Teaching Strategies for Learner Variability

"When you’re teaching large undergraduate classes you’ve got a very heterogeneous population of students. Right away from day one you start teaching you look at the ability of their responses and just watching them in the classroom you can see that some are obviously following, and others are puzzled. So you realize right away that their backgrounds are not identical"

- Instructor (McGill University)

What does this mean:

Teaching strategies that follow the UDL principles are strategies that ensure that every student in your class has an equal opportunity to learn.  Concepts are represented in a variety of ways so that students can stay engaged in the process.

Why is this important:

Each student in your classroom learns differently. Their learning depends on their style, their background knowledge, linguistic background, and any effects of disability. Therefore, in order to reach each and every one of your students, it is important to diversify your teaching strategies.

How is this achieved:

Use the following 3 main steps to guide you in creating teaching strategies that follow the UDL principles:

1. Consider how the learners in your class differ, in so many ways:

  • Learning style (visual- auditory- kinesthetic- or any combination of these three)
  • Prior knowledge
  • Linguistic background
  • Disability (physical, cognitive, or learning)

2. Every lecture, identify a few concepts on which that you would like to focus

3. Think about the presenting new concepts in the most engaging ways possible.  Increasing student engagement increases the likelihood that your students will learn what it is you are trying to teach.

  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Highlight important ideas
  • Clarify syntax, vocabulary, symbols
  • Help student generalize the information
  • General teaching strategies to increase accessibility


Practical Tools


Activate prior knowledge

When you design your lectures, you may want to incorporate some strategies to activate prior knowledge. According to Pressley et al. (1992) there is evidence of increased learning in students when prior knowledge is activated. They review four ways in which prior knowledge can be activated:

1. Students generate explanatory answers for their peers

  • When introducing a new concept (or a pre-requisite concept) encourage your students to discuss them in groups.

2. Students generate thought provoking questions for their peers

  • Before you explain a certain concept ask your students to come up with a few questions and then ask them to exchange the questions and attempt to answer them.

3. Students predict the content of the upcoming lecture or text

  • At the beginning of the lecture, or before starting to read a new book or journal article, ask your students to tell you what they know about that topic. Ask them what the title of the lecture or the text means and what they think they are about to learn.
  • Have students create a Mind Map (e.g., MindMeister , XMind, Popplet) with what they already know about the topic.
  • You can also use the KWL method (K= what I Know; W= what I Want to know; L= what I Learned).

4. Students explain the significance of the facts that they are about to learn

  • When introducing a new concept ask your students to come up with one or two reasons why it is important to learn that concept. Students tend to learn the material better if they understand why it is important to learn that concept and especially if they come up with the answer.

Pressley, M., Wood, E., Woloshyn, V. E., King, A., Menke, D. (1992). Encouraging Mindful Use of Prior Knowledge: Attempting to Construct Explanatory Answers Facilitates Learning. Educational Psychologist, 27(1), 91-109.


Highlight important ideas

The ability to extract the main information from a text is a strategy that takes time to acquire. Many recent high school graduates have not mastered this skill yet. If possible, take a few minutes to help students differentiate between the main ideas and the secondary ideas.

  • Use a graphic organizer to help highlight main ideas
  • Use colors to draw attention to main ideas
  • Use several examples to help students understand the concept
  • At the end of the class ask the students to come up with three things they learned that day


Clarify syntax, vocabulary, and symbols

There is considerable student variability in understanding vocabulary and symbols used in the classroom. It is important to take a few minutes to clarify them before you start lecturing, or during the lecture.

  • Pre-teach new vocabulary words
  • Prepare a list of vocabulary words
  • Any visual representation should also be explained verbally in a very explicit way (e.g., Some of your students may have no difficulty reading a graph, but others may have difficulties understanding the relationship between variables as shown in a graph)
  • Highlight transition words in a text, and links between ideas
  • Highlight the elements in a complex structure/ equation/ symbol


Help students generalize the information

The students in your class vary in their ability to transfer their learning to a new context. However, they all need the material to be represented in different formats so they can manipulate it and apply it in different situations. There are several ways in which this can be achieved:

  • Provide templates, graphic organizers and concepts maps to help them visualize how the ideas connect
  • Provide several examples of how they might use a certain concept in different contexts
  • Ask students to give you examples of other contexts where they can apply that particular concept


General teaching strategies to increase accessibility

  • Main concepts need to be represented in a variety of ways: orally, visually, and using an application.
  • All handouts need to be available in an electronic format
  • All handouts need to have a reasonable font size (at least 11)
  • All handouts need to be made available to your students in electronic format (especially for those who need to use a computer to read them)
  • Learning can occur if students have time to process information
  • At the end of each lecture reflect on the effectiveness of the teaching strategies you've used
  • Always check for understanding by asking open-ended questions

See practical examples of UDL implementation HERE.