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Faculty Learning Community helps professors support students’ differing learning styles

BOONE—A group of faculty members at Appalachian State University has spent the past two years stepping out of their comfort zone to explore an approach to teaching that makes learning more accessible to students.

View larger imageMembers of a Faculty Learning Community focused on students’ learning differences are, from left, Dr. Lynette Holman, communication; Dr. Suzanna Bräuer, biology; Dr. Sandi Lane, health care management; Scott Rice, reference librarian; Dr. Lindsay Masland, psychology; and Dr. Nigel Davies, faculty development consultant. (Photo by Marie Freeman)

A faculty learning community (FLC) supported by Appalachian’s Hubbard Programs for Faculty Excellence explored the concepts of Universal Design for Learning, in which curriculum is tailored to meet the different ways students learn.

Faculty in the FLC redesigned one of their courses based on UDL principles, implemented the newly designed course and then evaluated each other’s course design and classroom activities.

In a UDL-designed course, for example, a faculty member could use a variety of instructional materials and formats, such as collaborative and individual learning activities, practical experiences, student choice for demonstrating learning and encouraging pertinent use of technology to present material, engage students and teach a concept. Learning outside the classroom is also a critical part of Universal Design for Learning.

“UDL is not lowering standards,” said Dr. Nigel Davies, who facilitated the learning community. “It is about increasing accessibility to learning by removing artificial barriers and unnecessary jargon and offering choices and alternatives to the way students can interact with information and demonstrate their learning.”

To demonstrate their knowledge, students might research information rather than just read a textbook, develop a digital presentation instead of writing an essay, or give an oral presentation with a variety of electronic props to express their mastery of a theory or concept.

Implementing UDL concepts requires some faculty to “step or even leap out of their comfort zone,” Davies said, and abandon their traditional lecture format.

Dr. Sandi Lane, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management, participated in the UDL-focused learning community. Now in her fourth year at Appalachian, she wanted to learn about opportunities for enhancing her teaching and interaction with students.

In addition to her work with the FLC, she also attended a related course redesign retreat and workshops.

The work of the UDL-focused faculty learning community was funded by an allocation from a larger grant awarded to Appalachian’s College Star ( project from the Oak Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland and the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation.

“I thought it might be a good way to learn more about teaching and learning,” Lane said. “The concept of universal design involves creating a classroom environment that all can access interested me. I didn’t realize until I spent the last two years working with the faculty learning community and learning about universal design, that there might be students sitting in my classroom who are listening, but my teaching method and style was missing them.”

Lane dropped lectures as a primary way to present material in her Principles of Leadership for Health Services Organizations class, and redesigned the course to mirror real-world settings and problems her students are likely to encounter when they enter the workforce.

The redesigned course emphasized teamwork, collecting data and evaluating best practices in health care, among other activities.

She admits students at first were reluctant to be in a class that was not lecture based and in some ways felt like they were “teaching themselves” as they researched leadership theories or practices. But the real-world setting of working in teams not only better prepares students for leadership roles in hospitals, nursing homes or other professional settings, Lane said, it also led to improved grades among those who were active participants in the team exercises.

“That’s what I kept emphasizing. This is real. You will work in a team that acts just like yours,” she said. “The students learned that in health care we have to use all of our resources, we are held accountable by our team and in order to be a part of a team you have to actively participate.”

While UDL principles may be easier to incorporate into the humanities-based curriculum, Lane encourages other faculty to explore UDL in their course design.

“If we take UDL and think about how students learn differently, absorb information differently and at different rates, we can provide access to course content, be supportive of their learning and be cognizant of the fact that students are different from one another,” Lane said.

Davies used UDL concepts to redesign his First Year Seminar class titled Major Influences on U.S. Culture.

“To break down barriers to learning, you plan the course to reach students who might have trouble organizing their thoughts or are embarrassed to talk in large groups, for example,” he said. “So I plan anticipating students’ learning differences so that I have a lot of options when I need them.”

Cardboard tubes and boxes provided the visual clues to help students better understand DNA helixes and binding sites for Associate Professor Suzanna Bräuer who teaches a junior-level microbiology class.

Ping pong balls, rope and other materials also help students visualize biology concepts.

“The students love it,” Bräuer said of her redesigned class. I have as many hands-on demonstrations and work problems as possible. It’s a lot of work, but once you have it and if you keep it organized, it’s easy to use.”

Bräuer had received some training in science pedagogy while a graduate student at Cornell University, but she knows not every Ph.D. program addresses classroom instruction.

“In my mind, for someone whose degree is not in education, University Design for Learning hits a greater breadth of learning styles,” she said. “It boils down to just being a good instructor and offering multiple means of expression and representation.”

Bräuer also has students work in groups, especially on MCAT level problems. MCAT is the Medical College Admission Test. “I had students get really mad at me for using these problems, which have open-ended questions. But I converted them to multiple choice and let them work in groups to explain which answer is correct. This gives them confidence, which makes the class session go from an annoying exercise that they don’t want to do, to an exercise they enjoy doing. And they really get a lot out of it.”

Students’ grades have also improved as a result of incorporating UDL concepts when practical.

“It really has transformed my teaching in a lot of ways and it has also improved the number of students earning an A in the course. It has been rising every year,” Bräuer said.

“Members of the FLC continue to meet once a month to refine their teaching efforts to continue to expand our abilities to embrace all kinds of learners in our courses,” Davies said. “We agree that none of us could ever again design a course without applying the philosophical principles of UDL.”