Universal Design in the Chemistry Classroom

empty classroom tables with window in background

For the past three years, I have been fortunate enough to work with an intervention specialist teaching inclusion sections of ninth grade physical science (half chemistry, half physics). My co-teacher and I instruct classes with students ranging in ability from intellectual disability to gifted. I truly enjoy teaching these groups of diverse students and have learned many strategies to help all students succeed that I carry over to my non-inclusion classes. Here I will discuss five strategies that I have found particularly helpful for all of my students.


1. Clearly define your expectations for students

I use standards-based grading so this concept is naturally built into my curriculum. In my classroom, my learning targets are the common thread that ties everything together. Students see their learning targets on the agenda for the day, at the top of their notes, embedded in worksheets and tied to all questions on their assessments.

If you are not using standards-based grading, I would still highly recommend mapping your curriculum to learning targets. Your learning targets communicate what skills you want students to be able to master. When you map your notes, worksheets, and assessments to learning targets, students can clearly see their path to success.


2. Define group roles

In science class, students often work in pairs or groups to complete lab activities. Some students are shy, hesitant to ask for help, or sometimes just trying to get out of doing work. It is important for all students to get hands-on experience and feel like part of the team. Kristen Drury wrote a great post about the roles the POGIL curriculum uses. I usually define specific roles based on the activity we are doing. Typical roles include recorder, materials manager and measurer.


3. Ask questions

I use the Modeling InstructionTM pedagogy in my classroom so we do a lot of whiteboarding. Specifically, when we go over practice worksheets, each team will whiteboard a problem and come to the front of the class to present. In these instances, I make sure to ask every student a question about their problem. I am able to differentiate my questions so every student can answer but still take ownership of their group’s work. Some students who have anxiety about speaking in front of the class may need a little scaffolding. I start these students by simply asking them to stand with their group and not answer a question. Then I have them answer a question that I go over with them beforehand. After that, I might tell the student a general type of question I might ask them. Finally, I would expect the student to be able to answer a question in front of the class without any preparation from me.


4. Give visual cues for notes and provide a copy

Everyone formats their notes differently and some are more visual than others. Using the Modeling InstructionTM pedagogy means most notes come from the discussion of an experiment or activity. Over the years I have scaffolded these notes more and more to help students better synthesize what we talk about as a class. I want students to focus on the discussion while we are talking instead of being distracted by writing or typing. After the discussion, we write down the key take-aways together as a class. I make sure to type what I say and display it at the front of the room so students can reference it for their own notes. I provide a digital copy of all notes to my students on Google Classroom as well. See figure 1 for an example notes page from my ninth-grade physical science class. The blue box indicates to students this is important information we will go over as a class.


Figure 1: An example notes page 


5. Review and summarize major concepts often

Last school year, I started implementing a “what I learned” section on the sheet where my students keep track of their learning targets and grades. A day or two after we cover a learning target, we have a class discussion about what we have learned that is connected to that target and write down our conclusions together. This practice helps students retain new knowledge and gives them a quick reference sheet for studying. See figure 2 below for an example of a tracking sheet box for ninth-grade physical science where students can record their learning target, grades and what they have learned.


Figure 2: An example of a tracking sheet box for ninth-grade physical science 


Working with students of various abilities has made me evaluate what I consider to be “rigorous instruction.”

There are many more strategies my co-teacher and I use in our inclusion classes but I have found these five are the ones I use most often in the general education setting. Working with students of various abilities has made me evaluate what I consider to be “rigorous instruction.” I did not realize that I had fallen into the trap of thinking rigor equates to expecting students to fend for themselves. I have since changed my view of rigor to be “setting high expectations for ALL students and giving them the resources they need to meet those expectations.”


*Preview Image by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash