Universal Design for Learning – Showcasing Creativity and Embracing Different Learning Styles!

By Karen Oeh

As an undergraduate student at San Jose State University in the 90s, a lecture style classroom made it difficult for me to retain information shared by the professor.  I used a tape recorder to record lectures and rewrote pages of information in a notebook to strengthen my success as a visual learner.  Fortunately, undergraduate Anthropology courses involved interesting hands-on projects and engaging lab activities.  I fondly remember an experiential learning activity in my 7 am course, Archaeology.  For a group project, each student was tasked with gathering acorns, and we transformed the acorns into bread.  We recreated the methods of the indigenous Ohlone tribe to understand traditional resources and lifeways.  This practical knowledge appropriately applied to my early career as a Field Archaeologist employed in Cultural Resource Management in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of the Ohlone Costanoan.

For over 30 years, this activity stuck with me because we effectively applied our knowledge through a hands-on approach to learn cultural values and break down stereotypes.  I asked myself how I can provide activities for my online students to showcase their creativity and benefit those with different learning styles to ensure they also remembered the course material. I also wanted to develop fun learning games about course topics with students experiencing interactive methods of “digging in the dirt.”

The answer to this question came when I learned about and aligned my Introduction to Archaeology course to the Peralta Online Equity Rubric.  One of the rubric criteria, Universal Design for Learning, emphasizes that faculty recognize that students will complete course activities, review content, and learn in different ways, each unique to the student.  For successful outcomes, we must incorporate three core principles; multiple means of representation, action, and engagement.  (Describing the Peralta Equity Rubric, October 2020)

One idea was to design a discussion asking students to replicate Paleolithic hand art as Experimental Archaeologists.  I was excited to offer a lesson using materials at home to demonstrate how art was made thousands of years ago. To pair with their discussion of visual art, I also added an assignment on this topic with a virtual field trip exploring different sites to look more closely at the Paleolithic culture and symbolism found on cave walls.

In our discussion of Paleolithic cave art, students embedded images of their negative hand-prints and wrote about the process of mixing ingredients and blowing “paint” through a straw.  Students reflected on their cultural and personal symbolism displayed in contemporary society.  This “gallery walk” of shared imagery created a positive learning community through practical applications.  Students experienced a visual representation of different artwork and read supportive feedback for a deeper learning experience.  Also, this shared experience enabled me to connect creativity to understanding.  Here are some examples of student reflections that demonstrate learning comprehension:

“My personal symbolism is displayed through the art on my walls that reflects my cultural heritage, posters from campaign rallies and social justice organizations and the books that line my shelves. The objects that I intentionally and proudly display around my home are symbols of who I am and what matters most to me.”

“I had no one around to hold their hand up, so I outlined mine on paper and cut it out.  I spread blue glitter glue on the wall, taped the hand on to the wet spot, put green glitter on my hand, and puffed it onto the wet glue.  It worked fine – especially after I used two more handfuls of green glitter, because it took a lot of material to get anything like the definition in the Cueva de los Manos.”

In another example, I wanted to accommodate students with different learning styles by inviting them to submit poetry for a discussion on the Garbology Project.  Students examined their background and culture with a reconstruction of habits and behaviors from clues in the trash.  By submitting a poem, students dug deeper into their identity and used their voice to express a connection to the material.  The following poem demonstrates that “rather than simply memorizing and repeating information, higher order thinking (HOT) skills ask students to interpret facts through a new lens” (Planbook Blog).

Trash Day

People of culture and care

Of false nails and human hair

Paper bunches and cleaning supplies

Freshly cleaned and sanitized

Where take-out meets seasoned home grown

Plastic caps and paper crowns

Candy wrappers and prescription bottles

Pads and stamps no baby bottles

Dusting off the ash of herb

Not rich no longer poor

Time to put the cans on the curb

Always wanting more

Incoming boxes at the door

Trash day has come and gone

Additionally, peer replies to a discussion poem cultivated inspiration and acceptance as one student commented, “I really enjoyed reading your post as it was considerably unique and insightful. Sometimes it can be hard to write poems, and that is some skill and bravery from your side.”

A “flipped online classroom” may best describe my style of teaching where a learner-centered model takes the form of at-home activities with clear instructions and guidance.  Students take charge of their own learning experience to meet objectives, and through social learning and discussion sharing, they foster a sense of support and rapport.  It was a goal to infuse my excitement of Archaeology and reflect on my role as an online teacher to design engaging lessons that appealed to a diverse group of students.  I reinforced their effort and asked them to reflect on any difficulties when questions arose about our course activities.  Having good communication and clear instructions make these activities rewarding to grade.

In conclusion, the principle for Universal Design for Learning withinthe Peralta Online Equity Rubric motivated me to redesign my Archaeology course to create unique and interactive activities that demonstrate student learning because students can pick the appropriate submission format that fits their learning style. Students can participate in ways that benefit their personal choices and creative abilities to synthesize course information.  By opening the door for opportunities and embracing differences, students maximize their success through individual expression of higher order thinking skills, as demonstrated through the submission of an image and poem.  A student agreed, “I found these to be a great way to truly recognize and validate everyone’s different learning styles and creativity. Yes, I feel that various multimedia approaches are helpful and beneficial and wish all classes offered this.” 

As an “Experimental Instructor,” I want to reach outside the box to create hands-on activities by putting myself into the role of the learner and acknowledge that we all have diverse interests and needs.  Being open to student feedback, adjusting requirements, and communicating my mistakes reinforces trust.  It means a lot to have students share their personal stories and confide in me situations they are facing.  It gives me the opportunity to ensure students feel a connection by being flexible, caring, and engaged in their success.  Teaching and learning is an on-going process, and it’s important to have student confidence as well as value the feedback from students to make necessary changes to remove barriers. 

Karen Oeh

Karen Oeh holds a BA and an MA in Anthropology, and has been an instructor in the California Community College system since 2003, as well as a specialist in online instruction since 2007.  She joined the Kern Community College District in 2017, and teaches online courses for Porterville College and Cerro Coso Community College.  In addition, she has served as a Program Coordinator within the California Community College system for over 23 years, supporting students in ACCESS/TRIO, AANAPISI, Career, and Transfer, and is responsible for tracking data and reporting on the Ecosystem Tools (Cranium Café, NetTutor, and Proctorio), hosting webinars focused on training and equity, and managing the Online College Counseling courses.  She has also worked with CVC-OEI, the @ONE Course Design Academy, has completed the @ONE Peer Online Course Review (POCR) training, serving as a local POCR Reviewer for Porterville College.  She has aligned four courses to the CVC-OEI Rubric and two courses to the Peralta Online Equity Rubric.  Karen was also accepted by the Center for Learning and Applied Research (CLEAR) at Bakersfield College as a 22-23 Research Fellow to conduct a 10-month action research project.  When she is not teaching, Karen devotes her time to her farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains with 3 horses, 2 cats, and 25 chickens.

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