Supporting diversity through universal instructional design

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall

Using inclusive teaching practices may contribute to diversity in post-secondary education, according to Andrew Molas, a York University PhD candidate in philosophy and a peer tutor with the University’s Teaching Commons, who has personally experienced accessibility issues.

Molas led a session about inclusive pedagogy and universal instructional design (UID) at the Teaching in Focus Conference in May, an annual event mounted by the Teaching Commons. He believes that these practices may affect a university’s retention/graduation rates and support diversity in higher education.

Maclean’s magazine reported that York has a retention/graduation rate of 72.5 per cent,” Molas said. “It means that 25 per cent of our students don’t finish. Why is that and how can we help?” (To read the full story, visit

Andrew Molas presenting at the Teaching in Focus conference

At York University, there is a real diversity of students, including first-generation university students, part-time and full-time students, students with language barriers and working students. Molas said this diversity requires a more inclusive approach than the traditional, lecture-style class that provides limited interaction and makes it difficult for the teacher to assess if the students understand the content.

“It is a one-size-fits-all learning model that can create inequities and prevent access and success for all,” he said, “while inclusive pedagogy and universal design are flexible and try to engage with everyone.”

Using the definition provided by the Inclusion & Dialogue Center at Emory & Henry College, Molas explained that inclusive pedagogy “incorporates dynamic practices and learning styles, multiple contexts and varied means of assessment with the goal of promising student academic success.”

The benefits of the inclusive approach are many, including:

  • fostering an open-ended view of learning potential;
  • fostering social connections between students and between students and teachers;
  • providing opportunities to connect, collaborate and share learning; and
  • supporting first-year students in their transition from high school.

Inclusive pedagogy is easy to use with the framework of universal instructional design, Molas said. This content design strategy is based on three principles:

  • using multiple means of representation to accommodate various learning styles;
  • employing multiple means of demonstrating understanding of the material, making diversity the norm; and
  • using multiple means of engagement.

“UID is a design intervention,” Molas said. “It requires flexible instructional practices and provides for a learner-centred curriculum. Because it is applicable to all students, it promotes a respectful classroom climate.”

Carolyn Steele, a faculty member in the Department of Humanities, has used UID in her classes in the form of a collaborative reading model.

“I discovered my students had such busy lives with working and commuting that they didn’t have enough time to do all of the required readings,” Steele said. “We do the reading in class with everyone deeply reading a section and explaining it to the others. When I listen to their precis, I can see if they understand and can comment. This process enables all students to participate rather than relying on some students to carry the burden of the group.

“We also create a class Google document. They have to refer to it and need it for the lab component of the course, which follows, so they apply what they’ve just read.”

Molas offered a number of suggestions that promote success in using inclusive pedagogy and UID, such as:

  • Build meaningful connections with your students; treat them like colleagues.
  • Be mindful of your tone and avoid exclusionary language.
  • Do not be afraid to use technology in class.
  • Use visuals and alternate ways of conveying course content.
  • Incorporate paired activities and small groups.
  • Provide substitutes for oral assignments for students dealing with anxiety; make this option available for all students.

He believes it is helpful to use a mix of private, interpersonal and group activities.

“Don’t be afraid to try new activities,” Molas said. “The benefits for students can be like night and day.”

He maintains that it is up to educators to improve diversity in higher education.

“We need to take responsibility,” he said. “Ask your students, ‘What can I do to improve your learning experience?’ They really appreciate it. Remember, equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus