Bringing Theories to Practice: Universal Design Principles and the Use of Social Annotation to Support Neurodiverse Students


The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework allows us to understand the importance of utilizing web 2.0 in teaching and learning. Social annotation tools such as allow teachers to fulfil the three essential UDL components: engagement, representation, and action & expression through thoughtful use of the platform.

Social annotation tools such as Hypothesis and Voice Thread, when used well, boost student engagement, enhance critical thinking, expand reading comprehension, and increase student interaction. Of the several social annotation tools currently available, our institution uses Hypothesis. Hypothesis’ motto—“Making reading active, visible and social”—sums up why we think social annotation is so valuable for our students: it engages students and invites them to read and think together as a group by sharing real-time annotations of websites or PDFs (Hypothesis, 2021). The richly multimodal, interactive nature of Hypothesis offers instructors a platform through which they can employ the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to improve engagement and accessibility for all learners.

There are three core principles of UDL outlined by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). First, instructors should provide students with multiple means of engagement, especially by helping students understand the wider significance of the content they’re learning. Second, instructors should provide students with opportunities to interact with course content in multiple ways, for example, by providing audio, video, and textual materials. Third, instructors should provide students with options for expressing their knowledge and ideas in several ways. Social annotation applications like Hypothesis provide built-in options for addressing all three of these core principles. As faculty working at an open access institution, we believe this tool is particularly suited for the diverse learners we serve.

How social annotation works

Social annotation is a way for students to engage deeply with readings and see how their classmates are engaging as well. It makes use of online tools that enable readers to highlight sections of readings and insert comments, questions, images, videos, and links in the margins. Participants can see and respond to comments synchronously.

Students come to open access institutions like ours with wildly divergent levels of preparation for college work. Some have just graduated high school, while others are returning to school after some years away. Some are avid and voracious readers, while others can struggle with comprehension. The UDL framework is helpful generally in working with students of a wide range of abilities; applying the UDL framework to reading practices in particular is, we think, especially good for creating deep learning experiences.

Implementing UDL principles with social annotation

Here, we discuss how social annotation tools can be used to implement the principles of Universal Design for Learning to create critical and engaged readers.

The first UDL principle is to provide multiple means of engagement. Social annotation centers student reading and interpretation practices, giving students options for how they approach and engage with the reading. Though there is clear evidence that explicitly teaching reading strategies to students improves their overall academic performance, such instruction is often limited to developmental reading or study skills courses (Saxby 2017, 37-38). Social annotation, on the other hand, provides an unobtrusive way for faculty to focus on student reading and interpretation in any course that requires reading. By asking students to share their annotations openly, we help students to see a wide range of annotation practices, thus demystifying what has often been a private, individual practice.

Instructors can use these apps to reinforce annotation strategies they want to teach students. For example, an instructor might first teach a particular strategy for reading, then invite students to apply it openly using Hypothesis. By making annotations and, in a sense, student thinking public, the tool can also help instructors identify student’s strengths and weaknesses, a core element of UDL (Carroll, 2018).  The instructor can then respond accordingly: additional class time can be spent discussing a difficult reading, reviewing a complex research strategy, or unpacking an engineering schematic.

Just as important, social annotation helps students frame reading as a dialog, not a one-sided hunt for knowledge. Instructors who do not explicitly teach reading strategies can still invite students to read socially by asking them to share annotations: as Hawes (2018) argues, “the mere requirement that students write down something in response to an assigned text implies they have something to offer.” The act of assigning shared annotations can help students think about reading as a social element rather than a private practice. Using the socially annotated version of the text as the reference text—for example, by screensharing it during class—can further reinforce this.

A great way to introduce Hypothesis during class is by having students collectively annotate a short reading in class together at the beginning of the semester—the class syllabus is a good place to begin! This ensures that students learn how to use the tool in real time, and they can see how useful it is in terms of reading each other’s questions and comments. At various points throughout the semester, it can be useful to ask students to take time during class to annotate a short reading or another document together.  This kind of group reading can also enhance the learning experience of neurodiverse learners, who may feel left behind by traditional reading discussions.

The second UDL principle is to provide multiple means of representation: that is, to provide students with multiple ways to express their responses to the material. The use of social annotation to illustrate while teaching appeals to students in several ways. Social annotation can enable students to annotate the course readings and identify key terms using not just text, but images, videos, and links to websites (Carroll, 2018). This helps students ask each other questions, share their ideas, and collaborate in ways that meet the needs of diverse learners as they tackle the core problems of their disciplines. They may share a link to the biography of a person mentioned in the reading, or a news story related to the reading, encouraging their classmates to check it out. They may link to an image or map online that they think will help their fellow students better understand the reading. As a history instructor, for example, one of us requires students to locate archival photographs from the Library of Congress that might help illustrate the reading, link to them in appropriate places, and write a caption that explains why they’ve chosen the photograph. Students can also add links to video and audio that connect to the reading. Below is an image that shows how hypothesis social annotation can be used in a classroom with the aid of the UDL framework.

The third UDL principle is to provide multiple means of expression and action. We find it helpful to think of this as the principle that transcends social annotation: at this point, students use what they’ve learned through engagement with the material to create new knowledge. This kind of work tends to happen outside of the social annotation platform as students create videos, essays, presentations, graphics, and other products that showcase their new knowledge.

Social annotation tools provide instructors with a platform for applying the core principles of UDL in their courses to engage students, enhance understanding, and create opportunities for neurodiverse learners to truly showcase their skills.

Amanda Huron is an associate professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia. Her research interests are in urban geography, housing justice, and the history of Washington, D.C. In her 2018 book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., she theorizes the urban commons through close examination of the experiences of limited-equity housing cooperatives in Washington. Huron is active in housing work in Washington, and is a native of the city.

Fatma Elshobokshy is the director of learning technology at the University of the District of Columbia. Her work focuses  on digital learning strategies and the instructional technology that supports those strategies to improve learning outcomes.

Christian Aguiar is an assistant professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. His research focuses on multimodal writing, collaborative assessment, and supporting first-generation college students in composition courses. He is a 2019 Roueche Teaching Excellence Award Winner.


Al-Azawei, Ahmed; Serenelli, Fabio; Lundqvist, Karsten. “Universal Design for Learning (UDL): A Content Analysis of Peer-Reviewed Journal Papers from 2012 to 2015.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 16, No. 3 (2016): pp.39-56. doi: 10.14434/josotl.v16i3.19295

Carroll, J. (2018). 7 Ways to Introduce UDL into your Classroom. Texthelp. Retrieved 16 April 2021, from

Hawes, Sarah. “Reading Reframed for the Community College Classroom.” Faculty Focus, February 12, 2018,

He, Ye. Universal Design for Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course : Enhancing Learners’ Confidence to Teach Online. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10, no. 2 (2014): 283–298.

Hypothesis. (2021). Home. Hypothesis. Retrieved 16 April 2021, from

Saxby, Lori Eggers. “Efficacy of a College Reading Strategy Course: Comparative Study.” Journal of Developmental Education 40, no. 3 (2017): 36-38.

“The UDL Guidelines.” CAST.

Post Views:

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here