Patching Together a Plan for Student Success

Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education

The 2020/2021 academic year presented challenges to faculty, staff, and administrators, as well as to students. We navigated remote hiring processes, distributed laptops and hot spots to students, and learned how to present, engage, and assess remotely. For those of us with broad ranges of experiences in the classroom, it was often a matter of reaching into our memory banks for workarounds and accepting ambiguity – we recognized that there are multiple ways of achieving our goals, albeit with a bit of what computer scientists call constraint relaxation,a that is, you accept a less-than-perfect solution when a perfect solution is not possible. Although experienced faculty were able to adjust, students are early on their paths of accumulating wisdom and gaining perspective.

For many who already had a tenuous hold on a sense of inclusion in and belonging to the academy, the changes presented yet another challenge to their success.

Last academic year I had the good fortune of being a visiting professor of engineering education at a large public university after twenty plus years of in-person teaching at a small private university and serving for several years as a National Science Foundation (NSF) program officer. The NSF stint involved both in-person and virtual panels and outreach. The visiting professor experience, from interview through hiring, teaching, collaborating, and mentoring was remote. The experience was immensely enjoyable, productive, and satisfying. The thought of doing this remotely might seem impersonal or detached. Yet I felt very much a part of the community. I continue to collaborate on grant proposals remotely with colleagues from multiple institutions, some of whom I knew pre-COVID-19, others whom I have never met in person. What made this possible? Tools, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidance, preparation, and community.

What made this possible? Tools, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidance, preparation, and community.

Become Familiar with and Employ the Guidelines of Universal Design for Learning

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines1,b establish a framework for developing design standards that permit the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest range of individuals.2 They map out actionable options or steps that provide the means to achieve these goals by promoting engagement, delivering information through multiple representations, and utilizing actions and expressions that facilitate learning for all students. Thus, the guidelines inform culturally responsive learning that addresses equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Tobin and Behling provide evidence that UDL can benefit all learners and reduce the need to provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities.3,c The parenthetical remarks included in this blog identify actionable steps from the guidelines of table 1 as (means > options) pairs. How are you currently following the guidelines in your teaching and what opportunities do you have to implement them more fully?

A table of Universal Design for learning Guidelines showing how Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression manifest through Access, Build, and Internalize. Click to access the diagram webpage.

Table 1. The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. The goal of UDL is to nurture expert learners who take ownership of their learning by being purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.1 (Image credit:

Assess what is available and use tools creatively to their fullest extent

Lack of frequent in-person student contact combined with the variety of situations in which students find themselves during remote learning can present a special challenge to tracking student progress and performance. This year several of my remotely-instructed students asked for letters of reference after the end of the term. How do we write letters of recommendation for students we have never met in person? At first this seemed daunting, without the luxury of memories from frequent face-to-face encounters. I realized that our learning management system retained not only their assignment grades but also all the research paper drafts students submitted during the term (action & expression > expression & communication) along with my comments, and the blogs all my students are required to update weekly where they reflect on the course and their progress (engagement > self-regulation). And I make notes in a spreadsheet when students keep their required once-a-semester one-on-one meeting with me where I ask students how life is going and about their plans for the future (engagement > self-regulation). Those resources were already in my inventory and proved a better way to recall a student’s progress, thoughtfulness, and potential than simply relying on my memory.

We need tools that allow us to adapt and respond to each student in a timely way. The growing availability of high-quality interactive textbooks and learning environments are a welcome addition to our repertoire of learning tools. Online interactive texts provide readings, videos, activities, in-line quizzes with automated conceptual feedback, interactive programming, glossaries, graduated exercises with answers and discussions, more challenging project suggestions, and links to additional information (representation > perception, language & symbols, comprehension). The instructor can tailor problem sets to support adaptive learning. Most activities are auto-graded and the others are easily graded. The texts passively track and report student progress to both instructor and student (engagement > recruiting interest, sustaining effort & persistence). These features help the instructor meet students where they are.d Interactive texts enable me to use class time to interact with students on a less-structured basis. We work through problems and discuss interesting topics (representation > comprehension), knowing that students can move through the text, interact with the concepts at their own pace, and select complementary topics to review and explore independently. How might you integrate digital resources to create a blended learning environment for your students? Search the pockets of your environment for tools you might adapt to the task at hand.

Develop a strong sense of engagement and community.

Remote learning requires a conscientious effort to engage students and build community. My courses involve group projects, ranging from creating animated stories or games in an intro programming class to masters students building prototypes of complete systems. I identify project requirements, and the students select the domain (engagement > recruiting interest, sustaining effort & persistence). Assignments span problem solving, research, requirements analysis, design, testing, status reporting, and presentations throughout the term (action & expression > physical action and executive functions). These activities provide multiple perspectives on student knowledge gains and encourage collaboration and teamwork. A student need not excel at all tasks to do well in the class. We use breakout rooms for students to collaborate remotely. During the breakout rooms each group’s first task is to start a thread on the Canvas discussion board by posting which member is assuming the role of moderator, scribe, reporter, and timekeeper. Roles are expected to rotate within the group over the course of the semester. The recorder takes notes and posts responses on the assignment to the thread. I make the rounds in each room to observe the conversation, answer questions, and identify individuals or ideas that need additional attention. Assignments can range from a group quiz to an analysis of assigned reading of an article from Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), or a status report on a group project. The reporter summarizes the group’s results during an oral report-out to the class.

Students greatly appreciate the interactions they have during breakout rooms. Although reluctant to participate initially, by the end of the course most express their gratitude for the opportunity to develop a sense of community and collaboration with their classmates.

It is critical to consciously build community among the students, among faculty, staff and administrators, and with our students. Zoom and regularly scheduled meetings can make this easy, especially when we allot time at both ends of each meeting for casual conversation. What avenues for engagement and exchange of ideas can you explore?

Expect (and make it easy for) students to do the right thing and prepare for class.

UDL, innovations in digital tools for learning, and changes in instructional habits can make it easier for students with a variety of abilities to demonstrate achievement. It is troubling to hear instructors discuss fears of student cheating on large-stakes online exams that are difficult to proctor. Why bother? MIT, CMU, and others have demonstrated that frequent low stakes assignments, rather than a few high stakes exams, allow students to demonstrate learning across a variety of tasks and contexts, lead to more accurate assessment of proficiency, and lower rates of stress, cheating, and plagiarism.8-12 Students consider this strategy among the most helpful for learning. Both well-defined and open-ended assignments of varying depth and complexity allow students to explore the boundaries of their knowledge and receive feedback frequently and in multiple forms (engagement > self-regulation).

In my courses, students can submit any project or paper deliverable multiple times during the term for review and feedback, giving them ample opportunity to improve their work. All my students learn how to use STEM-related bibliographic tools and compose a research paper. These skills will be invaluable in the future to discern fact from fiction and compose white papers (action & expression > expression & communication, engagement > self-regulation). This experience also lays a foundation for the additional research experiences they need to pursue graduate education.

Overall, multimodal learning and assessment can play an important role in integrating UDL into educational processes.13 Its diversity of modes supports diversity of communication, benefitting a broad range of learners. It does require a shift in instructional design from delivery of information to engagement of the learner.14-15  Groups such as IEEE ICICLEe are tackling the development of standards and norms to guide effective implementation and use of multimodal learning as well as assessment tied to course and learning objectives. How can you develop engaged learners eager to take responsibility for learning?

Parting Thoughts

Our current state of the art technology and learning environments positions us to make the most of what we have and thrive in the face of adversity. The practices presented here demonstrate how we can provide access to ideas while our students build upon what they have learned, and internalize their new knowledge. Rather than being threatened by the evolving digital systems and methods, or fearing that they will supplant face-to-face instruction, let us explore where innovative learning environments are best used to make learning more accessible and education more flexible and equitable, thus complementing the needs, skills, and assets of both learners and teachers. As Susan Lord, University San Diego, advises, become a good listener.16 Our students and colleagues are telling us what works for them and are eager for success. As you contemplate integrating new activities into your routine, keep in mind that an investment in the present to implement and test innovations will reap great benefits for faculty and learners in the future. Let us challenge ourselves to assess what is available and use all resources creatively and to their fullest extent. As we listen to our environments we can develop a strong sense of engagement and community. By providing environments that adapt to the needs of our learners we will encourage students to take responsibility for their learning. By considering the collective impact that an academic environment can have, we can create communities in which all members have an opportunity to thrive.



Constraint Relaxationa

Constraint relaxation occurs when conflicting constraints (requirements) exist in a design problem and there is no solution that can satisfy all constraints. In that case, designers “relax” or violate one or more constraints in order to identify an acceptable or “satisfactory” solution. An example is wanting to park directly in front of a store right now, but there is no parking space there so you park two blocks away where there is a spot, rather than waiting for the optimal spot.

UDL Guidelinesb

The UDL Guidelines are a tool that can be used to design learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners. These Guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions for applying the UDL framework to practice and help ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

UDL can benefit all learnersc

Rogers and Gronseth describe a study of approaches to online active learning from a UDL perspective.4 They argue that the challenges of learner variability can be effectively addressed through multimodal learning opportunities and incorporation of active learning and UDL principles. Dickinson and Gronseth demonstrate that the flexibility of online learning supports a variety of student needs.5 Innovative, interactive learning environments provide tools that augment the classroom experience, support student learning, and facilitate the success of a diverse student body.6

Personalized and adaptive learningd

Taylor, Yeung and Bashet7 discuss personalized and adaptive learning from the perspective of innovative learning environments and provide ample evidence of its value.


ICICLE is part of the IEEE Standards Association’s (IEEE-SA) Industry Connections (IC) program. ICICLE stands for IC Industry Consortium on Learning Engineering.


The author expresses gratitude to Thomas Veague (AAAS) for his valuable feedback on drafts of this blog. She is also grateful for the rich discussions within the California State University Los Angeles communities for Teaching and Learning, ARCLAMS, and Eco-STEM within the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology that inspire proactive engagement of faculty, staff, and students in creating an environment in which everyone can succeed.