Faculty Club / Course Design / Help Non-Traditional Students Succeed with Universal Design for Learning

Help Non-Traditional Students Succeed with Universal Design for Learning

This professor’s approach combines her knowledge of special education and business in a way that meets a broad range of student needs.

This professor’s approach combines her knowledge of special education and business in a way that meets a broad range of student needs.

Dixie Burns, MBA, MS Ed


Instructor and Testing Center Coordinator,
Metropolitan Community College

MBA, MS in Special Education, BS in Psychology

Dixie Burns understands what it is like to feel that you do not belong in college.

“After a high school teacher told me I wasn’t college material, I had resigned myself to doing bookkeeping and entry-level office work. I even tried factory work, but I only lasted three days,” she recalls. “I was 37 when I [finally] returned to school.”

Now, with both an MBA and a master’s degree in special education, Burns knows that Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City is exactly where she belongs. It is there—working as an instructor and testing center coordinator—that she can help adults who face similar struggles and self-doubt on a daily basis.

“Now I try to teach with empathy,” she says, “and make everyone comfortable in the classroom.”

Challenge: Traditional roadblocks of nontraditional students

The recent influx of nontraditional students to MCC is the result of an ongoing trend that has inspired adults well past “typical college age” to enter two-year degree and/or certificate programs. Their hope is that their studies will lead to new job opportunities in healthcare, technology, and skilled trades. “Community colleges like MCC are affordable, and they allow older adults to go back to school to change careers as well as prepare graduating high school students for four-year college with associate degrees,” Burns says. “And they also allow juniors and seniors to earn credits toward associate degrees while still in high school.”

However, as Burns explains, some older students may not have had stellar grades in high school, and even if they did fine, their math and writing skills may be rusty by now. Further, some may have undiagnosed learning disabilities, as these were not on anyone’s radar until more recently. In addition, the studying and learning skills they once used may be outdated. Education has made leaps and bounds since then, but it is unlikely these returning students have read the research on what works best. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the pervading sense of inadequacy that can hang over them like a cloud.

“Many enter the classroom with a voice in their head that says they are not good enough to succeed,” she says. “I can absolutely relate to that feeling.”

Her response: Blast away the roadblocks that impede learning among nontraditional learners, so that everyone at MCC has the chance to grow.

Innovation: Embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

To help students overcome self-perceptions of inadequacy—and prove to themselves that they can succeed in the classroom—Burns has embraced the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and she advocates for its use across MCC.

The basic principle of UDL is easy to grasp: Different people learn in different ways, so they need different approaches to do their best.

UDL presents lessons in a variety of formats—such as text, video, and audio—and allows for assessment in different ways as well (such as traditional pencil-and-paper tests, oral presentations, or group work).

The central idea is not to change educational content, Burns says, but to present the same content in different ways. “What’s the harm in giving access to everyone?” she asks.

“There are plenty of quirky learners out there. The approach may seem time-consuming at first, but these ‘fixes’ benefit everyone in the class.” This means that everyone—regardless of age or learning style—has a better chance of picking up on the information more quickly and learning more deeply the first time around. “And that’s a time-saver,” she says.


Course: BSAD 120 Organizational Behavior

Frequency: 1 3hr class per week

Class size: 20 – 25 students

Course description: Investigates the impact that individuals, groups, and organizational structures have on behavior in the workplace. The student will develop individual competencies with an emphasis in business environments. The acquired competencies can be applied toward improving individual and organizational effectiveness.

See Materials

Lesson: Apply Universal Design Learning strategies in nontraditional classes

“I use universal design and student-centered teaching methods to make the coursework accessible for everyone. That does not mean I have one ‘new’ way of teaching business courses. It means I am more flexible in my teaching methods and strategies.”
-Dixie Burns, MBA, MS Ed

Burns’s combined background—in special education, business, and being a nontraditional learner—provide her with a unique perspective on creating an inclusive classroom.

She has found that Universal Design Learning offers endless tools and approaches that educators can add to their tool kit to help struggling learners transform into deep learners. The more options that are made available to students, the more likely there will be one or two that make a real difference.

Here, her top advice and go-to tools to engage all students:

Adapt the accommodations used in special education

Burns’s knowledge of special education means that she is familiar with the actions necessary to accommodate people with learning and attention difficulties. Interestingly, she has found that many of those strategies can be applied to these nontraditional, returning students as well. Specifically, she provides notes from lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and videos as resources and study aids for exams.

Help them branch out beyond note-taking

Just because someone knows how to write does not mean they know how to take good notes, so Burns provides detailed guidance. She explains that some of the best skills actually involve strategies other than writing. Early in the semester, for instance, she explains how to color-code key terms and concepts in textbooks and on worksheets using highlighters. She also explains how to use thinking maps and other visuals (such as sketches or charts) instead of writing out ideas in long sentences.

Along those same lines, Burns suggests that instructors try tools such as Guided Notes, a fill-in-the-blank form that helps students follow along with a presentation. With these, the educator takes a copy of their own materials, or those provided in or along with a textbook, and removes phrases and words throughout. These fill-in-the-blanks worksheets can then be handed out for use in class or as homework.

Keep it low key—and lower case

“Often, I will get a syllabus from an instructor and I will adapt it by taking out all of the authoritarian language,” says Burns. “I want students to relax.” She suggests giving your materials to a friend or family member to read, so you can get the feedback about which sections are confusing or full of jargon.

In addition to “translating” the language into layperson-speak, Burns takes anything that appears IN ALL CAPS and switches it to lower case. Caps-lock copy is the print equivalent of yelling—and the opposite of readable.

These two small changes, she says, can work wonders in making course materials feel more accessible to any learners.

Do a friendly check of writing skills

At the beginning of the semester, Burns asks for a writing sample from each student. The prompts are very unintimidating and straightforward. “I’ll ask things like, ‘What would you like to get out of this class?’ or ‘What do you think will be the most challenging?’” Burns says.

In the end, this is less of a “test” and more of an “assessment tool” to help her judge students’ ability to articulate their thoughts on paper. “I can tell from the answers whether they might need instruction in taking notes or help with grammar or punctuation,” she says.

Mix your media—frequently

Burns mixes media “to keep everyone awake,” she says jokingly. Of course, this also serves to keep visual learners engaged. Her courses incorporate multiple videos in each class. They can be simple, privately created pieces she finds on YouTube or thought-provoking TED Talks.

Always be on the lookout for student resources

“There’s always a resource to be found,” Burns says. It may take some time to find what works well for a particular class or individual, but educators do not have to do it all at once. They can build up their cache, year after year. Among the sites Burns recommends are the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), Business Communication Resources from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Khan Academy.

Connect students with campus resources

Burns tries to always encourage and support students in finding their own resources in addition to the ones she suggests, especially if she believes pride or self-esteem issues are the primary roadblock.

These are some of the ways she would encourage new educators at MCC to connect students with supplementary materials in their subject:

  • Be in the room before and after class to answer questions and give guidance on where to find additional materials (such as the educator’s or department’s website).
  • Point students toward free online tutorials. These may be supplied by the textbook publisher or can be from an education website such as Course Hero.
  • Share information about on-campus resources. Many schools have a writing or math center like MCC’s Learning Resource Centers, for example, that includes tutoring and note-taking help.
  • Check regularly to see whether any new learning resources have become available on campus.
  • Trade ideas and links to resources with others in the department, learning center, and elsewhere on campus.

Burns wants her students to know that she too is a resource, and they should seek her help before they feel like giving up on the class. She tells them that often, hoping the message will be heard when it is needed most. Many take her up on it, and whether they need a formal accommodation or not, all of them benefit in some way.


This veteran instructor has many unforgettable stories of student success. One example: Burns had an electrical engineering student who insisted he could not do math, that nobody in his family could do math, and that not even teaming up with his course instructor would help. “Together with the Electrical Program director, we convinced him to try, and to stay just two more weeks,” Burns recalls.

After several meetings with Burns and the director of the Electrical Program, the student decided to stay for the next 10-week term. “The director set up time after class to tutor the student, and I introduced him to our learning resource specialist (math tutor), and they worked out a schedule when they could meet,” says Burns. “About three weeks into the term, I found the student waiting at my office door very early one morning. I wondered what was wrong, and then I saw his grin. I asked him how it was going, and he said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I made a B on my first test!’”

He conquered his fears and surmounted his roadblocks, building up both his knowledge and confidence. Burns knows that feeling well, too. But she says the feeling she got from helping him is even better. “I think the main thing was, we continued to talk to the student even when he said he wanted to quit,” she says. “He knew we cared and that we thought he would be making a mistake by giving up.”

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