Dr. Guy Boysen joined us on episode 059 Studying UDL and Science Discourse to discuss how CAST & UDL researchers use current research, and what is needed in future studies to better support UDL implementation.
Michael Ralph: [00:02:00] Let’s get started for our first segment. We read lessons, not learned the troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:02:11] This is written by our guest Dr. Guy Boysen
Michael Ralph: [00:02:14] Dr. Guy Boysen is a professor of psychology at McKendree university.
His professional career has been dedicated to improving his own teaching and supporting the development of other teachers through writing, editing, and professional service within organizations like the society for the teaching of psychology. Thanks for joining us Guy.
Guy Boysen: [00:02:30] Thank you so much for the invitation.
It’s wonderful to be here.
Michael Ralph: [00:02:33] Yeah. So let’s so let’s start by framing. Um, what is UDL?
Guy Boysen: [00:02:38] Yeah, I can talk just a little bit about, uh, I don’t know. Maybe the background of the paper and also frame UDL for that. So, you know, with some colleagues a few years ago, I was writing, uh, updating a book about teaching and looking over it to make it more focused after the pandemic on how to incorporate online teaching.
And so that led me down a rabbit hole of, okay, what are the effective ways to use media? And that pretty quickly led me to UDL. And so I read the book, reach, everyone, teach everyone and initially thought, wow, Oh, did amazing. And it’s basically, that’s an application of UDL to the college setting. I thought this is a lot of really good ideas, a lot of things that make a lot of sense.
And I kind of put that book on the shelf for a while and then something was sort of tickling my brain. Um, and some of the ideas kind of stuck in my craw. And I, I went back and I thought, well, I should go and see if these ideas are supported by research. And that’s when I started to have some doubts. And so the ideas basically of UDL is that.
Uh, people don’t learn the same way is the, they, they often say that there’s no average learner. And so you have to address multiple ways that people learn. So they talk about providing people with multiple forms. So multiple representations. So you might give someone a, if you’re teaching them, you might give them a book or you might give them audio, or you might give them video.
Uh, but also talk about multiple means of engagement. So they want people to be able to motivate themselves. So you might allow a student to, uh, if they’re engaged by working with people, allow them to work with other people, or if they’re more engaged, working alone, you might work with them alone. And then you also allow people multiple ways of expression.
So if somebody is really great at. You allow them to, write and if you, someone is really great at making videos, you allow them to make a video. And so you’re trying to allow people to reach their highest potential and learn the most, uh, by allowing them basically to match who they are as a learner, to the information, how they express that information, how they engage with that information.
And that’s sort of my little tiny nugget of a little tiny, quick summary of UDL.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:04:55] All of those things sound really good. Right. We’ve been talking about differentiation in education forever and UDL is sort of like anticipate the differentiation and put it in the hands of the students so they can take greater autonomy and investment of their educational narrative and experience in your classroom.
So it sort of feels like democratizing differentiation and that has all kinds of emotionally positive narratives that people can really grasp onto. So sounds great.
Michael Ralph: [00:05:28] You said that they say that there is learner variability. Is, is there a learner variability? Is that something that, uh, there’s conflicting evidence on or is that something that we can kind of stipulate in the remainder of our conversation?
Guy Boysen: [00:05:39] Well, that I would say is if you look at my paper, that’s one of the main points of my paper. So I would argue that. Uh, there are, and I think psychologists would argue that there are known ways that people learn. So we learn through repetition, through practice, through active engagement, with what we’re trying to learn, uh, through sort of deep processing, thinking about things at a, at a meaningful level and not just a surface level.
And those are just some of the basic examples. So I think that psychologists, cognitive scientists would argue that those are. Non-negotiable things. That’s how people learn. And so what UDL, I think I would argue is a little bit off base is this argument that there’s no average learner. And so they focus on the individual differences in those things rather than the fact that there are some universal ways that people.
Michael Ralph: [00:06:40] I think that saying UDL is suggesting to ignore or neglect some of the generally true things, overlooks that if you commit the other direction to focus entirely on the universal components of teaching and learning and generate a classroom that does treat every student as somebody who falls in the middle of a bell curve, misses
as much of the point as if you were to say that every student should, um, should be able to define their own learning.
Guy Boysen: [00:07:11] Well, to me, there’s always a pretty simple answer and the answer is let’s put it to a test. So what, what do we have evidence for? Uh, if you’ve tested, how people learn, do we have evidence that there’s universal things or that it’s more advantageous to focus on
people’s individual learning? And so, you know what I argue in the papers that we, in a sense education already tried this with learning styles. And what we found when people actually tried to look at learning styles is that matching people’s individual styles was not really effective. It didn’t have the effect that people thought that it would.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:07:52] That’s actually one of the things, uh, I was feeling when I was reading this paper, your paper, uh, that it wasn’t necessarily saying UDL is bad and we should not do it. And you guys are all, you know, fooled and bamboozled. It is, if we actually care about this idea, Then let’s do some appropriate scientific measurements and try to make some comparisons that are valid so that we can actually wrestle with how to do this better.
Guy Boysen: [00:08:23] That your point is exactly correct. And if you look at my paper, I would argue most of the points or roughly half of the points in there are about let’s take a look and gather some evidence. Not that there’s anything that’s fundamentally wrong about UDL.
Michael Ralph: [00:08:41] You mentioned the data that’s available and referenced like learning styles.
One of those, one of those debunked. Uh, thoughts that came out in education research a little while ago, we have did an episode on, uh, learning styles. This was a while back as an episode 19, that we looked at some of that, some of that discussion. Yeah, I know. I can’t believe it was that long ago. Um, and so.
I also want to reference what’s do we currently know about approaching education with a universal paradigm? Because I would argue that looking at some of the historical measures of things like student participation, achievement, and attainment, you see that some of those gaps are coming out from approaching education as a one size fits all endeavor.
Guy Boysen: [00:09:20] Well, I guess if I could rephrase your questions it’s could we do better? Yeah, of course we could do better. Uh, and. I would argue that one way we could do better is actually have people implement. What we know works for for education. And I think we’re, at some ways we might be talking across each other in a little bit, because I am not, you know, I have, I’m gonna be completely agnostic in terms of, uh, you know, primary and high school education, because that’s not my field, but in terms of college education, I can definitely say that we are not at a place where people are using, uh, educational techniques that are known to be effective.
Michael Ralph: [00:10:07] That’s so
I’m glad that you pointed that out. So you had a table in your paper, a little ways on table one that sort of summarize some of the material and a handful of most relevant UDL studies. And I really appreciated that inclusion in this paper because it was helpful to see some of the examples that you’re describing right in there.
You can see references to lectures, you can see references to, uh, some more antiquated techniques that are updated, to some degree and that’s better than not updating them, but there’s also still a lot of room to continue updating them into alignment with what we currently know about contextually effective practices.
I think that, so I think we’re, I think we’re singing the same song there. Approaches like, let’s go back to that active learning. A lot of the notes that I made were like, yeah, let’s make more connections to active learning. Is there are, there’s a wide variety of applications of active learning, especially in higher education literature.
Some of them are awesome. So there are things to which I aspire. Some of them, I think. Barely meeting the criteria, right? Like, yeah, it’s, it’s better than the most passive of learnings, but there’s still a lot of room to improve that at application. I think the same thing is true for UDL is UDL is not actually a dichotomous.
You either are, or are not doing any singular thing that is UDL, but that you’re interweaving the UDL framework and the priorities within that framework into. Your your, your broader pedagogy. That includes things like disciplinary practices. And so I don’t think that it’s an either or here, and it actually goes back to one of the points that you make that I think is really important.
That’s about operationalizing UDL
Guy Boysen: [00:11:43] would, you know, I think there’s an article titled something like, would, you know, UDL if you saw it or could you recognize it if you saw it? And the idea is what is. UDL? Like, what do you, how much UDL do you have to do to be doing UDL? How many variations do you need, uh, for the multiple means?
Do you even need multiple means? Do you have to use all three components for it to be UDL? So there’s really a, the operational operationalization is a, is a very important thing. Uh, because in a sense, how would you ever it’s so complex, how would you ever disprove that UDL? Well, let me rephrase that. How could you ever, well, no, we’ll use that to be science.
You have to be able to have something be falsifiable. How could you ever falsify UDL it’s so big and unwieldy and has so many things in it it’s it would be impossible to test all of it. Uh, it it’s. So there needs to be something that is a clear definition of what it means to be someone who uses UDL.
Where does it use UDL?
Laurence Woodruff: [00:12:50] Well, I thought it was very interesting. A note that I considered for the first time as I was reading, this is that universal design for learning is a predictive approach. I’m going to have some students who, who want to do this, or have trouble with this, or haven’t experienced this.
And so I need to give them choices that accommodate this, this, and this for those considerations. And I’m going to do all that ahead of time and I’m going to let them choose. And then we’re going to go to the next thing afterwards. And I thought that was actually a little bit in contrast to a flag that I’ve waved on this
podcasts for many years now about the importance of responsive teaching, uh, versus predict sort of predicting. And I don’t know, I don’t necessarily feel very uncomfortable. I’m just saying that these are two different ways to look at it. So if we know about that, if UDL assume that there’s no bell curve and there’s no average.
Then you’ve got to anticipate the entire distribution ahead of time. Whereas if there are some universal mechanisms of learning, you can hit those. Involve your kids in conversations or assessments about how they’re doing and then respond with, uh, maybe increasing the means of access or assessment or communication that is, uh, uh, guided by the input.
You’re actually having with them, as opposed to assuming the diversity of your kids before you do the lessons. So my critique for UDL is that it’s predictive instead of responsive.
Michael Ralph: [00:14:28] That’s that’s so good. So I’m emoting because you’re putting ideas in my head that I hadn’t connected before the, so you and I have done martial arts together before.
And so I’m going to invoke that as an analogy, the responding to something that’s happening, we can generally always do, but if I’m throwing a technique and I go to respond to you, there’s a very limited number of things I can do to respond other than meeting your fist with my face. Versus if I do a different thing, a different technique, it puts me in a position to have a greater range of responses to that thing that I’m presented with.
And I don’t know what particular technique my opponent is going to be throwing at me at that moment, but there are decisions I can make that tailor which responses I am well-suited to give in that moment. I think that that’s the connection between, um, between the predictive nature of UDL, which I think you’re spot on in your description and the importance of responsive teaching that you and I have read a number of papers on this show where I think that that is a well-supported component of instruction of higher education is the power of responsive teaching.
So I think that’s what it is. It’s a framework to predict what you will see in the classroom to set you up to have the maximum degree of responses. And I don’t think that I’ve ever said or heard anybody frame it that way before, but I really love that. I love it. I’m going to say that a lot now.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:15:50] Um, just to be pedantic.
Cause that’s what this show is all about. Uh, what’s a framework.
Michael Ralph: [00:15:59] I mean, I don’t have an academic. I’d have to look it up. I don’t, I don’t have, I don’t have any,
Laurence Woodruff: [00:16:04] is it a tool to help you think about something? Is it.
Guy Boysen: [00:16:10] Yeah. It’s I mean, it’s just, it’s gets so close to being this idea that it’s too big to be tested. Therefore it can never be disproven. I would argue though, I would argue that you could, you can, even if it’s a big framework, you still could test individual components of it. And there are people who’ve done that.
Uh, and so, or you could, uh, implement the framework in one classroom or at one school. And not implemented in another school. And there just has not been very much work. Uh, I can think of maybe one study where they’ve done something like that. And it was even, even, I think even smaller than that, it was like for a specific course that a specific lesson, they implemented it.
And you should be able to tell whether students are more successful. And you know, the thing about it is that, you know, if you look at, at the college level, There has literally been hundreds of studies that have compared, uh, the idea of something that’s active versus something that’s passive. And there’s been multiple meta analyses to show that active learning works in terms of being more successful.
And I just dont, I don’t see UDL as being something that’s too big to be tested in the same way. And that’s one of the reasons I included that that table in my paper is to just show how limited the evidence is in terms of what we know about its effective implementation, or whether it’s can be effectively implemented at the college level.
Michael Ralph: [00:17:39] Because I think you’re spot on is these implementations are effective in these ways. If we tweak them in those ways, there’ll be more or less effective. All I ever want the world. That’s what I’m doing. Those are the studies I’m designing. That’s what I’m doing right now. That’s amazing. I feel great.
Guy Boysen: [00:17:53] And that’s great.
And there’s been a couple of them, like, uh, it’s cited in my paper of the people who have been looking at closed caption versus not using closed caption. I mean, that sounds like a tiny little thing, but they they’ve produced some pretty good evidence that, that supports a UDL principle. That if you give people.
Kind of a choice to use this, this mechanism, then they learn a bit more. Um, so I mean, that sounds tiny when you compare it to the big framework of UDL, but if they’re going to make all these claims and that’s, that’s kinda what, what needs to happen.
Michael Ralph: [00:18:28] Uh, the piece that I want to come back to is you mentioned students’ abilities to make choices.
And that’s actually something that I think is a major assumption in the paper that you’ve written. I disagree that the UDL framework assumes students will always make the best choices for their learning. I think that’s something. I think that it’s more nuanced than that. I think I know from my own classroom experience, if I present students with the opportunity to watch a 20 minute video, or I present students with the opportunity to watch that same video or read an article or.
I don’t know, work with something else and I don’t make them choose between those materials, but rather let them navigate using any or all of those material. And then help train, uh, help them understand the implications of the choices they’ve made so that they can make better choices in the future. That that’s a mechanism for growing their efficacy as learners.
And that, that will increase their academic benefits over time.
Guy Boysen: [00:19:30] I guess my question would be how do you, I mean, what you’re saying sounds very good. Uh, so I guess maybe my question for you is how do you get them, how do you get students to figure out what the best techniques are for them?
Michael Ralph: [00:19:47] Yeah. That’s the big question.
It actually brings me back to one of your core arguments about general trends across humanity of effective learning practices.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:19:55] One of the critiques in the sort of like a litany of choice UDL framework that you kind of presented, uh, in your paper, like you give them choices about how they’re, receive the information you give choices about how they’re going to, um, communicate about that information.
You have choices about how they’re going to engage that information. Uh,One could Easily come to a critique that it allows students to avoid opportunities, to practice skills that they, where they lack proficiency. And it can also reinforce a fixed mindset where students are saying, saying things like I make videos cause I’m bad at writing.
And they just kinda go through the lessons. And in that case, what they’re doing is you’re giving them out to avoid productive struggle. And that’s not great.
Michael Ralph: [00:20:47] Terrible.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:20:48] Um, and so sometimes the way students need to struggle with information or an experience is exactly the way they don’t want to do it. Um, and you have to kind of help them reevaluate their relationship to productive struggle, uh, and that it requires some nuance.
Because productive struggle is the active learning that we have been lauding, this entire conversation.
Michael Ralph: [00:21:19] A lot of higher education students, and a lot of contexts, I can’t speak to your university, but I can speak to the universities in my region. If they’re walking into a UDL class or a UDL aligned classroom, and it’s their first encounter with a UDL aligned classroom.
I’ve seen by and large, they’re walking into those places, incentivized to do those unproductive practices. They’re incentivized to find the path of least resistance, a transactional nature of higher education and a minimization of investment. Often a various centralist approach to their own abilities.
Like we have to start at the most, like they are at the lowest level of competency with regard to empowered autonomous learners. Generally not like the students coming out of Mr. Woodruff classroom. I think that that’s less true, but broadly, if we only look at individual studies and the efficacy of students in that classroom and their ability to navigate choice, I think broadly higher education.
Generally doing a pretty bad job of preparing them to navigate those situations as well. We don’t look at that within a context. We’re going to miss that even small gains, small gains. That will be frustrating to me and to you as an effective autonomous learner has to recognize that that’s still a considerable benefit because generally a higher education system is not doing a great job of, of empowering those students.
Guy Boysen: [00:22:34] This also
has to do with, uh, the term that gets used in psychology is desirable difficulties. Uh, and so this fits with what you all are saying is that people might not have a good sense of, uh, what is helping them learn. And in fact, some of the things that make learning hard is what we should absolutely be doing and hard in the sense.
It’s hard mental work, not that it’s wasted effort. Uh, so doing things like distributing your practice interleaving your study so that you’re not studying one thing in a mass way, um, these are things, you know, not just rereading things, thinking about them at a deep way. Are really important things that feel like you’re wasting your time.
Cause it’s hard, uh, butter things that are very important to do. And so again, I think if, if, if people, even when, even when students know about good study prior practices, college students, they might practically decide to do other things because they have other, other motivations. So they’re giving back to this idea that sometimes people are, are avoiding, desirable, difficulties.
Michael Ralph: [00:23:40] Because it’s not an unreal, it’s a rational response to assist in that. So often doesn’t incentivize productive struggle. And so like even in a world where we have students coming into a mid level psychology course, They may very reasonably be looking for, if I spend all this time and energy, having a deep, robust understanding of content, but that investment’s not going to be recognized with a baseline level of, um, I don’t want to say compensation, but recognition.
And that’s not going to lend value, then they very reasonably might divert those activities elsewhere. And I know that I’ve done. Like I know that I’ve made, I’ve made that choice. And so it’s a, it goes back to the importance of developing the classroom culture or perhaps the department or programmatic culture.
So that by the time they’re in the third or the fourth course, they can walk in the door. Both. knowing How to effectively navigate choices that maximize their learning and having the trust that if they put in the time and energy to do those very unpleasant things, right. Retrieval practice, when you forgotten things.
And if you don’t understand the importance of forgetting and long-term learning, like it sucks. It sucks. So like recognize if I’m going to do that, it’s going to be worth it. Then you get the really big gains, but it goes back to your point of, okay, that’s a lot of ifs. So we got to go get that data to support that.
And I’m, I am with you I’m I’m with you in that, in that regard, like, yeah. We’ve got to get that empirical evidence.
Guy Boysen: [00:25:08] I don’t dunno. I don’t know the you’re you’re wrong. I do think an interesting question is. Again, the difference between K-12 versus college. So the settings are so different and there are so many fundamental differences in what the classrooms are like.
So in some ways I think UDL. It makes a lot more S uh, I don’t know. I, it makes some more sense in places in the K-12 where you do not have a selection of students and you’ve got smaller classrooms. And the learning is, is by definition, very generalized across a whole bunch of areas. Uh, and learners are not so independent.
They’re sort of dependent on a lot of things in there. Uh, so I do think, uh, I do think there’s a big difference and some of what you’re saying like that, it might have a bigger impact on certain levels of students. That makes sense to me at a K through 12 level. Um, and I think the impact might be smaller at the college level because there’s.
Maybe less variation to improve on because you’ve got a certain level of academic ability just by the inherent fact that you’re in, in college versus a school, a K-12 where you might have people who, uh, who are on every possible academic level from the highest, uh, down to those with special needs and disabilities,
Michael Ralph: [00:26:34] which is interesting.
I, as a follow up question to that, Do you think that that’s appropriate? Do you think that perhaps the existing framework of higher education that still has a considerable degree of ineffective practices that are happening and, um, decisions to not accommodate student needs? Are we perhaps selecting for a fairly narrow definition of academically capable students?
Perhaps it is that way. And shouldn’t be that way.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:27:06] I’m not sure that we can make the assumption that college students are, have been selected to be autonomous learners. If the practices of K-12 has, haven’t been promoting the skills of autonomous learning.
Michael Ralph: [00:27:22] Students who are, who are judged to have a high probability of success in post-secondary learning a meaningful fraction of them or not.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:27:34] Yeah, I think that’s what I’m saying is that I don’t know that it’s safe to assume that well, universal learning matters more in K-12 because college students can fend for themselves.
Guy Boysen: [00:27:45] I don’t know that my argument would be that college
students can fend for themselves. I just think the distribution of.
I mean, for lack of a better word, uh, cognitive ability is much more narrow in college, uh, because that’s how students, that’s how students are selected. That’s just, I’m not, you know, it sounds like it’s sounds rude to say or bias or something like that, but that’s literally the selection criteria is, is cognitive.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:28:10] Is it though? Are they selected for cognitive ability?
Michael Ralph: [00:28:13] No,
Laurence Woodruff: [00:28:14] I don’t think there’s,
Michael Ralph: [00:28:16] there’s probably a loose, but statistically significant connection, but like, no we’re using proxies that are not, yeah.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:28:24] They’re not great metrics.
Michael Ralph: [00:28:26] I think that’s true. And I, I hate it. I hate that truth. And I think that that’s something that higher is in institutions of higher education.
Yeah. Must urgently address both with the elevated attention towards issues of societal justice. And also just from the standpoint of, they can’t afford to be that way anymore. Like you’re watching institutions, shuttering, entire departments, closing programs, shedding faculty, like that’s not a sustainable approach to higher education.
Even if they want it to be. I think that it’s incumbent upon institutions of higher education to recognize that narrow bandwidth of ability who are able to succeed in their current paradigm, recognize that that band is not wide enough for them to sustain themselves as an institution or to pursue their goals of justice.
As many as traditions are declaring and do things to widen it. Uh, well, I, I know that we’re, we’ve already gone over time for what we’ve asked of you on this afternoon. Um, we want to be sure to give you the last word, this, we are yielding the last word to you. Feel free to use it when you are ready.
Guy Boysen: [00:29:30] Well, I
I’ll just reiterate kind of what I’ve been saying the whole time.
And that is that UDL is certainly an interesting framework for structuring education. And there is a host of wonderful educational practices in there. Um, but I think that the claims that they make in terms of the people who are promoting UDL as a way to get people to learn more effectively everywhere at every level are a little bit premature and that there are some, some questionable assumptions that they’ve made and then making this framework and that there are definitely some, some room, uh, to find some evidence to back up these claims.
And, you know, I wrote this paper. Maybe prompt some of that investigation and just to point out that it needs to be done, uh, so that this kind of this call for wholesale wholesale adoption of UDL, uh, doesn’t happen without some of the evidence that would be needed to be.
Michael Ralph: [00:30:30] Cool. I’ll follow up with you when we get off the phone.
So we can put in our grant applications to do that work.
Guy Boysen: [00:30:36] Sounds good.
Laurence Woodruff: [00:30:38] If, uh, if listeners have been peaked by the things that you said, where can they find more out about you?
Guy Boysen: [00:30:46] So in addition to the UDL work, I’ve also done some general work related to education at the college level overall. And so I’ve got a couple of books, one on online teaching, and one on general, uh, teaching at the college level that I’ve written with some excellent colleagues, if you’re interested in finding those.
And then if you’re interested in becoming a psychology professor, I literally wrote a book with exactly that name. Uh, that’s published by the APA. So. In your wheelhouse in terms of what career you might want to do. Uh, and it’s also a pretty good, just general guide to academic, uh, job searches. So those are, those are a few pieces of work that if you’re interested, you could go out and find,
Michael Ralph: [00:31:24] we appreciate you coming on.
Guy Boysen: [00:31:25] Thank you very much.
Michael Ralph: [00:31:26] Have a good rest of your weekend. Yeah, you all too.
We provided a pre-released copy of this discussion to representatives of CAST for comment. Dr. James Basham KU professor and senior director of learning innovation for the UDL-IRN gave a response, which we have posted on our website twopintPLC.com.