that students will use in their future careers. Second, allowing for multiple means of expression will open up the range of content and teaching methods used in the course. Third, allowing multiple means of expression will allow learners to align their choice with the circumstances of their life. Do they have access to a place to record a video, for example? Finally, and most importantly, offering multiple means of expression will allow more than one type of learner to be successful in your class.
The work of universal design will likely encourage you to reflect automatically on how transparent your course and its materials are, especially when it comes to the “purpose” of student labor. UDL asks us to consider the degree to which the form of assessment matters. That is, to what extent is it important that students show their knowledge in an essay or on a test or by doing a speech. There are certainly examples where it is important for students to master certain forms: lab reports, case studies, etc. But that is not necessarily the case and it is useful to offer options for summative assessments if they measure student achievement of learning outcomes equally well.
Offering multiple means of expression will also make a class more resilient. Random events happen every semester: a student faces a concern you have not encountered, or you receive an accommodation request out of the blue, a student gets deployed for military service, etc. Having multiple means for students to show mastery will help ensure that instructors do not have to scramble at the last minute to develop an alternative assignment and decide whether to open it to the rest of the class in the name of fairness.
How to achieve multiple means of expression
Look to your outcomes
First, consider adding multiple means to one assignment or type of assignment (if, for example, you do the same type of short essay for each unit) in your course at a time. Don’t try to overhaul your entire course.
Next, heighten the “construct relevance” of the assessment by thinking of all the types of assessment that you could use to evaluate the outcomes which align with your assessment. To what extent do these alternative assessment methods offer an equivalent way for students to show their mastery of your course outcomes? What would you need to change about your grading criteria if you offered these alternative assessments? (That last question is a good way to determine if you are assessing aspects that are not in the outcome. For example, if you have students solve story problems in Math but the outcome is limited to the computational elements, you are also assessing a student’s ability to read and comprehend a story problem. If this is important, you may need to change your learning outcome to account for it.)
You may wish brainstorm some assessment types that will work for your outcome(s). Select the assessments from your brainstormed list which will allow students to show mastery and you can realistically add to your class.
Offer chances to practice
If it is not possible to offer alternatives for your assessment – because it is important for students to master how to do well on a licensure exam – for example – you may be able to offer students chances to practice the skills which come with the format of the assessment. For example, if it is important that the assessment in your class mirror the multiple-choice format of an accounting license exam, then mastering that exam format is a learning outcome.
In this case, you can break the skills down that are necessary to perform well on a multiple choice exam in the discipline: to read questions quickly, look for keywords, eliminate choices, determine what the question is asking, etc. In this way, you can help students build toward the skill of taking the exam that your class is preparing them to pass.
Tobin, Thomas J., and Kirsten T. Behling. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone (Links to an external site.): Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018.