The following is the “Introduction to Universal Design” video that consultants watched in Module 1 of Asynchronous Online Training. The transcript is also available below for accessibility.

Video Transcript

[Jenelle] Hi, everyone! This video will introduce you to the concept of Universal Design and introduce Exercise 3.

Universal Design (or UD) is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Ron Mace). An example of Universal Design in architecture, for example, would be indents in sidewalk curbs. This design can be used by everyone, including those in wheelchairs, those pushing grocery carts, and those pushing strollers. This design also works for raptors riding bicycles. They’re people too, you know?

Universal Design for Learning (or UDL) applies the concept of Universal Design to the learning environment, such as a writing center. According to Universal Design for Learning, learning environment should be as flexible as possible to benefit as many people as possible. One way that our writing center currently applies this is by offering multiple types of appointments and multiple ways for students to receive writing feedback. Students can work with us face-to-face in 3 different locations on campus, they can work with us over video or text-chat, and they can receive written feedback. Students can also just submit short questions on our website and receive answers without scheduling an appointment. So these options are offered to all students, and they can choose whichever works best for them.

But the feedback within each appointment also needs to be flexible. Learning means different things for different students. How can we be flexible to people who learn in different ways, have varying levels of comfort with technology, and have varying abilities?

One way we currently do this in online consulting is by applying two practices: the “what, why, how, and do” method and direct language.

“What, Why, How, and Do” Method

With the “what, why, how, and do” method (Hewett, 2015), you should generally answer these 4 questions for students:

  1. What is the issue that you are giving feedback on?
  2. Why is it an issue?
  3. How can the student fix or address the issue? What are some options or solutions?
  4. What should the student Do? This could include encouraging them to consider a revision, look for similar issues on their own, or browse through some resources that you provide them.

This method ensures that every student is given enough information to understand the consultant’s suggestion and to apply it, if they choose to.

The following is an example comment from an asynchronous appointment that models the “what, why, how, and do” method. The consultant begins by explaining the “what” and “why”:

“I’d encourage you to take this example a step further and add some reflection, because this assignment is part research report, part personal reflection.”

Then the consultant explains “how” the student can expand their reflection:

A major part of reflections is showing AND telling. Basically, all that means is that you want to show me the leadership skills you gained through specific examples in addition to explicitly telling me what those skills are.  

Lastly, the consultant gives a specific example of something the student could “do” to add reflection to their current draft:

To do this, you could connect this example (the agency and independence your professor gave you) to the explicit leadership skills you gained as a result of this experience. ”

The “how” and “do” can sometimes overlap and be very similar, so don’t worry about trying to separate them out for every suggestion.

Direct Language

The second practice we apply in online consulting is direct language.

Using direct language clarifies what you suggest the student Do, as part of applying the “what, why, how, and do” method. Now, writing centers often champion being indirect and not “giving away” answers to students. But this does not account for all types of learners. Research has shown that direct language is more helpful for students who are d/Deaf, students with learning disabilities, and students who are multilingual or from other cultures. And direct language can really benefit anyone who is trying to learn something new, trying to understand your feedback, or trying to apply the feedback that you are providing them. Research has also suggested that students are more likely to revise when suggestions are direct (Hewett, 2015).

So what is the difference between indirect and direct language? Here are some examples of indirect language:

  • Example 1: Perhaps this could be mentioned earlier when the methodology was first introduced?
  • Example 2: I would mention this earlier when the methodology was first introduced.

The first example uses passive voice to hide the fact that the student is the author and is the one who should make the revisions. In the second example, first-person “I” is used to talk about what the consultant would do in a similar situation. But this doesn’t clarify whether the consultant is giving this suggestion to the student.

Now here are the same examples, but revised to use direct language:

  • Example 1: Perhaps you could mention this earlier when you first introduced the methodology?
  • Example 2: Consider mentioning this earlier when you first introduced the methodology.

In the first example, the second-person “you” is used to clarify that the consultant is talking about what the student could do to revise. In the second example, the command “consider” is used at the beginning. Commands use fewer words and clarify that you are telling the student to do something. But we use what we call polite commands, which are verbs such as “consider,” “think about,” or “try.” Or we combine a command with a word such as “maybe” or “perhaps.” With this language, we are being direct but still framing it as a suggestion that the student can take or leave, so they retain their agency.

Exercise 3

So in Exercise 3, we want you to think of additional ways that you can apply Universal Design to account for multiple types of learners and be flexible in your feedback as an online consultant. Think of how you could take advantage of the tools available in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Google Hangouts. If you are unfamiliar with these technologies or need a refresher, we’ve recorded some short videos on each platform that are linked in Exercise 3. You can also think of other technologies or practices that you have found helpful outside the writing center.

You’ll also welcome to think beyond just online consulting and think of ways that you can be more flexible in face-to-face appointments, or ways that the center as a whole can be more flexible.

To complete Exercise 3, brainstorm some ideas in the Google Doc provided. We will discuss more in our in-person check-in meeting. I’m excited to see you guys soon!


Hewett, B. L. (2015). The online writing conference: A guide for teachers for tutors. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.