Active Learning meets Universal Design

Anyone already know what universal design is? [pause while students consider this]

If you don’t already know, and you had to guess, what would you guess? [take a minute to brainstorm with a neighbor]

What did you come up with? [offer a few students a chance to state their ideas]

Well, if you were thinking about ways to make things accessible to a wide range of users, you are on the right track. Universal design (UD) is a set of principles that encourages the creation of objects, tools, spaces, really anything – including teaching materials – in ways that make them effectively usable to the widest range of people. There are seven principles, and they are:

  1. Equitable use.
  2. Flexibility in Use.
  3. Simple and intuitive.
  4. Perceptible information.
  5. Tolerance for error.
  6. Low physical effort.
  7. Size and space for approach and use.

Considering the principles of UD as you develop your teaching materials means that you are contributing to equitable access for all students, undeniably a positive thing to do. So how does that connect to active learning?

In an active learning classroom students take on some of the work, rather than sitting there passively, waiting for it all to be over. Learning becomes a shared experience between the instructor and the students. PowerPoints that are chock full of information do not offer much room for students to do any thinking. All the information is there in front of them and they sit passively while the presenter does all the thinking. It’s even more pacifying if the presenter then reads the slides!

Developing UD PowerPoint slides not only provides for equitable access, but it sets you up for creating an active learning environment, just by being thoughtful about how much you put into each slide. Since I arrived in the world of medical education from the K-12 world I have learned that doctors value having a LOT of slides in a presentation. I’ve heard one doctor, in preparing for a talk, say, “But I only have 40 slides done for my 60 minute talk!” I’ve also seen PowerPoint decks for 60 minute classes that were 120 slides long. It’s as if having more information on more slides is the only way to prove you know what you’re talking about.

Instead, think of your slides as prompts for conversations, as ways to illuminate the most difficult aspect of an idea, not as your own notes or as storage for all possible information you could convey on a topic. Your learners will still recognize that you know what you’re talking about because you will prompt them to think deeply and guide them down the right path, so that they too know what you know.

Good slides that promote UD and active learning have many features in common:

  1. Use a clear font such as Ariel or Times
  2. Maintain high value contrast, for example black type on a plain white background
  3. Avoid fly-ins and dissolves
  4. Convey one idea per slide
  5. Include only what you need to prompt yourself and the learners (you can print out your own notes to use to do your presentation)
  6. If you use figures, keep them simple and focus on the most important information

You can learn more about UD, and read descriptors for the seven principles, at the DO-IT  center at the University of Washington.

Here’s a good resource for thinking about effective PowerPoint. It’s called Really Bad PowerPoint (and how to avoid it).

Marco Rolandi of the UW (Dept of Materials Science and Engineering) has an excellent article on designing figures for presentations. Rolandi, Marco, Karen Cheng and Sarah Perez-Kriz. 2011. A brief guide to designing effective figures for the scientific paper. Adv. Mater. 23: 4343-4346.  You’ll need a UW log in to reach the paper.

If you are interested in trying this – if you’d like to pare down your slides to increase UD and active learning, but you’re concerned about how to go about it – how to think about what to leave in and what to take out…give me a call! I’d be happy to help or to point you to other resources. We can start small – one presentation maybe. See how it goes. I’ll be waiting to hear from you!

One thought on “Active Learning meets Universal Design

  1. Julie, great ideas. I want to improve my power point presentations in Hu Bio. I am also giving a grand rounds talk in March, and I’d like to try some new things. Perhaps we could meet and discuss improving my presentations. I will take a look at the links in your blog. Fendley

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