Week 4: Provide multiple means of representation

The What of Learning.

Recognition network icon


This week you will provide multiple means of representation to your chosen  online activity using UDL.


This week you will be introduced to ways to re-design your chosen educational activity to address providing multiple means of representation.


Offer choice when possible and allow for students to select varying degrees of difficulty within an activity to find the right balance of demands and resources. This is something about providing multiple means of representation.

This weeks content is from Chapter 4: Universal Design for Learning > Provide Multiple Means of Representation>

Multiple means of representation increases engagement.

chart of three guidelines for representation

The recognition area of the brain and the UDL Guidelines for Representation. © 2013 CAST, Inc.

Learner Variability

Addressing learner variability in recognition networks is the focus of the next UDL principle in our discussion. Expertise requires much more than just engagement. It requires constructing knowledge by perceiving information in the environment, recognizing predictive patterns in that information, understanding and integrating new information; interpreting and manipulating a wide variety of symbolic representations of information; and developing fluency in the skills for assimilating and remembering that information.

Learners’ ability to perceive, interpret, and understand information is dependent upon the media and methods through which it is presented. For learning environments to support varied learners in all of these recognition processes, three broad kinds of options for representation are needed: options for perception; options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols; and options for comprehension. A learning context with these options presents few barriers, regardless of the variations in biology and background of the students. Further, it provides a rich field of exploration where redundancy across media and overlap in shades of meaning offer maximum opportunity to build knowledge.

One simple example is the use of media. Take the case of printed materials. Individuals with sensory disabilities (such as blindness) or learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) or those for whom the textbook is written in a foreign language may require different representations of information in order to access and understand content. These learners struggle—or outright fail—if they are compelled to use a printed textbook which is incapable of providing basic supports such as text-to-speech or a readily available glossary. The medium itself is a barrier. Providing content in multiple media supports those who require it (essential for some) but also supplies a rich cognitive learning environment where varied options and interactivity create a more nuanced experience, enabling learners to explore the content from multiple points of view (good for all).

Learners may also struggle due to a lack of needed background knowledge or contextual understanding. For example, learners from a different culture might not understand a math word problem that situates the question in a story about NFL football or a science passage requiring some understanding of U.S. Geography. In these cases, the representation—absent appropriate scaffolding—gets in the way of the learning objective so that what the learner knows about football becomes confused with what they are learning about math.

illustration of multiple pathways

No single pathway works for every student. Illustration by Chris Vallo, © 2013 CAST, Inc.

No Single Pathway

No single medium works for every learner, nor does it for every subject. Printed text may be a suitable medium for reading literature, but print has been shown to be a notoriously poor vehicle for teaching science and mathematics whereas dynamic interactive media can demonstrate directly how things work. To promote understanding of information, concepts, relationships, and ideas, it is critical to provide multiple ways for learners to approach them.

As we have seen elsewhere, learners in their contexts vary systematically and widely in all dimensions of recognition. They vary in their background knowledge and in their ability to access and activate that knowledge, their facility with finding and using patterns critical to understanding, their approaches to encountering new knowledge, and their ability to generalize and transfer knowledge. They vary enormously in their knowledge of vocabulary, their fluency in decoding symbols—from letters and words to mathematical symbols—their comprehension of the structure of languages, and their familiarity with multiple languages. And they vary in their preferences and abilities to perceive and work with different media. Of course this variability is context-bound; it emerges in interactions between learners and the learning environment.

No single medium works for every learner, nor does it for every subject.... To promote understanding of information, concepts, relationships, and ideas, it is critical to provide multiple ways for learners to approach them.

Variability derives from a multiplicity of factors including biology, family context, cultural background, history with schooling, socioeconomic status, moment-to-moment internal and external changes, and, most importantly, the context in which the learner is functioning. We have already seen that whatever variability seems to be within the learner is functionally expressed within specific contexts which determine whether a trait, a mood, or an effect of history becomes disabling, neutral, or advantageous with regard to learning.

The Story of David and Ruth Rose

David and Ruth Rose

To illustrate the importance of context, let’s consider the story of David and Ruth Rose. Ruth, a singer and musician, has perfect pitch. Whenever she hears a note she instantly knows exactly what note it is. Growing up in a musical family, her vision of family life featured singing together, in harmony, with her husband and children. Alas, David’s biology did not cooperate. His pitch could only be called approximate. So, from Ruth’s point of view, David has a disability when it comes to music, and many musicians would agree. But even when a characteristic seems so clearly to be a negative, context is everything. Were David to try to sing in a choral group he would probably be seen as challenged. But in the context of church, where neither the organ nor the voices of the parishioners are tuned accurately, David can participate with gusto, while Ruth is so pained by the inexact pitch that she hears acacophony instead of a melody and cannot comfortably join in. In this context, Ruth’s perfect pitch could be seen as disabling, certainly of her engagement with singing in church.

Not surprisingly, variability in recognition networks is systematic and largely predictable. In a predominantly print-centric classroom, only certain kinds of variability are germane for learning: facility with letter recognition, word decoding, reading fluency, and comprehension. In such a classroom, a student with linguistic challenges would likely be identified as having some form of learning disability. But as classrooms increasingly expand the palette of options for representation and alternatives to printed text proliferate it becomes easier to see that a learning problem, formerly seen as residing in the student, is really a context problem, residing in the interaction between student and learning environment. The relatively recent term “print disability” more accurately reflects the true source of the problem in the intersection of the learner and the context—i.e., the intersection between the learner and the medium of print.

UDL Principles Level the Playing Field without Lowering Standards

What do we mean by an expanded palette? Technology options are among the most obvious. Digital content can be designed to maximize opportunities for becoming expert “readers” of content in many media. Simple media options such as text-to-speech, animations to show processes, or images to expand on verbal ideas, are a start. Representing content in multiple ways also means making explicit some aspects of content that are often implicit, such as the structure and key information in a legal database or highlights and annotations by the author or another expert in a text. These alternatives act as maps or signposts for readers seeking meaning and help learners understand essential ideas. Teachers practicing UDL have further expanded the idea of multiple means of representation to include different lesson formats and types.

A palette of representation options also broadens the kinds of expertise students can bring to their learning. When content is represented through two or more mediums of text, image, video, or audio, learners’ strengths and interests in all of these media become potential avenues for success and engagement. In this kind of rich context, a student’s preference for graphical representations can become an avenue for developing expertise that can extend from one subject area across the curriculum. Additionally, in an environment offering alternatives, rich supports, and extensions for learning, difficulty with one particular medium need not hold learners back.

Transforming the school experience to meet learner variability requires the realization that no one means of representation is optimal for all students, all subject areas, nor all circumstances.


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Provide multiple means of representation

This principle focuses on the ways in which learners gather facts and categorize what they see, hear, and read (CAST, 2011). Addressing variability in perception encourages engagement and supports comprehension.
  • Adjust the activity/task
  • Offer alternative forms of information such as diagrams, photographs, storyboards, and multimedia.
  • For content presented in digital text, allow for tools such as text-to-speech to minimize cognitive demands on decoding, especially for students with dyslexia and English language learners.
  • Support the learner to cope with challenges within the activity/task
  • Introduce information progressively with temporary assistive components or scaffolds to help students manage the content at a reasonable pace.
  • Pre-teach critical information and emphasize relationships between concepts through multiple representations.
  • Model ways to solve new problems with previously learned skills and guide generalization of student learning to new contexts by providing supported opportunities.

The What


  • Provide Choices
  • Provide Support

Provide Choices

When you are able, provide students with a choice of the way they express mastery of learning. As long as the grading criteria focuses on the learning goals, and not the format, one rubric can be used to assess a variety of options.

  • Papers
  • Tests
  • Quizzes
  • Projects
  • Videos
  • Presentations
  • Interviews
  • Discussions
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Drawings
  • Infographics
  • Advertisements
  • Brochures

Provide Support

When you can’t offer choices in the way students express what they’ve learned (and even when you can) you can also provide support. Support might include:

  • Modeling
  • Examples
  • Rubrics
  • Checklists
  • Groups
  • Partners
  • Discussions
  • Practice Opportunities
  • Developmental Feedback
  • Practice Quizzes

When designing assessments, ask yourself, “What is the goal of this assignment and how can it be modified to provide choices and/or support.

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Action Plan

Follow the steps below to complete your action plan this week.

  • Complete all the action plan items.
  • In the  Google+ Community, comment ON at least two other Google Doc worksheets, by the end of Sunday.
    • Provide further insight into to the participant’s results.
    • Practice improving your online interaction with insightful commenting.