Kennesaw State University

Accommodating Students’ Learning Needs

by Kadian Callahan and Josie Baudier

This article shares ideas for how to accommodate a variety of students’ learning needs in a university classroom. Some students come to the classroom with defined and diagnosed learning needs, but some students have learning needs that have not been defined or diagnosed. Instructors committed to fostering all students’ learning may consider designing their courses based on fundamental and effective, research-based practices. This article will provide information about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Backwards Course Design and share some instructional considerations to support student learning and positive student outcomes. KSU resources will also be provided. 

Today’s college students bring a diversity of experiences and perspectives that can enhance teaching and learning in university classrooms. Although there are still many obstacles, a sizable variety of students are pursuing higher education. At the university level there are greater efforts to increase student retention, progression, and graduation rates (e.g., Complete College Georgia – see ; however, instructors also need to work to identify and implement innovative ways to bolster student learning and knowledge retention in the classroom.  In today’s university environment, instructors’ responsibility is not to just pass along knowledge to students, but to promote learning and critical thinking that is generative and career-relevant.  To do this well, it is helpful to be aware of the diversity of students’ learning needs and be equipped with ideas for how to best teach and serve all of our students.


Designing a course

One way to design a course is to rely on the research from Universal Design for Learning (UDL). According to the website for the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), “UDL is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” Creating a course with UDL in mind allows us to focus on teaching all students in the best way possible. UDL guidelines are based on three main principles of representation, expression, and engagement in the classroom. According to , the following is how the principles support UDL:

Principle 1: Representation refers to presenting and delivering what we teach in different ways. For example, instructors should offer alternatives formats for content.

Principle 2: Action & Expression refers to providing options for how students learn and how students express what they know. For example, instructors should provide options and multiple tools for communication, assignments, and monitoring progress.

Principle 3: Engagement refers to motivation and why students are of learning what they are learning in your class. For example, explain or point to the goals of the course so students know what to expect and what they are going to learn. Also, provide times for students to reflect on their learning, give students choices in their assignments, and find ways to show relevance and value to the work students are doing.

Adapted from 


Backward Course Design Process

The design of a course from beginning to end creates a plan for successful learning and course outcomes. This process of planning a course should be completed before the course is taught, however, evaluation and reflection of the course during and after it is taught may warrant changes. Backward Course Design or Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2006) created a framework that has been utilized by many in the field. This process guides instructors through planning and organizing their course by first thinking about and building toward the end-goals of the course. First, the learning outcomes are developed based on the course goals.  Then the instructor identifies what evidence a student will provide to show mastery of an outcome. This includes the assessments students will complete to demonstrate their learning as they make progress toward meeting the course goals. Learning activities are provided to allow students to develop their skills to be able to demonstrate mastery on the assessments. Finally, instructors identify or design resources that they can use to foster students’ learning.  Below is a graphic model adapted from Fink (2003) that shows the progression of the Backward Course Design framework (Esther Jordan, 2016, personal communication). 

In addition to considering the principles of UDL, here are some tips to keep in mind as you create your course with the Backward Design model.

  1. Provide information about or stimulate background knowledge prior to introducing new content to help students make connections across different content topics
  2. Highlight critical concepts to help students to identify what is important for them to know and understand
  3. Repeat critical concepts, using multiple means to reinforce learning and to foster knowledge retention and integration of old and new concepts
  4. Avoid unnecessary jargon, complex terms as it can be a hindrance for students – consider providing resources to help students learn important vocabulary in meaningful contexts
  5. Provide lots of examples that communicate both important concepts and processes that you expect students to learn (e.g., analyzing and synthesizing information, communicating ideas to others in writing)



The following activity is designed to encourage faculty to consider the complexity involved in planning instruction that supports and accommodates a variety of student learning needs during course meetings.  As you watch each video (links below), consider:

  1. What are some challenges that a student might have with learning the course content?
  2. What are some suggestions for what the professor might do to accommodate some of the challenges that students might experience?

Classroom 1

                                    (Introduction to Philosophy Course – Watch from beginning to 4:16)

Classroom 2

(English Language Course - Watch from beginning to 4:53)


Reflecting on the Videos

Below are some thoughts about what is happening in the videos.  You may have different ideas than those listed here.

Classroom 1:

  • There is a lot of noise in the class. It might be difficult for someone who needs a low distraction environment to focus in on particular conversations.
  • Explaining your thinking to someone else and making sense of others’ explanations can help to reinforce learning.
  • The lecture is broken up so that students are actively engaged in learning the material throughout the lesson.
  • The physical movement integrated into explanations can help to reinforce students’ understanding of the content.
  • There is a lot of listening and speaking, but not a lot of writing.  Different modes of communicating can deepen students’ understanding of the content.
  • Perhaps the instructor can ask one student to speak at a time or have students go to different parts of the classroom to have conversations with their partner.  This might help to reduce some of the distraction.
  • Following this lesson, it might be helpful for the instructor to have students summarize the main points of the lesson on paper.  Writing down what they have said and heard can help them to synthesize the ideas in a meaningful way.
  • It appears that the students in this class are learning English.
  • The initial questions asked about the picture are very open.  It may be difficult for students to figure out what sort of response to give.
  • It is not initially clear what the students are supposed to gain from discussing the picture.  Later it appears that they are learning to use context clues to determine what is happening in a situation – something that is important for second language learners.
  • There are opportunities for students to discuss their ideas in pairs before sharing with the entire class.
  • The teacher seems to be listening closely to pair discussions and taking notes from time to time about what she is hearing.  She listens also to individuals as they pronounce words and tries to help them (and the class) with pronunciations.
  • When pairs are sharing what they discussed, they direct their comments to the teacher and other students are quiet.  Still, it is not clear that the other students are listening or making sense of their peers’ ideas.  Perhaps the instructor can encourage students to add or respond to their peers’ ideas by asking them to do so.
  • Perhaps the instructor can also share the purpose and goal of the lesson with the students at the beginning of the lesson to help them to know what is important pay attention to and take away from the lesson.

Classroom 2: 

We encourage you to share information about what you do to accommodate a variety of students’ learning needs in your courses – both those that succeeded and those that need to be further refinement.  If you have a video to share, please do!  We can all learn from each other.

Resources at KSU

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) offers a variety of teaching enhancement services including individual and group consultations, classroom observations, small-group instructional diagnoses (SGIDs), and syllabus review.  We also offer workshops on teaching and learning as well as tailored workshops to meet specific departmental needs.  Visit our website at or send an email to for more information.

Model Universal Design Laboratory Classroom the Universal Design Laboratory is an assistive technology model classroom brought to you by the Department of Inclusive Education and the Department of Instructional Technology in cooperation with

Tools for Life Georgia Institute of Technology. The lab is located on the second floor of the new Education Building. See the possibilities technology can bring to you and your students!

Student Disability Services is to assure equal access to all educational experiences by students with identified, legally defined disabilities, and to promote the University's knowledge of and compliance with all applicable federal and state laws. 

Student Success Services works with students who’s needs are associated with veteran’s issues, addiction recovery, disabled student services, women’s support, interpersonal violence prevention, homeless student intervention, student athlete success, student health promotion and wellness and personal and career counseling.

Academic Support Services includes assistance for student through Academic Tutoring Services, Academic Planning and Advising, Cultural Awareness Resource Center (CARC), Global Village, GLBTIQ Resource Center, International Student Retention Services, and Adult Learning Programs

Other Academic Tutoring Resources include the Writing Center and SMART Center


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design. New Jersey: Person Education,Inc.


Written by Josie Baudier & Kadian M. Callahan