"Plus-One" Thinking: A Framework for Inclusive Teaching

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June 6, 2019
Photo of Lightbulbs by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Next week the Center for Teaching and Learning is hosting the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference, and one of our fabulous keynotes is Thomas J. Tobin. I first had the fortunate opportunity to meet Tom during an Educause course he taught on Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Since that time, Tom has modeled for me, as he does for countless others, how to effectively and innovatively implement UDL in higher education.

UDL-IRN Summit, Orlando, Florida, April 2019
Photo taken at UDL-IRN Summit, Orlando, Florida, April 2019. Left to right: Lillian Nave (College STAR), Tom Tobin (author), Suzanne Ehrlich (University of North Florida), Adria Battaglia (UT-Austin), Eric Moore (University of Tennessee), Jennifer Kilpatrick (University of North Florida)

What exactly is UDL?

UDL is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience and educational development research that empowers instructors and students by reducing barriers to learning and maximizing accessibility for the widest range of students, all without lowering academic standards (inspired by and adapted from Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). UDL, like the Universal Design movement in Architecture from which UDL stems, is all about making environments and interactions within those environments accessible to everyone. In that spirit, Tom offers a wonderfully clear, accessible definition of UDL in his most recent publication, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, co-authored with Kirsten T. Behling. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Tom explains,

“UDL is really just 'plus-one' thinking. For every interaction that learners have now -- with the materials, yes, but also with each other, with instructors and with the wider world -- provide one more way for that interaction to happen. The 'plus-one' approach helps to take what otherwise might look like an insurmountable amount of effort and break it down into manageable, approachable chunks. It also helps people to determine where to start applying the UDL framework so they can address current challenges and pain points in their interactions.”

While there are helpful UDL guidelines, Tom’s idea to focus on the pain points (i.e., where do your students always ask questions or get things wrong?) provides us with a way into UDL that makes sense for our own classrooms and students. "Plus-one" thinking encourages us to think about what barriers to learning our students are facing, and how we can reduce or eliminate those barriers. If students don’t seem to take notes well in class, provide your notes ahead of time on Canvas, or consider providing Cornell’s Note-Taking System to help students actively engage in their notes during class. Or think about the number of accommodation letters you may have received for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and require captioning for media in the classroom. If you make a habit of always captioning all of the media content you use, you not only provide a more inclusive learning environment for students who need those accommodations, you reduce barriers for students who are English language learners, who process information differently, who are new to your discipline and nervous about jargon, etc. (and by the way, UT’s Captioning and Transcription Services will caption and transcribe your class materials for free!) Adding “one more way” that students can access content, demonstrate what they know, and/or connect to the why of learning reduces barriers not just for students who may have accommodations but increases the opportunity to learn among all of your students.

Who is engaging in “plus-one” thinking at UT? 

We have a lot of UDL movers and shakers at UT. Here are just a few.


Dr. Nico Osier, "Plus-One" Thinking in Genetics

When students in their Genetics course continued to fail class quizzes, Dr. Nico Osier (Assistant Professor, School of Nursing and Dell Medical School) utilized “plus-one” thinking by allowing students one more way to demonstrate what they know about certain concepts. The result? Students created artifacts like quilts, songs, and videos about chickens (it’s a mitosis thing!). Now, Dr. Osier feels confident about students’ knowledge, and is delighted to curate materials made by students to help future students have more ways to understand key course concepts.


Image of Breaking Down The FIG Resource

Kayla Ford, "Plus-One" Thinking in Student Orientation

Kayla Ford (Assistant Director of Academic Advising in the McCombs Business School) and her team identified a few “pain points”—where students were always asking questions/getting confused—during freshman orientation. One pain point advisors struggled with was that students just didn’t seem to understand the dynamics of a FIG. In consultation with Laura Struve, Kayla and her team created one more way for students to digest orientation content: a visual handout.



Dr. Brandon Campitelli, "Plus-One" Thinking and Learning Outcomes

After Dr. Brandon Campitelli (Assistant Professor of Instruction and STEM Instructional Consultant in the College of Natural Sciences) attended a UDL workshop in the CTL, he decided that how students turned in a reflection assignment wasn’t important (the learning outcome wasn’t about producing a handwritten paper versus a typed paper). Really, it was about the content. Embracing this idea, Brandon altered his assignment so students could turn in their reflection in a way that made sense to them.


What’s next in UDL implementation and research at UT?

UDL is one of the many educational frameworks the CTL advocates in a continuous effort to foster more inclusive and equitable spaces and interactions in and beyond the classroom (if you haven’t yet had a chance to participate in our bi-annual Inclusive Teaching and Learning Symposia, please join us this fall!). This past academic year, with the support and sponsorship of our friends and colleagues with a grant-funded project called College STAR, we have initiated three learning communities dedicated to the implementation of UDL. We are excited to see what UDL implementations members of these communities find meaningful in the work they do around campus.

Additionally, in an effort to practice what we preach, the CTL has utilized “plus-one” thinking with our inaugural Instructor Learning Community grants, in which groups of instructors from all over campus will be exploring additional inclusive pedagogies and frameworks to rethink their own courses and curriculum. They will showcase their work in Spring 2020.

If you’d like to learn more about Universal Design for Learning, would like to request a workshop or consultation, or are interested in UDL research in higher education, please contact Shavonne Coleman.

Image of Lillian Nave (College STAR), Jennifer Pusateri (University of Kentucky), and FICster Adria Battaglia
Photo taken at UDL-IRN Summit, Orlando, Florida, April 2019. Left to Right: Lillian Nave (College STAR), Jennifer Pusateri (University of Kentucky), and FICster Adria Battaglia. To listen to the podcast, visit https://thinkudl.org/episodes/live-at-udl-irn-summit-2019-with-adria-battaglia-and-jen-pusateri


Lieberman, M. (2018, November 28). Q&A: Making sense of Universal Design for Learning. Inside HigherEd

Meyer, A., Rose, D., Gordon, D. (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

Tobin, T. & Behling, K. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal Design for Learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.


Adria Battaglia

Adria Battaglia Educational Consultant, Universal Design for Learning Specialist, Center for Teaching and Learning Dr. Battaglia's research interests include rhetorics of social change and inclusive pedagogies.