Part 3 of 3: Understanding and Meeting Learners Where They Are using the UDL Lens

Designing for EquityIn the CompetencyWorks paper based on the 2017 National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, Designing for Equity, one of the four key issues in advancing competency-based education is “meeting students where they are.” It describes that a high quality competency-based system connects learning in relationships and requires educators to understand their learners as individuals and then select strategies based upon that knowledge. Before we look at how to meet learners where they are, let’s review what has presented in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

In Part 1, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was introduced as the pedagogical approach based on the learning sciences to create an inclusive learning culture with educational equity at the center. In Part 2, we described how using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express can help build the skills of agency and self-advocacy for every learner in addition to creating partnerships in learning, an essential element for a high quality competency-based system. In the this last part of this series, the focus is how do we know where learners are, what do we do once we know where learners are, and how do we move them forward?

In order to meet learner where they are, districts and schools need to create a learning culture that is built from a shared pedagogical philosophy based on the learning sciences that will enable strong partnerships in learning. This learning culture must recognize that every individual is a learner and is valued in the community, and that each learner will have a voice to share ideas and opinions and will be supported to take risks. The next question is…

How do we know where learners are?

In Part 2 of this series, the Learner Profile based on the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express was introduced where the learner shares their story of who they are, what they aspire to be, what they care about, and how they learn. Next, teachers have conversations with the learner about strengths, challenges, preferences, and needs and begin to build a better understanding of the learner. Most important in this process is that the learner is sharing what he or she understands about their own learning, for the first time often revealing the social and emotional side of their learning. This new insight of the learner alongside the numerical data that is collected from testing and the data on the competencies they have mastered offers a fuller picture of where the learner is, what skills they need to develop to support their challenges and enhance their strengths that will lead to agency, and what hopes and dreams they may have.

What do we do, once we know?

Once we know who our learners are, we need to consider how we design our lessons and projects, and how we design flexible learning spaces to support the learners and activities in our classrooms each day. Consider…

Lesson Design with all learners in mind

Now that we know who our learners and how they learn, the question is how do we take this information about our learners and develop instructional methods, materials, and assessments each day in our lessons and projects so that we are responsive to the way they learn? In an elementary classroom, understanding each learner using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Expresstm is an important tool in deciding on the instructional methods, the materials that you will use in a lesson, and the assessments that would be most effective. In a middle school and high school, a Class Learning Snapshot can be applied by taking the Learner Profiles of four learners from both ends of the learning spectrum in your classroom. The learning spectrum in a classroom may span from learners who have cognitive or learning challenges on one end to self-directed learners on the other end. Keeping these four learners in mind will help you better design instruction for the entire class. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, notes in his 2013 TEDx, The Myth of Average, “Design to the edges and we will reach them.”

Next, take any lesson and use the Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm to decide and intentionally design the instructional methods, materials and assessments you will use.

Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm

UDL Lesson Review Process

Here is one example of what this Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm may look like in a sixth grade literature lesson on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

UDL lesson review process


The Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm, when applied in daily practice, will meet learners where they are by providing every learner access to the curriculum, by including different opportunities to engage with the content, and by offering ways for each learner to express what they know and understand. Above all, by using this four-step process, you are designing your lessons and projects to reduce barriers to learning as well as to optimize the levels of challenge and support to meet the needs of all learners from the start.

If we are to meet learners where they are, then we need to co-design flexible learning environments with our learners to support the variability in their learning and the pace they need to learn. This is where learning spaces are designed for learners to have autonomy in where they need to learn alongside areas for collaboration, creativity, and individual and large group instruction. Having flexible learning spaces consistently offers each learner the opportunity to have the choices in daily activities with the options to work collaboratively, communicate with peers, and engage in critical thinking.

What do we do to move every learner forward?

Once we know where learners are, then next we need to help each of them to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions so they can progress in the way they learn and offer ways and opportunities for them to connect with their passions, interests, and aspirations. Using the Learner Profile is the starting point where learners share what their interests are or have been, what they aspire to be, how they want to contribute to make it a better world, or maybe what issues they are passionate about with beliefs that can change the status quo. We need to seek opportunities for each learner to follow their passions, interests, and aspirations so they can find their purpose. For the first time, we have the ability to meet learners where they are, to design and engage learners in the ways that they learn, to design learning spaces that support the learner, and to respond to learners as they learn.

So let’s turn to the essential question in this series:

How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?

Several of the quality design principles highlighted in Designing for Equity are instrumental in creating the environment to meet every learner where they are, move them forward, and create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center:

  • Recognize and nurture every child and adult as a “learner” to create an inclusive learning culture. Culture Design Principle – Equity, Learning and Inclusivity; Structure Design Principle – Educators as Learners.
  • Focus on having each learner develop agency and to take ownership of learning so that they can self-advocate, self-regulate, and ultimately self-direct their learning. Keep in mind that in order for ownership of learning to occur, it is required that each learner needs to understand how they learn using the UDL Lens. Teaching and Learning Design Principles – Based on Learning Sciences and Student Agency and Ownership.
  • Create a learning orientation classroom where meta-learning is practiced. Meta-learning means “learning about learning” that promotes the ability of a learner to plan, monitor, reflect, and think deeper in one’s learning. (Watkins, 2010). Teaching and Learning Design Principle – Rigorous High Level Skills
  • Develop daily practice to help learners make sense of their learning:
    • notice learning,
    • have conversations about learning,
    • reflect on learning, and
    • make learning an object of learning. (Watkins, 2011) Culture Design Principle – Growth Mindset
  • Establish a system to provide learning opportunities for learners to have experiences inside and outside the classroom that is responsive to their interests, passions, and/or aspirations. Culture Design Principle – Relevance
  • Intentionally design instructional methods, materials and assessments using the Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm by understanding the strengths, challenges, preferences, and needs of your learners. Teaching and Learning Design Principle – Responsive; Structure Design Principle – Flexibility
  • Set a goal along with a set of actionable steps in your school or school district this coming year, in collaboration with all stakeholders, to commit in creating an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center. Structure Design Principle – Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning  

The work of educators at the district, school, and classroom level is to keep equity in the center of decision-making.

When the UDL Lens is used in daily practice by teachers, learners, and the learning community, equity and inclusivity becomes the learning culture.


*The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express and Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Process are trademarks of Kathleen McClaskey.


Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, 2018.

Rose, T. (2013, June 19). The Myth of Average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty.

Watkins, C. (2010). Learning, Performance and Improvement. INSI Research Matters, 34, International Network for School Improvement Web site:

Watkins, C. (2011). Learning: a sense-maker’s guide. Professional Development Series,

Part 2 of 3: Empower the Learner – Building the Skills of Agency and Self-Advocacy using the UDL Lens

A core objective of personalized, competency-based schools that is described in the Teaching and Design Principle “Activate Student Agency and Ownership”, is to cultivate agency, “the ability to direct one’s course in life”. (See Quality and Equity by Design for an overview of the design principles.) Agency is the one thing that we should promise our learners as they walk through the schoolhouse door each day. If we are to realize a personalized, competency-based system that nurtures and develops agency with each learner, then we do need to look at how a school could achieve that. You see,

once a learner develops agency, he or she can self-advocate for the way they learn for a lifetime and lead their own learning trajectory!


Changing Perceptions: Every Child a Learner

Every child on the planet is a learnerHow do we begin to help every learner develop agency? For educators to think about how agency can be realized by every learner, we need to explore how children may be perceived currently in the classroom and how children may perceive themselves.

Schools have spent the last four decades labeling children with specific identifications based upon school evaluations. As a long time educator, it is evident that with these labels perceptions of these children’s learning capabilities evolve. On a daily basis in almost every school, we are often responding to children based on our perceptions. At the same time, many children are comparing themselves to other children. This is common behavior for children to compare themselves to others, all the time developing a perception that they are different and do not learn like other children. It does not take long for some children to develop their own perceptions that they are not learners, a stigma that sometimes lasts for years, if not a lifetime.

Recently I was having a conversation with a group of teachers when most of them agreed that not all children see themselves as learners. They shared that somewhere along the way these children had experiences in school that no longer validated or perceived them as learners. If educational equity is at the center of an inclusive learning culture where every learner is valued, then we need to change perceptions. The questions are:

  • How do we change our perceptions of learners and how do they change the perceptions of themselves?
  • How do we help every child develop the skills to achieve agency and self-advocacy?


Personalized Learning Starts with the Learner

There is so much confusion over the the term “personalized learning”. Some believe that it means that technology (adaptive) programs personalize learning for a learner; some believe that educators need to personalize instruction for each learner; and some believe that you need to have a combination of online courses and independent learning projects to personalize learning. Whatever you believe, we need to stop clouding the definition and decide what personalized learning means for the learner. Let’s face it, “learning is personal”, so let’s first all agree that “Personalized learning starts with the learner”; not the curriculum, not the instructional methods or assessments; not the standardized tests or the many technologies that can support learning.

Personalized Learning...


A Three-Step Process Designed for Agency and Self-Advocacy

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced you to the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express that is based on the learning sciences in the what, why and how of our learning.

If each learner is to achieve agency, then they need to know and understand how they learn.

3 stepprocess to develop agencyHere I will introduce a three-step practical process that could provide equity, agency and self-advocacy for every learner. Starting with the Learner Profile, each learner can share their strengths, challenges, preferences and needs in how they access and process information, in how they engage with content and concepts and in how they express what they know and understand along with their interests, aspirations and passions. Here is an example of a Learner Profile of a middle school learner with qualities you may recognize.


Learner Profile

Strengths Challenges Preferences and Needs
Access · I can visualize what I hear

· I connect ideas quickly

· I have trouble decoding words

· I often do not understand what I read

· I need to use a text-to-speech tool for reading

· I prefer to use video for understanding

Engage · I like to lead and collaborate with peers

· I like to design and make things

·I put off planning and finishing tasks

· I have trouble organizing projects

· I need tasks to be broken down into smaller tasks

· I prefer to work with a partner

Express · I draw well

· I like telling stories

· I am a good presenter and speaker

· I have trouble putting thoughts on paper

· I find note-taking difficult

· I need to use visual note- taking tools

· I prefer digital graphic organizers for organizing my ideas.

· I prefer to present orally

Words that describe me: curious, imaginative, artistic, friendly, athletic

My interests are: soccer, baseball, illustrating, American History

My talents are: storytelling, drawing, crunching numbers

I am passionate about: fishing, trading baseball cards, having a business one day

I aspire to be: forest ranger, comic book illustrator, my own boss

This exercise in creating a Learner Profile provides a way for the learner to have a voice, to tell their story and to develop a new perception of who they are as a learner. For the teacher, a new understanding of this learner’s qualities can result in new perceptions and insights on the skills this learner could develop to be more independent and self-directed so that agency can be realized. This is where new conversations begin and relationships between teacher and learner are built. With this Learner Profile, a Personal Learning Backpack (PLB) can be created that will include the tools, resources, learning goals and skills that can support this learner’s challenges or enhance his strengths. Let’s take a look at this learner’s Access strengths and challenges and consider what could be included in his PLB.

Learner Profile (LP)
Personal Learning Backpack (PLB)
Strengths Challenges Preferences and Needs Tools, Apps, Resources; Learning Goals and Skills
Access · I can visualize what I hear

· I connect ideas quickly

· I have trouble decoding words

· I often do not understand what I read

· I need to use a text-to-speech tool for reading

· I prefer to use video for understanding

I would like to explore and learn how to use audio/text-to-speech apps for reading and comprehension to access my learning materials, online resources and digital books that I can use on my laptop/tablet.

In creating the PLB, notice that the learner with the teacher/advisor describes what he would like to learn and what tools he would like to use. This PLB statement evolved from his conversations with his teacher and represents the first step in advocating for himself. The next step is for this learner to describe a goal, a set of action steps to achieve new skills and the evidence of reaching his goal in his Personal Learning Plan (PLP).

A goal without a plan is just a wish. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My Personal Learning Plan Progress
Access Goal 1 I want to learn how to use text-to-speech technology and/or apps to support my reading and comprehension of learning materials and texts. Evidence of reaching my goal:

ᐧ Completing comprehension questions or an assignment (video/ poster/ paper) using technologies or tools independently from the backpack.


ᐧ Demonstration of independent reading using the tools.

Action Steps to meet My Goal 1. Set a schedule to work with my technology coach or a peer tutor to learn the text to speech technology and/or apps.

2. Read textbook, handout, assigned novel, or online content using text-to-speech technology and/or apps.

3. Learn and apply comprehension strategies using highlighting and mind-mapping and supportive writing tools.

When building Personal Learning Plan (PLP) that focuses on skill development, the learner with the teacher/advisor collaborate on the plan to outline actions steps along with the evidence of reaching the goal. Notice that the goal statement exhibits a statement where the learner is advocating to learn a skill and the action steps require the learner to take action. When the learner demonstrates evidence of achieving the goal, he or she is acquiring a skill that leads to agency. As each goal is achieved, evidence should be maintained in digital learner portfolio along with a reflection.

Personalize Learning: Partnerships and Ownership to Learning

No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship. – Dr. James Comer

A personalized competency-based system that is built on relationships, open collaboration and dialogue between teacher and learner often results in partnerships in learning. In the three-step process where the learner shares their strengths, challenges and aspirations in the Learner Profile, decides with the teacher on the tools, apps, resources and skills in the Personal Learning Backpack and then indicates in collaboration with the teacher/advisor what learning goals and action steps to include in the Personal Learning Plan, the learner begins to gain the knowledge and dispositions that will help him or her build the skills of agency and self-advocacy.

Remember that agency also provides a reason to commit, take risks, and persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

As the learner applies this process over the years, challenges may even turn into strengths and the partnership with the teacher grows stronger. When this happens, the learner is on the path to becoming a self-directed learner with agency who can advocate for their own learning for a lifetime.

So let’s turn to the essential question in this series: “How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?” Here are some thoughts on where to begin to build skills of agency and self-advocacy for all learners:

  • Have a discussion about agency and self-advocacy with your learners.
  • Using the UDL Lens, have each learner tell their story so they can share their strengths and challenges and begin to understand and identify the skills they want to learn to be more independent in their learning.
  • With the PL and PLB, have each learner co-design their PLP with at least one learning goal and a set of action steps.
  • Discuss and set a goal and action steps for an extended learning opportunity (ELO) with each learner that focuses on personal interests, passions or aspirations.
  • Provide direct instruction and model ways they can monitor their own progress.
  • Include opportunities for your learners to reflect on their achievement of their goals.

Now that we know your learners and how they learn, let’s turn to how we can use this information to meet learners where they are and design effective instructional methods, materials and assessments for all the learners in the classroom.


Next – Part 3 of this 3-part series: Understanding and Meeting Learners Where They Are using the UDL Lens


Review Part 1 of this series: Understanding the Pedagogy of a Learning Science to Nurture an Inclusive Learning Culture


Learner Profile, Personal Learning Backpack, Personal Learning Plan and UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express are trademarks of Kathleen McClaskey



Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, 2017.

Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017 from [].