A pink-orange background with text that reads ‘12 UDL Tips for 2024.’ Tip #6 – Strive to Develop Expert Learners, not Good Students. The illustration shows a person sitting on a large pile of books, reading a smaller book under a clock.

Tip #6 – Strive to Develop Expert Learners, not “Good” Students

Good students are a joy for teachers. They always get excellent grades on tests and quizzes without showing much effort. They turn in assignments on time and rarely need assistance from the teacher. They consistently engage in classroom activities and always answer questions. One might even be tempted to believe that they actually care about the course content because of how easily they demonstrate their mastery of the material. Yet, I can’t think of a single instance where I said to myself, “I really helped that student become a good student.” They waltz into your (and everyone else’s) 1st or 2nd year classroom already possessing the skills to do well.

Expert learners are a different story. They don’t necessarily come into post-secondary with the ability to memorize, organize, analyze, and follow instructions. They will need to be shown how to do these things in order to become expert at them. With a UDL mindset, however, the joy of developing expert learners can be even greater than watching the good students waltz through your course.

Definition of Expert Learner

CAST, the organization that created the Universal Design for Learning framework, defines expert learners as “purposeful and engaged, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed” (CAST 2017). These sets of adjectives in turn relate to the specific cognitive networks of the brain pictured in the image below: the affective, recognition, and strategic networks.

A lateral view of the human brain, color-coded to highlight three distinct neural networks: green for Affective networks (why), blue for Strategic networks (how), and purple for Recognition networks (what). This visual representation helps illustrate the division of cognitive processes within the brain.
(CAST 2018)

The affective network helps answer the question “why” we should learn something in the first place, so it is crucial that learners feel “purposeful and engaged.” This could be as straight-forward as taking 5 minutes of class time to share the real-world context that explains why the topic is important or as subtle as playing a song everyday as students enter class to set the mood or even introduce a theme from the course material. UDL allows for instructors to be creative in designing the overall learning environment, so engaging the learner’s affective network is a great place to turn on the switches that help develop an expert learner. Overt discussion of how the learning outcomes relate to students’ personal goals can also fill in that answer to the “why” of learning.

For the good student, the recognition network is already fired up and helping them ace their weekly quizzes. Developing an expert learner requires not only introducing content, the “what” that is being learned, but also aiding students to become intentionally “resourceful and knowledgeable.” This could mean building on what learners already know through a poll or discussion prior to digging into a topic. It could also mean spending class time on scaffolded activities that get students to find and use resources that will help them to fulfill their larger learning outcomes and assignments. Frequent feedback that establishes high standards for individual learning and clarifies disciplinary expectations creates a clear roadmap for expert learning. Using resource activities to scaffold learning is like teaching parallel parking to successfully prepare students for the overall road test.

Finally, engaging the strategic network may be the most pivotal part of developing expert learners. Instructors tend to over-focus on the “what” of learning, assume the “why” is a given, and often treat the “how” as part of an implicit educational pact that good students somehow adhere to and bad ones willfully neglect. The notion that “how to learn” is implicitly understood by all students is the largest obstacle to developing expert learners.

Instructors can emphasize the steps of the learning process to model how to work through them. For example, in a writing course, the class can anonymously share thesis statements. The instructor explains both the good and bad elements of the student samples, eventually leading the students to identify and correct mistakes as a group. To take it a step further, allow students to use any of the class-revised theses to then locate evidence and develop arguments building to a draft paper. This moves away from the idea that good students mysteriously produce good results and shifts the focus to the process of working through mistakes towards mastery.

One of the most powerful moments in an expert learner’s development is when the student reflects upon their learning process. However, the instructor is again responsible for designing self-reflection into the course and modeling how to effectively use reflection. And because Universal Design for Learning benefits all students, even the good students who didn’t necessarily have to work hard at it will leave your course with a better understanding of not just what they learned, but also why and how they learned best.