Are block teaching and universal design for learning compatible?

On the face of it, comparing the block teaching planning format with the UDL framework might seem like weighing apples against oranges. In fact, they share six golden links, as Kevin Merry explains

Kevin L. Merry's avatar
De Montfort University
2 Feb 2023
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The increasing diversity of learners in higher education, and the need to ensure that those learners receive a “value for money” experience, has changed the game for universities. In response to such demands, many institutions have embraced uncommon scheduling formats such as block teaching; others have adopted accessible and inclusive curriculum frameworks such as universal design for learning (UDL).

The two concepts are theoretically different. Block teaching (which is also called block planning or block scheduling) is based on the immersive delivery of short, consecutive modules; UDL is an inclusive approach that takes into account the needs and abilities of all learners.

Yet, they share important similarities. Here are six golden links between block teaching and UDL.

Knowing your learners

Block teaching works best with small classes (fewer than 30 students). This is also useful from a UDL perspective because the critical starting point when implementing UDL is to understand the variability of your learners. Learner variability represents all those things that make learners different from each other. When sources of variability interact with the learning environment, this can give rise to barriers. For example, being dyslexic isn’t a barrier. However, giving a lecture in which a dyslexic learner were required to take extensive notes quickly would create a barrier. The key, then, is to understand the variability of your learners as a means of understanding barriers they may face, whatever the class size. It is easier to understand learner variability when class sizes are small.

Using time effectively

With four- to six-week modules, block teaching makes time all the more precious, so don’t waste it on transmitting content. UDL is about supporting learners to become “expert learners”, which is essentially about mastering learning content by applying practical and cognitive skills to it. Lecturing students will not help them apply practical and cognitive skills to the content of their learning. They must be given the opportunity to actively practise such skills with support from their teachers and peers. By flipping the classroom, time originally intended for lecturing can be used to support learners as they practise important practical and cognitive skills – and so master the content of their learning – using active collaborative approaches, supported by teachers and peers.

Avoiding boredom

Within short units, block sessions themselves are often as long as three hours at a time, so you’d better be able to keep learners motivated, otherwise they will get bored. Learners will differ considerably in terms of how they are motivated to learn. For example, some will enjoy working on individual tasks, whereas others may prefer working in groups. Some may enjoy the freedom of unstructured tasks, whereas others may prefer clear structure and guidelines. Optimising learner motivation will require a variety of approaches – a one-size-fits-all delivery is unlikely to work. This is where the UDL principle of engagement comes in. Similarly, providing multiple options for learners to engage with learning is essential on the block. Offer variety in what students have to do as part of their learning experience.

Using intentional design

Planning block learning experiences works best with student-focused, backwards design that starts with a set of clear learning outcomes; these are then used to create a “road map” that supports the achievement of those outcomes in intentional fashion. “Intentional” is a UDL buzzword, since universally designed curricula are developed using David Rose, Anne Meyer and David Gordon’s 2014 intentional curriculum design framework, which consists of outcomes, assessments, methods and finally, materials. Hence, when designing UDL learning experiences on the block, it is essential that designs include the four critical elements of intentional instructional design.

Encouraging collaboration

It’s challenging for block teaching to be successful if academics try to take on sole responsibility for the design and delivery of their courses. The variability of modern students means it’s tricky to meet all these complex needs on your own. However, there are people within your university who will be able to help you meet the full range of student needs. For example, if you’re designing an instructional experience for a learning group that includes autistic learners, you don’t need to be an autism expert. Instead, it makes sense to involve autism specialists in the design of that learning experience. Likewise, librarians, learning technologists or employability specialists, for example, all have a role to play in efficiently and effectively supporting learners on the block. Team-based design approaches such as Cutlas (creating universal teaching, learning and assessment strategies) approach are essential in effectively responding to learner variability.

Assessment for learning

Teaching and assessment are more closely aligned on the block than in traditional teaching formats; rather than assessment being scheduled at the end of a unit, on the block learners frequently work on assessments collaboratively in class, in an ongoing fashion, enabling strong opportunities for assessment for learning as part of the instructional experience. Assessment for learning provides opportunities for valuable feedback and has great diagnostic potential. Learners need to know how they are progressing, where their strengths lie, and where their learning needs to improve. Similarly, teachers need to know how to modify their teaching as well as differentiate instruction, and this is where assessment for learning is critical. Assessment for learning is a very important factor in supporting learners to master the content of their learning and become an “expert learner” as per the aim of UDL. As such, it is vital that you include assessment for learning as part of your instructional experiences.

Block teaching supports the implementation of important elements of UDL and vice versa. This should come as no surprise, since both concepts have design as a central focus, and both are geared towards boosting learner engagement and success.

Kevin L. Merry is head of academic development and professor of learning and teaching at De Montfort University. He is a presenter at the International  Block and Intensive Learning and Teaching Association online conference on 2-3 February 2023.

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