Universal Design for Learning: The Strategic Network

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As we discussed in our article on recognition networks, the universal design for learning (UDL) framework addresses three different brain networks (CAST, 2014):

UDL identifies three different networks within the brain.
  • Recognition network: Collects information and puts it into meaningful categories
  • Strategic network: Plans and performs tasks
  • Affective network: Manages motivation and engagement

From class projects to written assignments, instructional materials, and more, how students go about planning to do things and executing those plans is a major consideration. This article will focus on how educators can design classroom instruction to meet student differences with respect to planning and execution.

Think about how different people might approach a home improvement project like changing a light fixture. Some people can imagine exactly what they want the final product to look like, so they work backwards through the steps and materials needed. Some aren’t sure of the big picture at all, so they take one step at a time and visit the store to plan and buy materials in phases. Some might write out all the supplies they need to complete the project so they can go to the hardware store once. These varying approaches all represent different strategies for getting the same job done.

Now, think about how different students might approach completing assignments in an online course. They all have preferences for strategies based on what’s worked well for them in the past. Consider a student who’s always gotten great feedback from teachers when she’s given verbal presentations. Because that’s a strategy that proved successful for getting good grades in the past, it’s likely she’ll want to take that approach in future classes, if given the opportunity. The same goes for a student who’s been told he’s a good writer, who’ll use this praise to inform his preference for completing tasks in the future.

It’s important to realize that this works both ways, though. When students utilize a strategy that doesn’t work for them, they tend to try and avoid it later. Some of this can be mitigated when feedback includes constructive criticism and there are opportunities for practice, but people generally tend to shy away from doing things when they don’t think they’re good at it. When planning for different students’ strategies in your online course, consider the following tips.

Make Your Expectations Clear

Given how past performance informs future behavior, what can you do to address individual students’ strategic networks? The first thing you can do is to help students set goals for your class that align with your expectations. For example, if you expect that students will need to spend 10 hours a week reading a textbook, you should be very explicit about that expectation. Students who know that they read slower than their peers will then be able to set goals to set aside 15 or 20 hours a week for reading. Students who need to read in total silence can set a goal to go to a library twice a week. By setting expectations explicitly up front, you encourage students to plan based on their situations and personal learning preferences.

Break Down Large Tasks Into Smaller Pieces

When courses contain large or complex projects, students may have trouble breaking the project down into smaller pieces that allow them to identify specific strategies for executing the project. When this happens, students begin to feel overwhelmed and may decide to forget about trying the project at all. One great way to avoid this in your class is to break down larger projects into smaller pieces that build on one another. Rather than assigning a big project at the beginning of the course that is due at the end, assign small pieces of the project to be completed each week of the course. One advantage of this technique is the ability to give students feedback as a project progresses rather than after the project is completed. Students can then use that feedback to refine their strategies for completing the project.

Allow Flexibility in How Students Demonstrate Their Learning

It’s also important to let students choose how they demonstrate their learning as much as possible. For example, you might have an assignment in your class that asks students to reflect on the importance of the week’s lesson. If you’re designing the assignment with the strategic network in mind, you should let students choose the format of the final deliverable—a written paper, a video, or even a drawing. By doing so, you’re letting them choose the format with which they’re most comfortable so that they have the chance to best demonstrate their learning. If your objectives and expectations are clear, this should be possible.

Admittedly, the idea of allowing for open-ended assessment design can feel like a daunting task. One method to manage this workload is plan to design this type of assignment after teaching through the course once or twice. This allows you to get a good feel for what makes one student submission better than another, making it easier to create a rubric.

Obviously, sometimes you need to dictate the format of an assignment. When you can’t be flexible, you should set the expectation up front that the class will be heavy on written assignments or presentations. That gives students the chance to plan. This works even better when you also list resources students might utilize if the format doesn’t play to their strengths. For example, maybe you could include a link to a virtual writing lab for written assignments or tips for public speaking if you require students to give presentations.

Deliver Criticism With Specific Suggestions for Improvement

Earlier we addressed the fact that learners often decide to utilize one strategy over another because they have proven successful in prior experiences. As a teacher, you can help students develop confidence in new strategies over time by carefully coaching them toward positive behaviors. When students have room to improve specific skills such as reading, writing, or public speaking, include specific suggestions to improve their performance the next time. This is even more powerful when you allow them the opportunity to implement your suggestions in a low-risk environment. For example, if a student needs to work on maintaining eye contact while speaking to a group, then you might provide this feedback and then allow the student to practice this suggestion by giving a speech that won’t be graded.

Our article “Grading and Providing Feedback: Consistency, Effectiveness, and Fairness” covers many of the basics of effective feedback. What UDL helps to illustrate is that effective feedback is the primary vehicle to give students the confidence and understanding they need to succeed when attempting new or previously challenging strategies.


You can count on the fact that your students will enter your class with past experiences that have helped them determine specific strategies for success. Sometimes these are strategies that align with your course’s expectations, and sometimes they aren’t. Provide flexibility when you can, but more importantly, help students set goals for how to succeed and give them access to the tools they may need.


CAST. (2014, November 12). UDL guidelines: Theory and practice. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines_theorypractice

Posted July 31, 2017
Author Robin Zahrndt