When Dr. Marc Cooper, history professor, saw that not all students were thriving with a traditional lecture format, he decided to switch up his teaching style by using universal design.
Universal design is the design of products and environments to be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. This model means those who are disabled don’t have to use different accommodations in the classroom.
“I didn’t know (universal design) existed, but I was interested in creating courses where students didn’t need special accommodations. I asked myself, why are we still giving lectures in the 21st century? Lectures are so strange. You come in to class, you take out your notes and you just talk. Half the students fall asleep; some of them get it and some don’t. So I decided, I could do better. I wanted to make a course in such a way that no students needed accommodation, that all of them could learn.”
To improve his lectures, Cooper started posting class presentations online as videos, with a voice-over. This way, visually impaired students could hear the lecture and hard-of-hearing students could see the text of the PowerPoint written out — and all students could download the materials and learn it at whatever pace worked best for them.
“I also asked students to listen to the lectures online and then journal about what they learned. What I found shocked me: my lectures could be ambiguous or misleading; students were missing pronunciations; and they had lots of questions. By addressing students’ questions and figuring out where I was being ambiguous or misleading, my lectures became much better,” Cooper said. “Universal design — this ideal I have that all students have the same access to learning — actually improved everything about my classes.”
Based on tests he gives to students at the beginning and end of his courses, students in his universally designed courses learned more than those in traditional classes.
“Developing a good course with universal design is more labor-intensive, but I think students learn more as a result.”
For Cooper, universal design is about more than just grades.
“It comes out of a deeply held belief that everyone in my classroom is equal. Not necessarily equal in ability, but they should have equal access to the material and the means to learn the material to the best of their ability.”
Cooper’s love of history goes back to his childhood, so he is happy when students get the most out of his teaching.
“(Learning) is like making pot roast,” Cooper said. “I’m just laying out the ingredients for the students to make the best pot roast possible. Now, some students like pot roasts that taste a little different. I’m there to provide the ingredients and give helpful hints, but they are the ones who are cooking.”