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Designing a blueprint for equal opportunity in the classroom

Grant program seeks proposals with equity and accessibility in mind
By: Emily Graham
February 06, 2020
A teacher is leaning over two students in a classroom. One student is using a computer. The second student is reading a book

Universal Design for Learning provides students with more opportunity to shape their learning experience. 

With one in 10 Ryerson students requiring academic accommodation, a one-size-fits all approach to teaching and learning is no longer viable. How can we recognize diverse abilities in the classroom while providing students equal opportunities to learn?

Enter Michelle Schwartz, an educational developer with Ryerson’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and chair of the Universal Design for Learning Committee. From reviewing syllabi to consulting faculty on the content of their assessments, Schwartz and her team supports the Ryerson academic community in incorporating the concept of Universal Design for Learning into their curriculum.

Universal Design for Learning

Influenced by the concept of universal design well known in urban planning and architecture, as well as endorsed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, universal design for learning (UDL) is a set of principles that give individual students equal opportunities to learn.

Recognizing that not all students learn the same way, UDL provides a flexible approach to customizing and adjusting teaching methods, course materials, and assessments for everyone in the classroom.

Course content can be presented in different ways, for example by lecture, web, or audio. Also instructors can use a variety of teaching methods such as discussion, written reflections, or answering through a clicker question. The instructor can also allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in a flexible manner, such as through oral presentations, essays, or videos.

UDL provides a number of benefits to students who need accommodation, such as an increase in motivation and engagement in the classroom, and can correlate to a decrease in stress.

Faculty can also benefit from implementing the principles of UDL into their teaching, says Schwartz. “When you think carefully about the way you design your courses and your teaching from the outset, you reduce the need to make changes as individual kinds of accommodations or concerns present themselves.” A reduction in need, as well as the time required to organize individual accommodations in turn can lead to more positive student-teacher relations.

“Requests for accommodation have gone up and up as our enrolment has increased,” Schwartz says. “UDL is a good way of relieving some of that burden in the system and giving students a better experience.”

Universal Design for Learning Committee

The Universal Design for Learning Committee at Ryerson facilitates the integration of UDL into the design, development, and implementation of teaching at the university. As chair of the committee, Schwartz works alongside members from across Ryerson, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching Excellence, the Ryerson Library and Academic Accommodation Support, to the Chang School. The committee also has representation from faculty members and students.

The committee supports UDL through such activities as facilitating workshops on teaching techniques and designing UDL tip sheets for instructors. Schwartz says the committee is always looking for new members who are interested in making a difference in both a student’s learning experience and a faculty member’s teaching. “Whatever the subject matter is, whatever you’re trying to teach, you can think of ways to help access the information and help people demonstrate what they’ve learned.”

Learning and Teaching Grants Program

Funded by the Office of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic, the Learning and Teaching Grants Program offers financial support to pedagogical projects, and this year’s program focuses on fostering projects that create engaging student-centred learning opportunities that are inclusive and improve equity. The 2020-2021 Learning and Teaching Grants Program is now accepting proposals, with applications due on February 28, 2020 at 12 p.m.

To learn more about UDL, workshops, and consultations, email Michelle Schwartz at  

This is one in a series of stories about the new Ryerson Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

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