UDL Core Principles and the Brain



Studies of the brain have confirmed that three main networks are active during learning:  affective, recognition, and strategic.  Affective networks are responsible for the “why” of learning.  They control our emotional involvement with learning such as our motivation and our ability to focus and remain engaged with a task.  Recognition networks control the “what” of learning.  They are responsible for receiving information and forming concepts.  Strategic networks govern the “how” of learning.  They are responsible for planning, executing and monitoring our actions.  Neuroscience has also shown that learner variability is the rule rather than the exception.

The three core principles of UDL, Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation and Expression, are designed to support learner variability and the learning networks:

  • Affective networks are supported by Multiple Means of Engagement
  • Recognition networks are supported by Multiple Means of Representation
  • Strategic networks are supported by Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Each core principle has been expanded into 3 guidelines and a series of checkpoints to apply in curriculum design and teaching.  These are known collectively as the UDL Guidelines.  You may find it helpful to print a copy of the guidelines (UDL: Theory and Practice version) from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning to use while exploring the networks in more detail.  Please note that in earlier versions of the UDL Guidelines the core principles appeared in a different order.

Affective Networks

The brain’s affective networks are responsible for the “why” of learning.  These networks drive our emotions, motivations, and ability to self-regulate.  Students who are enthusiastic and confident in a classroom setting are more likely to engage, focus, and persist in the face of difficulty.  Conversely, students who are uncomfortable, insecure or are experiencing real or perceived personal tragedy have less capacity to learn because they are pre-occupied with their emotional concerns.

The UDL framework supports the brain’s affective networks with multiple means of engagement.  This core principle helps educators establish a safe classroom environment, create exciting learning opportunities and help students believe in their own ability to learn.  The multiple means of engagement principle includes the following guidelines:

  • Provide options for self-regulation
  • Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
  • Provide options for recruiting interest.

Creating a safe and respectful learning environment where students feel valued is one of the beginning steps in addressing the emotional needs of all students in the classroom.  Investing time at the beginning of the school year to foster a sense of community helps students feel they belong.  Students who feel safe and accepted are more willing to take risks in their learning and accept challenges when encountering new learning situations.

Many BC teachers now use self-regulation programs to help students learn to recognize their internal states and choose coping strategies that work for them in the classroom.  Students are also using wiggle cushions, standing desks, and wearing headphones to help them focus for longer periods of time.  Students become more actively engaged when they pursue personal interests or tasks that are authentic and relevant.  Often students produce work for an audience of one, the teacher.  When students produce work for a genuine audience, their motivation to write improves.  Offering students choice in how they engage in learning allows them to take more ownership and responsibility for their own learning, important qualities for a life-long learner.

Examples of Multiple Means of Engagement

Video: Silent Reading
Offering choice can be as simple as allowing students to position themselves however they want for an activity. In Penticton, Jeff Fitton shares how silent reading times in his class are truly silent. Students are focused on their reading and not distracted because they are given the choice to sit or lie down as they prefer.

Video: Writer’s Workshop
In this classroom example, Greg Miyanaga, walks primary students through a Writer’s Workshop activity. When students being to record their ideas, you will notice the flexible options they have in physically positioning themselves around his classroom.

Video: Fun with Math
Students that are able to experience learning while completing authentic and enjoyable tasks are more engaged and their brains’ affective networks are activated in a way that supports the learning process. In this video, Melissa Berrisford, a math teacher in Penticton, shares how engaged students were when learning about measurement concepts while making wooden toys for a local shelter.

Recognition Networks

Recognition networks of the brain are responsible for the “what” of learning.  Recognition networks help us gather information through our senses and put that information together for identification and analysis.  These networks also help transform information into stored knowledge.  They help link new information to old and aid in forming concepts such as colours, shapes, irony, and justice.  However, not everyone will acquire information in the same way or have the same experiences.

The UDL framework supports recognition networks and learner variability with multiple means of representation.  This core principle supports learning by offering students multiple ways to access, interpret and remember information.  The multiple means of representation principle includes the following guidelines:

  • Provide options for comprehension
  • Provide options for language and symbols
  • Provide options for perception

You are probably using some of these options already.  For example, you might use infographics or graphic organizers to help students organize and process information.  Brainstorming and KWL charts help students activate prior knowledge.  Math manipulates can make math symbols more concrete.  You may have noticed that supports introduced for a small group of students often benefit all students.  For example, an FM system installed for a student who has a hearing impairment will make it easier for all students to hear instruction.

Providing options for perception also applies to curriculum materials.  The printed textbook is a significant curriculum barrier for many of our students.  In a traditional novel study, every student would be issued a paperback copy of the novel.  In a UDL classroom, the teacher would anticipate that not all students would be able to (or prefer to) access the novel in the same way.  The classroom teacher would plan collaboratively with the learner support teacher to provide alternatives such as an electronic copy of the novel, a film version or a summary version at a simpler reading level.  In the UDL model, these supports are provided proactively rather than remedially.

Example of Multiple Means of Representation

In this example, a teacher supports her students’ recognition networks by helping them access their prior knowledge before reading.  The students use the image on the book’s cover to anticipate the topic of the book and tell their talking partners “everything they know” about the subject.  Notice how the teacher provides opportunities for students to discuss their ideas with a peer before presenting to the larger group.  This pre-reading strategy is part of a comprehensive reading program called “Smart Reading” developed by BC educator Susan Close.

Strategic Networks

The strategic networks of our brain are responsible for how we plan and perform tasks. For example, while driving a vehicle, our strategic network determines where and how our hands are placed on the steering wheel, when and how to move our hand to turn on the turn signal, and which foot and how to engage the gas and brake pedals.

The third UDL principle encourages educators to engage students’ strategic networks by offering students flexibility in how they demonstrate their learning. By providing options that allow students to choose the manner in which they will demonstrate their learning,  the learning preferences of each student are honoured. Traditionally, we ask students to write about what they have learned to demonstrate their attainment of learning outcomes.  Some students excel in written tasks and this particular activity would accurately demonstrate their learning. For other students, those who struggle with written output,  completing a writing task may not demonstrate all they have learned during an activity. By giving students options in how they demonstrate their learning, educators can be confident they have a clear picture of what students have learned and their students will be more motivated to demonstrate that understanding.

In the following videos, teachers and students share their experiences with Multiple Means of Expression in the classroom.  In viewing them, you will notice how students are much more motivated and enthusiastic in being able show what they know.

Examples of Multiple Means of Expression

Video: Movie Trailer Example
Students in the Kootenays read the novel “Parvana’s Journey” by Deborah Ellis and, once finished, are given the option of  creating a video. One group of students chose to show their understanding of the novel by creating a movie trailer for the book.

Video: Song Example
A different group of students were given the choice of writing the lyrics and performing a song related to their unit of study. This video features a group of students who chose to use the pop tune “Call Me Maybe” to write a song about the life of Vikings.

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