Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information quicker or more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Also learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because it allows students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential. For greater detail, please refer to the CAST UDL Guidelines on Representation.
Learning is impossible if information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance. To reduce barriers to learning, it is important to ensure that key information is equally perceptible to all learners by: 1) providing the same information through different modalities (e.g., through vision, hearing, or touch); 2) providing information in a format that will allow for adjustability by the user (e.g., text that can be enlarged, sounds that can be amplified). Such multiple representations not only ensure that information is accessible to learners with particular sensory and perceptual disabilities, but also easier to access and comprehend for many others.
Learners vary in their facility with different forms of representation – both linguistic and non-linguistic. Vocabulary that may sharpen and clarify concepts for one learner may be opaque and foreign to another. An equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means. A graph that illustrates the relationship between two variables may be informative to one learner and inaccessible or puzzling to another. A picture or image that carries meaning for some learners may carry very different meanings for learners from differing cultural or familial backgrounds. As a result, inequalities arise when information is presented to all learners through a single form of representation. An important instructional strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided not only for accessibility, but for clarity and comprehensibility across all learners.
The purpose of education is not to make information accessible, but rather to teach learners how to transform accessible information into useable knowledge. Decades of cognitive science research have demonstrated that the capability to transform accessible information into useable knowledge is not a passive process but an active one. Constructing useable knowledge, knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making, depends not upon merely perceiving information, but upon active “information processing skills” like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization. Individuals differ greatly in their skills in information processing and in their access to prior knowledge through which they can assimilate new information. Proper design and presentation of information – the responsibility of any curriculum or instructional methodology - can provide the scaffolds necessary to ensure that all learners have access to knowledge.
What: Graphic Organizers (GOs) are visual representations of knowledge, concepts, thoughts, or ideas. GOs entered the realm of education in the late twentieth century as ways of helping students to organize their thoughts (as a sort of pre-writing exercise). For example, a student is asked, "What were the causes of the French Revolution?" The student places the question in the middle of a sheet of paper. Branching off of this, the student jots down her ideas, such as "poor harvests," "unfairness of the Old Regime," etc. Branching off of these are more of the student's thoughts, such as "the nobles paid no taxes" branching from "unfairness of the Old Regime."
Why: Positive effects on higher order knowledge but not on facts (Robinson & Kiewra, 1995); Quiz scores higher using partially complete GO (Robinson et al., 2006). In addition, GOs have been known to help:
· relieve learner boredom
· enhances recall
· provide motivation
· create interest
· clarify information
· assist in organizing thoughts
· promote understanding
1. Provide completed GO to students (Learn by viewing)
2. Students construct their own GO (Learn by doing)
3. Students finalize partially complete GO (scaffolding)