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Feedback and Universal Design for Learning (Feedback series)

Nhi Nguyen
July 14, 2021

Feedback has always remained a key element to successful learning, being one of the most powerful drivers behind learners' achievement. However, not all feedback generates positive outcomes as there are several variables, or mediators that monitor its effectiveness. And learner variability is one of those variables that can influence the relation between feedback and achievement. One way to address this factor is via the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.

This second issue of the feedback series explores feedback and learner variability from a UDL perspective: how educators can tailor feedback to promote an inclusive and accessible learning environment.

What is UDL and why is everyone talking about it?

When it comes to the definition of feedback, Lilian Nave, UDL coordinator and host of the Think UDL podcast, and Linda Lee, Director of Instructional Design from The Wharton School each provided an excellent summary of the framework, which captured the essence of this framework.

For Lilian,

“Universal Design for Learning is a design principle based on neuroscience that allows for multiple means of engagement.”

And according to Linda,

“UDL is tied to the idea that we want to make whatever we're building as useful as possible to as many as possible.”

You can find Lilian’s in-depth sharing on UDL in the 5th episode of the Learning Experience Lab podcast. And you can rewatch Linda’s presentation on UDL to understand how to apply the model in course design.

One of the reasons that UDL has become so ubiquitous is that it operates upon two key principles, which are: 1) addressing learner variability and 2) reducing the barriers to learning.

Both physical and online classrooms have become increasingly diverse, with students representing a varied profile regarding cultural, family, and financial background, as well as knowledge base, capacities, and emotional status. Such a variety constitutes what we classify as learner variability, a well-established topic in education. However, it was not until the COVID outbreak that many educators realized and acknowledged just how much learner variability can affect students’ learning experiences.

“This variability can lead to a wide range of barriers, a wide range of circumstances that can make education more challenging for students.” - Linda Lee, “Developing Inclusive Educational Experiences with Universal Design for Learning”

These barriers can be: lack of background knowledge, confusion about the next steps to take, lack of timely feedback, difficulty navigating social or emotional challenges, unfamiliarity with the terms, culture-irrelevant coursework, and technical or financial obstacles, to name but a few.

So how can learner variability be addressed, learning barriers reduced, and courses be made more accessible, , while still having enough time to teach and set up courses?

One way lies in the UDL framework - a scheme designed to tackle these very issues. According to UDL, educators should consider using multiple means to address three main factors: learners’ interests and motivation (the Why), teaching and delivery methods (the What), and ways of knowledge demonstration (the How). That is, teachers need to ensure students know why they are learning what they're learning, provide students with accessible materials, and present multiple means of assessment.

A very brief overview of the UDL framework is outlined in the table above. You can also visit the CAST website for a super-detailed and comprehensive guide to UDL.

The role of feedback in addressing learner variability

Feedback, according to UDL, is a critical component in addressing learner variability and is often referred to as “mastery-oriented feedback”. That is, feedback should “guide learners toward mastery rather than a fixed notion of performance or compliance; towards successful long-term habits and learning practices”. Furthermore, feedback under UDL guidelines must make sure to:

  • encourage perseverance,  efficacy and self-awareness
  • emphasize effort and improvement, rather than relative performance
  • be frequent, timely, and specific
  • be substantive and informative rather than comparative or competitive
  • model how to incorporate evaluation, including identifying patterns of errors and wrong answers, into positive strategies for future success

How can we exercise mastery-oriented feedback?

Again, this question draws on the core principles of UDL: multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. For feedback to successfully address learner variability, it needs to be exercised in multiple ways, a concept referred to as “multimedia feedback". Traditionally, feedback is mainly produced and provided in a  written format. However, it is often heard that text-based feedback can be not only time consuming for teachers to produce, but also less accessible to students whose learning through text representation is not optimal. Therefore, multimedia feedback has been proposed as an  effective way to deliver feedback, as it adds engagement, interaction, and most importantly, accessibility and inclusiveness in the classroom dynamic.

Multimedia feedback refers to the practice of using visual or audio formats (screen-capture, or audio/video recording of comments) to provide feedback to students. This practice, despite being rather new, has been proven to be effective and well-received by students in many cases.

Steps to facilitate multimedia feedback

Eric Moore, UDL Specialist and Instructional Designer at University of Tennessee presented a concrete framework for facilitating multimedia feedback in his in-depth series about mastery-oriented feedback:

  • Assignment submission: The learner submits work in digital formats (e.g. document, presentation, image, video)
  • Assignment review: Students review and provide feedback on the submitted work holistically, and make generate noteworthy points
  • Multimedia feedback: Conduct the feedback using different methods. Using a screen recording software (e.g., Jing, Screencast-o-Matic, Camtasia…) the one providing feedback records audio as they look at the submitted work, drawing attention to the portions of the work that warrant feedback (by selecting with the mouse, pointing with a cursor, pausing the video, etc). If possible, text-based notes are made prior to or during the recording where corresponding commentary is added verbally.
  • Multimedia delivery and reflection: Exchange and reflect on the feedback

There are multiple methods for instructors and instructional designers to implement multimedia feedback, such as:

Anchored feedback, which requires teachers to place the audio-recorded feedback proximally to the corresponding sections of the assignment. (e.g. a comment about the introduction of an essay can be provided under the form of a short audio recording). This method allows for multiple, targeted feedback, yet it can be limited regarding the assignment type (written assignment) and time-consuming to produce and process.

Screencast feedback is where  teachers record their screen while providing the feedback on the assignment. On the one hand, this method can be used with any type of assignment, while offering a powerful combination of video and audio feedback. On the other hand, it might be difficult for some instructors to elaborate on their thoughts and record this process at the same time.

Graphic markup refers to the use of certain softwares to annotate and graphically highlight a document, image, video and so forth. Graphic markup is:

  • Versatile, as it can be used to provide feedback on any static submission (text, image, sheet music, etc.)
  • Specific, as it targets certain areas of the submitted work

However, teachers should take into account students with visual impairments when issuing this type of feedback.  

Holistic audio-video commentary is simply a way to provide overall commentary on a piece of work using audio and/or video. It is simple and fast for instructors to provide, yet can be limited regarding targeted, specific feedback.

Starting a conversation opens an online discussion in which instructors and students can exchange questions, answers, and insights to negotiate understanding and deepen the quality of feedback. This method enables dialogic, conversational feedback, while allowing instructors to issue feedback on any types of submission. However, online conversation requires a certain time to complete the assignment to initiate asynchronous discussion, plus it only suits an assignment where dialogue is fruitful.

To exercise each of these types of multimedia feedback, instructors often make use of one or more instructional tools, applications, or platforms. Whether the tools end up being effective or not depends largely on the course design, student background and learning modalities.

Conclusion

More and more educational institutions are focusing on fostering inclusive learning, teaching, and research to embrace an increasingly diverse campus. Providing inclusive feedback, or mastery-oriented feedback is one of the starting points to foster an equitable learning environment that addresses learner variability and lowers barriers. Universal Design for Learning as a framework can easily accommodate this element of feedback as it centers on the idea of multiple means of engagement, representation and expression in teaching and learning.

This article already touched on the role of feedback in addressing learner variability, and in what ways instructors can issue inclusive feedback according to the UDL framework. In upcoming articles in this Feedback series, we will share several tools and usage examples for multimedia feedback facilitation.

Learn more about UDL and mastery-oriented feedback

Here you can find several great resources on UDL and how to use feedback to address learner variability:

  • The UDL guidelines are a good starting point to explore the scope and structure of this framework
  • Mastery-oriented feedback series in UDL provides a detailed explanation on feedback for inclusive learning
  • ThinkUDL podcast by Lillian Nave is where you can hear about how post-secondary educators are implementing UDL in their classrooms

FeedbackFruits has also been exploring the applications of UDL with the innovators of today’s classrooms - check out the following resources co-created with our own team:

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