Conversation Shaper: Utilizing Universal Design in the Writing Center

Madeleine Cottle, Utah Valley University


Neurodiverse students often find themselves at odds with educational institutions not necessarily designed for the way they think and process information. Universities are geared towards neurotypical students and, despite the services of accessibility offices, neurodiverse students who receive accommodations still struggle in their classes (Clouder et al., 2020). Neurotypical students are students “whose neurological development and state are typical, conforming to what most people would perceive as normal,” whereas neurodivergent students have “divergence in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal” (Disabled World, 2022). Neurodivergent students may struggle with deadlines, multiple choice tests, etc. Writing centers can help neurodiverse students meet their course requirements by being aware of how centers approach supporting students and make consultations more accessible for all types of students. One way to accomplish this is to integrate elements of universal design into writing centers and consultations. 

KEYWORDS: Neurodiversity, Universal Design, Neurodiverse students, Inclusive instruction


As a queer student with ADHD, I struggle with vague guidelines, multiple choice exams, and deadlines. However, when professors were supportive by clearly defining their assignments, giving me accommodated exams, and offering occasional accommodated deadlines, I thrived. This approach is how I tackled my role as writing center consultant. In early drafts of this Conversation Shaper, I approached neurodiverse students by metaphorically pinning each one to a corkboard and examining them as if they were butterflies in an entomologist’s collection. However, as my research progressed, I learned that this approach would violate students’ privacy and end up being inherently ableist by viewing neurodiverse students as patients with symptoms needing treatment rather than offering support and helping them increase their ownership of their writing. Instead of assuming a student’s needs, I have learned to give them space so that they can voice and tailor the consultation to their self-identified needs. 

Incorporating elements of universal design provides a space for students to advocate for themselves and for consultants to support each student without taking control. Universal design is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability” (National Disability Authority, 2020). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is useful because it is easily tailored to meet different needs of writers and students instead of being designed solely for neurotypical students. However, UDL’s purpose and principles benefit all students of all abilities, neurotypical included. As a writing consultant, I have taken multiple types of training on different aspects of UDL. I have participated in screen reader trainings, have given fidgety students sensory toys, read assignments and their requirements out loud, gone to quieter areas of my writing center, dimmed lights, used scaffolding and modeling to help students understand the different parts of the writing process (i.e. using a recipe as a metaphor for building a research paper), and more. I have found that simple techniques go a long way to not only support a student but also to help them understand that they are capable of more than they originally thought. 

In a writing center, UDL is crucial because many students who frequent writing centers often do not receive adequate support in their classes and go to writing centers to get the missing support. If writing centers also cannot meet those needs, students will fall through the cracks. To prevent this, writing centers might consider the following questions: what does UDL in writing centers look like right now, what can writing centers do to further integrate UDL in their space, and how can writing centers further implement UDL to help neurodiverse students? 

UDL in Writing Centers 

The main purpose of UDL is to help make spaces and classes more accessible as well as help students become expert learners by focusing on four core principles: 1. Affective Learning (engaging a student’s motivation in learning), 2. Recognition Learning (engaging students in trying different types of learning), 3. Strategic Learning (acquiring the skills and setting goals to succeed in learning), and 4. creating an accessible physical space for these elements (UTRGV Writing Center, 2021). All of these elements have already taken shape in writing centers. 

Affective Learning answers “why” a student is working on an assignment and addresses their motivation. Affective Learning is seen in consultations when consultants connect with the student (UTRGV Writing Center, 2021; Kiedaisch & Dinitz, 2007). Consultants can then help students connect with their writing. Once a connection between a student and a consultant is established, a student feels comfortable expressing their needs and concerns instead of the consultant defining their needs. The consultant validates the student’s needs and tailors the session to those needs. By asking the student questions about previous writing experiences, building a rapport with students especially at the beginning of a consultation, and helping them connect with the assignment, consultants may keep them engaged on the student’s terms. When students make connections between the assignment and themselves, they may be able to grow and maintain their own motivation and engagement and be less dependent on a consultant. This growth can foster motivation to keep writing after a consultation. Struggling in class and with writing assignments may dampen or deplete a student’s motivation. Because Affective Learning often comes from external help, a student’s motivation can be strengthened because they can feel bolstered by having another person validating and supporting their efforts. 

Support and connection can be seen when a consultant models or provides scaffolding to help a student understand different ways to approach an assignment, such as how to make an outline, modeling a thesis statement, etc. Enhancing their post consultation motivation can be seen in helping a student draw up a post-consultation checklist and reassuring them there is support for them as needed (CAST, 2018). When drawing up a post-consultation plan, it is essential to define concrete steps, so there is no confusion as to what the student needs to do on their own. Doing so will help keep up motivation because the student will remember and understand what they need to do. Having a plan on how to work through their writing and other assignments can help a student feel confident in their ability to finish their work. When consultants support students in figuring out what they need to do, by linking the assignment to their interests or by applying it to them, chances are the motivation will last longer, and this in turn will help the student complete the assignment. 

By using UDL and ensuring information is accessible to students, a writing consultant uses the principle of Recognition Learning. A writing center offering accessible handouts and different types of consultations like in-person, asynchronous, or graduate writing appointments, is doing a good job incorporating this concept because it offers students different ways of accessing services. 

Additionally, this UDL principle can be seen in consultations where students’ different sensory needs and learning styles are readily met with flexibility. For example, students may benefit from dimmed screens, volume control, or using different types of learning styles, such as kinesthetic learning and using clay to work through and model a concept (i.e. making a triangle side by side to show the rhetorical triangle), pulling up a picture or definition of a concept, etc. (Wisz, 2021). By being able to switch gears, a consultant can help a student engage with and understand the writing process the way they need. While a consultant does not have to be an expert in any of these approaches, being familiar with different consulting styles and tools will make them more effective in supporting students in a learning style that best suits them; furthermore, students and consultants can bond over applying a specific style to ensure that the student is able to access and process information in ways specifically tailored for students. Consultants who use Recognition Learning to help students realize that they are able to learn with a little tweaking or support, they can open doors themselves or with only minor assistance. 

Another way UDL opens more doors to students is Strategic Learning. This type of learning is seen when consultants use strategies that students will need not only for the consultation but for classes and in their lives in general. In a digital sense, adjusting sizes, fonts, colors, and speed of a video, webpage, class lecture, or lecture notes can help make information more accessible and show students that it is alright to adjust things to their needs to facilitate learning. Screen readers and other accessible technology are important elements of this principle, and consultants who know how to work with a student using accessible technology will be better-equipped to handle such consultations. While screen readers are a good example of UDL because they are usually for blind or vision-impaired students, screen readers can also help ELL students, dyslexic students, and students with processing issues, light sensitivity, etc. Being aware without making assumptions when a student uses a screen reader allows the rapport in a consultation to remain stable (CAST, 2018; Cecil-Lemkin & Johnson, 2021). Some instances could even call for a student dictating or processing ideas out loud while the consultant takes notes or acts as a stenographer. 

In general, UDL’s principle of Strategic Learning focuses on goals and using strategies with those goals to enhance a student’s learning ability and help improve not only motivation to write but also improve in their own writing quality.Whereas implementation of Affective Learning goals helps students understand the concept of doable goals with examples and prompts, Strategic Learning is a continuation of Affective Learning. A writing consultant can use Strategic Learning and approach goals by advocating students set the goals themselves in a consultation with concrete steps instead of simply scaffolding them (CAST, 2018). A consultant can support a student and help them write goals of their own by providing feedback on the goals to make sure the students’ goals are feasible and will be actually useful beyond a consultation. 

For students who are uncertain, and who may have difficulty setting and maintaining goals, the recognition that one has to learn how to set appropriate goals and maintain the goals is an important difference. Goal-setting then becomes a concrete strategy to use instead of simply an idea. For example, with students who struggle with time-management, being able to conceptualize a final product instead of being overwhelmed with all the requirements of an assignment, using goals as a strategy is a helpful remedy because of the inherent adjustability and specificity of a goal. Students can learn that a big hurdle of an assignment broken down into small achievable steps is suddenly not such a big hurdle and is indeed doable. 

Another way to implement UDL is to use a writing center’s physical space. Creating dimmer spaces in a writing center, folding blinders, or other types of accommodations such as walking consultations, having a consultation outside or in a private room, etc. can help students feel more welcome and make a space more accessible. Having fidget toys on tables or different types of chairs can also help maintain focus and de-stress or ease anxiety. An open space with clearly marked tables can aid students in navigating a writing center (Burgstahler, 2012). An accessible physical space or adjustments specific to student needs helps garner further connection and trust between students and consultants, ensuring better consultations where a student feels safe sharing their projects with a consultant and are therefore more amenable to feedback and an open discussion of their project. For example, as mentioned above, setting up a space with limited light/temporary folders to block light/etc., can diminish stimulation and allows them instead to focus on their writing without distraction or the frustration. A burden is lifted when students do not have to deal with being overstimulated, facilitating learning and the ability to engage fully in their consultation.

Further Research 

Some challenges I have personally experienced and seen are often during busy times at my writing center, usually during midterms and finals. When it is noisy and there is no quiet corner, it can be difficult to provide a peaceful place for a consultation. Another challenge I have seen is when an assignment is not accessible to screen readers and thus takes more effort in a consultation to simply get through the requirements or reading of an assignment; I have found consultations like these to be draining and discouraging to students because they are not able to access the information they need. While many writing centers are set for UDL, there may be a lack of knowledge on how to implement UDL and intentionally use it to strengthen everyone starting from the consultants to the director. Another challenge is training consultants. An untrained consultant may not know about all of the resources (in and outside of a writing center) and thus is not able to use them in a consultation. An untrained consultant may also lack confidence in how to approach a consultation with a neurodivergent student and help them. 

Further research is needed concerning how to budget for UDL training and how to make writing centers more spatially accessible (light dimmers, different table sizes, different chair types, technology, etc.). Further research is also needed concerning how UDL affects consultants and other writing center employees. In addition to that, there is little information in regards to neurodiverse students in writing centers, and how they navigate appointments and the physical space of a writing center. 


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