UDL Awareness Month: Multiple Means of Engagement

May is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Month at Langara.

(CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

The UDL Working Group has organized a series of events and posts for the entire month of May to get our community involved with UDL in a variety of ways — big and small. To get the UDL momentum going a new article, event, or resources will be shared each week of May. Last week’s post highlighted the plus-one approach to implementing UDL. This week will focus on the first principle of UDL: Multiple Means of Engagement.

Universal Design for Learning

The concept of UDL offers a framework in which design, development, delivery, and evaluation of learning can by reimagined by drawing from three core principles: engagement (the why of learning), representation (the what of learning), and action and expression (the how of learning). Each principle aligns with a particular brain network and the UDL principles are designed to specifically address the learning related with each neural network. UDL is designed to meet the unique needs of all learners through challenging instruction that is both flexible and varied.

What is the affective network and why is it important to learning?

The affective network is the “why” of learning and is related to learner motivation, persistence, and engagement (CAST, 2018). Learning experiences that trigger students’ affective network require students use their background knowledge and prior experiences to make emotional connections to new concepts.

By designing learning modes with the affective networks in mind, we help our learners answer these questions.

  • Why should I care about this?
  • Why should I learn it?
  • Why is this important to me?

Why use multiple means of engagement?

A variety of sources influence individual variation in affect including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge, along with a variety of other factors. Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by flexible aspects, preferring strict routines. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. No single means of engagement is optimal for all learners in all contexts so providing multiple options for engagement is essential.

You can provide your students with multiple means of engagement using the following strategies:

  • Recruiting and capturing their interest
  • Fostering self-regulation
  • Sustaining effort and persistence

How can I implement multiple means of engagement using the “plus-one” approach?

The adoption of taking an UDL approach can be iterative and incremental. In the book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, authors Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling suggest adopting the “Plus-One Mindset” when implementing UDL. Adopt one of the suggestions below to provide another way to engage students.

Course Outline

Course outlines and course learning outcomes inform students of the course content and outcomes, by offering a description of the content and curriculum expectations, describing the assessment methods and material requirements, and identifying important policies that learners must be aware of.

  • Begin with a welcoming statement. Use the course outline to create a welcoming environment.
  • Establish ground rules. Clearly state what is expected of your learners and hold each of them to the same standards.

Course Activities

A learning activity is a task that engages the learner in the learning process, having them utilize or research appropriate information to build a foundation of knowledge or develop a skill set pertinent to the course learning outcomes.

  • Incorporate discussions: Peer engagement in the face-to-face classroom is an important part of developing and creating confidence. Learners share learning and studying approaches, discuss and clarify assessments, develop communication skills, and diversify their perspectives. In the online environment, virtual discussions can foster a similar engagement.

Both synchronous and asynchronous discussions can be conducted online, however, consider how each learner is able to use and engage with the mode you select. Asynchronous discussions allow for multiple modes of submissions. They give learners the opportunity to respond in a time that suits their schedules and an opportunity to digest and reflect before responding. Synchronous discussion allows instructors to address questions immediately, however, it may not be available to all learners depending on their availability, the platform hosting the discussion, and the availability of accessible features, like captions.

  • Encourage use of reflections, journals, and blogs: Completing a journal entry, blog, or weekly reflection helps keep learners engaged with the content and on track in the course. Weekly reflections allow learners to further explore their learning, investigate how it may be applicable to their lives, and reflect upon any difficulties they may have in a topic or section. As well, the entries, if available to the instructor, can provide insight into learners’ progress through the course and be a connection point for discussion between instructor and learner.
  • Offer opportunities for self-assessments and peer-assessments: Self-assessments encourage learners to look critically at their work and to assess their effort for completeness and quality. Peer-assessments expose the learner to the work of others, encouraging the development of a rubrics set by the instructor, the class becomes familiarized with the expectations and key considerations for a project and the rubric feedback is useful for future revisions.
  • Consider using pre-tests: Building pre-tests into the online environment can support learning by allowing learners to test their understanding without penalty. Feedback from this form of support directs them to areas of weakness that may need further review and can indicate useful support resources.

Communication and Feedback

Communication between the instructor and learners, both at a course and at an individual level, is essential in an online course to establish presence and to develop a sense of community. The instructor’s role is to convey information and news about the course schedule, assignments and content and provide encouragement and feedback to learners. Feedback is the contact between the instructor and a learner in relation to the progress towards the learning outcomes, reflections on assignments and activity performance, and is intended to be supportive of progress and improvement.

  • Establish a connection with learners: Learners at a distance face unique challenges, including their geographic location and studying independently. Feelings of detachment, loneliness, and a lack of engagement are key factors contributing to underperformance and dropping out. To some degree this can be addressed through group work and discussions but establishing a connection between the learner and instructor is important as well, especially since the online learner and instructor are not likely to meet in person.

Start with a welcoming message posted in the newsfeed of the learning management system, but also connect on an individual level. In courses with smaller numbers, write an individualized email, in larger courses, post on the discussion board.

  • Offer constructive feedback: Everyone makes mistakes; use your feedback to guide your learner’s progress. Offering insightful comments or thought-provoking questions can help reframe a learner’s thought process and help them navigate to a successful completion. Vague, unclear, or overly critical comments can negatively affect learning. Instead, use constructive criticism and helpful feedback to avoid creating confusion, discouragement, and disengagement.
  • Provide feedback frequently and in a timely manner: Connect often with your learners and give frequent feedback on assignments, activities, and discussions. This gives them an update on their progress within the course and can help them build their learning strategy and work towards the learning outcomes.

Both peer and instructor feedback can be beneficial in correcting misconceptions, clarifying tasks and assignments, and building knowledge, but to be useful it must be provided in a timely manner. Online environments can also provide automated feedback so that users can instantaneously assess their performance and understanding.

  • Seek learner feedback: Mid-point evaluations and check-ins with learners provide valuable information to the instructor, course developer, and the design team during the delivery of the course. Continually collecting learner feedback helps determine if course outcomes are being met, if any clarification or adjustments are needed, and can indicate barriers and difficulties with the design or content.


Assessments document and measure an individual learner’s progress towards the learning outcomes of the course. Assessment methods may vary and include, but are not limited to, written tests or reports, presentations, activities, discussions, and exams.

  • Constructively align assessments with learning outcomes: Clearly developed learning outcomes will dictate the focus of your assessments. Constructing assessments that are directly aligned with the course learning outcomes allows the instructor to evaluate the learner’s progress towards the learning outcomes and indicates to learners exactly what is expected of them.
  • Consider using frequent (short) assignments/assessments: When planning assessments consider breaking down large assignments into sections or utilizing more frequent smaller assessments. Courses with limited high-value assessments can be intimidating. Learners with time constraints, executive functioning challenges, or who may underperform in one assessment area, may struggle to successfully complete assignments and the course. Assessing learners more frequently helps them stay on top of coursework, to meet timelines and assignment dates, reduces the anxiety surrounding large assessments, and provides a status update on the learner’s progress towards the learning outcomes.
  • Allow for ongoing revisions or draft submissions: Breaking down large assignments into smaller sections helps motivate learners and keeps them engaged and working in the online environment. By allowing learners to tackle smaller sections, the task is less daunting and more manageable. Receiving peer or instructor feedback provides monitored progress towards the assignment’s goal and promotes interactions with both peers and the instructor.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license. It remixes Universal Design – Best Practices for Online Learning, Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners (HE), and The K-12 Educational Technology Handbook.