The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Everyone Learns Differently: How to Respond

Ann Heelan

About the Author

Today’s higher education campuses are very different from ten years ago. Crucially there is a much more diverse population of students who are technology savvy. To say they are diverse spaces is a cliché, but none the less true as higher education is made up of 15% international students, 15% mature students, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and up to 6% of students with a disability and specific learning difficulties. In the recent HEA Consultation Document on Access, the HEA have outlined clear plans to increase the participation rates from previously under-represented groups in higher education.

But what does all this mean to the lecturer on the ground, let us call him Dr Smith, a lecturer in an Irish university? What is he to do? How is he to respond to this rapidly changing makeup of students in his classroom?   We will assume that he is used to managing the learning environment for transmitting knowledge to students who are good academic learners. Today he will have to manage the learning environment for students with very different learning requirements. Students with dyslexia make up to 3.5% of the university population have difficulty with the volumes of reading, note-taking and essay writing. But then so too will mature learners and international students for different reasons.

As you will have read in the article on Universal Design for Learning in this journal from Dr David Rose from CAST, US, the fictitious Dr Smith could take a universal design approach to manage this diversity in his classroom. This approach means that he will reflect on his own teaching practice to identify inadvertent barriers student may meet. To do this he can use the tools of UDL, the three principles underlying the UDL approach, multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression and multiple means of engagement.

So what do these three UDL principles mean for Dr Smith and his colleagues at the coal face of teaching practice? Taking the three principles backwards, the third - engagement, the why of learning, acknowledges the complexity of learning and the difference within learners. It challenges curriculum designers to ensure the learning space stretches and interests the learners rather than cognitively overloading them. According to researchers such as Bruner, Vygotsky, and more recently Dr Ray Land and Dr Betty Higgs who spoke at the NAIRTL Conference 2010, many students do not navigate this learning space very well and become lost and confused about what they are learning.

Professor Liz Thomas (2013) in her research into the student experience argues for the importance of engagement particularly for those non-traditional students who do not believe they belong in higher education. Her research suggests a clear relationship between enabling the student to cope with the new academic demands of their discipline and the student’s sense of belonging on a higher education course. She gives examples of how students in first year benefit from instruction in the task of academic writing, she states that we cannot assume the student comes with this skill ready-made, they do not, it must be taught and learnt. Professor Guy Claxton (2011), very insightfully equates academic writing to a technical apprenticeship in which students must develop the academic habit of mind and learn the nuts and bolts of critiquing, drafting, writing and editing an academic paper. Embedding academic writing into the subject disciplines offers variability of means of both representation and expression.

As well as considering ways of engagement, the fictitious Dr Smith can create a learning environment that works for all of his students by building multiple ways of representation into his course using technology, eLearning, multimedia, problem solving and a variety of good practice teaching techniques into his course teaching plan. Ensuring he uses accessible formats and good communication strategies in his presentations will ensure the student with learning difficulties can learn within the mainstream classroom.

Dr Smith can also consider the means of expression and action. Dr Geraldine O’Neill (2010) argues for embracing self-monitoring as an essential learning tool for students in higher education. She advocates that students need to develop the skills to reflect on and self-monitor their own work. A very real example of this was demonstrated by Dr Sheera Murphy at the Spotlight on Dyslexia Conference in IADT in June 2014. Setting assignments with explicit marking schemes and criteria for completion makes the learning outcomes explicit and enables self-monitoring. So for example, in designing an assignment it is important that the tutor specifies the exact content, research, footnotes expected. It is important not to assume that the student has prior knowledge of the task and support their capacity to navigate the task successfully, thus improving capacity for academic engagement. For example her directions in relation to competence in essay writing states:

The student will present well-structured progression of ideas, ideas throughout the essay, attention to the clarity of ideas and concepts, clearly laid out with attention to design and readability, correct use of formats, spelling and grammar.

By designing his curriculum around the expected variability of learners, our fictitious Dr Smith is maximizing learning opportunities for all students and minimizing the need for retrofitting and subsequent accommodations.

Universal Design for Learning represents a complete shift in thinking about learning in higher education. It marks a change in thinking that reflects recent knowledge about neuroscience, the act of learning itself, technology and how to engage the learner by facilitating a process of learning that places the learner at the centre.

The implications for teaching in higher education are clear as higher education has been seen as a process of knowledge transmission. As diversity within the student population increases, so too will the idea that higher education should pay attention to Universal Design for Learning as the way forward to creating a culture of diversity in higher education.


Dir. Ray Land, Keynote speaker at NAIRTL 2010, Trinity College Dublin.

Professor Liz Thomas, CSSI Conference Dundalk, 2013.

Claxton G, Higher Education as an Epistemic Apprenticeship, Nairtl Conference, Galway 2011.

O’Neill, G (2010) Formative Assessment: Practical Ideas for Improving the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Feedback to Students, UCD Teaching and Learning:

Dr Sheera Murphy, Spotlight on Dyslexia Seminar, IADT June 2014.

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