Teaching for Diverse Abilities and Learning Styles
Because every student has a unique profile of abilities, strengths, learning styles, and previous experience, educators are advised to “respect diverse talents and ways of learning” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987) (Fig. 1). Among other attributes, students differ in the ways they:
- perceive and comprehend information;
- are able to express their learning;
- are engaged or motivated to learn.
Several theories and models articulate variations in learning styles or preferences (Fig. 1). Although there is some disagreement among scholars regarding the significance and nature of evidence of the usefulness of learning styles and preferences models in practice (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004), it is nonetheless widely accepted that individuals learn in different ways, and teachers should make use of a variety of methods of teaching and assessment.
Additionally, Colleges and Universities in the U.S. must comply with the Americans with Disability Act and other pertinent policy. Therefore, instructors must implement practices in the classroom and online that do not leave students with disabilities at a disadvantage or unable to participate. Although (dis)abilities must not be conflated with learning styles, some teaching practices that offer equal opportunity to learners with disabilities (e.g. alternative formats for audio and visual materials) can also be useful to others.
Students who report disabilities comprise a small but significant percent of undergrads enrolled at 4-year doctoral-granting institutions (Figs. 2 & 3).
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is the civil rights guarantee for persons with disabilities in the United States. Title II of the ADA upholds and extends the standards for compliance set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to all policies, procedures, and practices that impact on the treatment of students with disabilities. This means that educational programs must be made available to students with disabilities unless doing so would substantially alter the course (e.g., it would take prohibitive changes to make a graphic design course accessible to a student who is blind.) or result in excessive financial or administrative burdens.
Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that requires federal agencies and programs that receive federal funding to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) not only provides a strategy for compliance with laws regarding students with disabilities, but can also benefit students with diverse learning styles and abilities.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) includes a concise definition of UDL that emphasizes reducing barriers while providing appropriate supports without compromising rigor. “The term `universal
design for learning’ means a scientifically valid framework for
guiding educational practice that–
- provides flexibility in the ways information
is presented, in the ways students respond or
demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways
students are engaged; and
- reduces barriers in instruction, provides
appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges,
and maintains high achievement expectations for all
students, including students with disabilities and
students who are limited English proficient ” (110th Congress, 2008, sec. 103, p. 122 stat. 3088)
In addition to publishing a wealth of resources to guide the practical application of UDL, the Center for Applied Special Technology presents UDL as an “educational approach with three primary principles:
- Multiple means of representation,
to give diverse learners options for acquiring information and knowledge,
- Multiple means of action and expression,
to provide learners options for demonstrating what they know,
- Multiple means of engagement,
to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation”
(Center for Applied Special Technology, 2011).
Unfortunately, all too often, instructors find themselves retrofitting elements of a course to accommodate students with disabilities. At the same time, as instructors are adopting ever-evolving technologies, they are prompted to rethink the ways in which they provide course content, motivate and engage students, and assess student learning.
Take action now! There is no better time to step back, take a comprehensive view of course goals, acknowledge the diversity of abilities and learning styles, and employ the principles of UDL to enhance teaching and learning.
For assistance or to learn more, visit or contact:
Blackboard created this stand-alone course for instructors and content developers that explores what accessibility and universal design mean and how they can be applied to online learning. You may enroll online to participate, use as a handy reference, or just check it out.
Information about the accessibility of widely-used technologies at ISU
Blackboard accessibility grant,
Blackboard Accessibility Interest Group,
JAWS screen reader demo
Applications of Universal Design (University of Washington DO-IT – funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation)
UDL in Education, Instruction, Physical spaces and technological environment, Distance learning, Libraries, Student services, and more
Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, Resources and programs
Resources for software and hardware, including iPod, iPad, iPhone
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines, Examples and resources, Research
Electronic and Information Technology laws, policies, regulations, standards, tools and resources
Web Accessibility Products, Services, Blog, Articles, Resources, Community
Essential components of web accessibility, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0,
How to meet WCAG 2.0 (quick reference), Mobile web best practices
110th Congress (2008). Higher education opportunity act: Public law 110-315.
Retrieved 2-25-2011 from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/
Center for Applied Special Technology (2011). About CAST. Retrieved 1-7-2011 from http://www.cast.org/about/
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, March, 1987. 3-7. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED282491)
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Retrieved 2-24-2011 from http://www.lsneducation.org.uk/research/reports/
International Center for Disability Information (2000). By disability type, the percent of undergraduate students attending public institutions who reported disabilities, by institution type (2000). Retrieved 1-7-2011 from http://www.icdi.wvu.edu/disability/U.S%20Tables/US10.htm
United States Government Accountability Office (2009). Higher education and disability: Education needs a coordinated approach to improve its assistance to schools in supporting students. Retrieved 1-7-2011 from http://www.disability.gov/education/research_%26_statistics