Graduation station: A game for professional development in universal design

Paula Smith-Hawkins and Carol Martinez, Central New Mexico Community College

Our Universal Design Team at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) created a role-playing game for use in an annual professional development conference. This engaging activity is a way to explore barriers to student success and open a dialogue about universal design (UD) and how it supports student success. CNM is an urban community college in the greater Albuquerque, NM area, with an enrollment of approximately 29,000 students. This article describes an activity introducing instructors to the need for and principles of UD at a community college with a population of non-residential and largely non-traditional students. Many of our students have jobs and families in addition to the responsibilities of being a student, and these considerations are part of their lives, and need to be factored into our design and delivery of instruction. UD provides a framework for doing that. Faculty at community colleges typically serve as the front line, and are often the only contact that students may have with the broader institution (Grubb, 2013). Therefore, professional development for community college faculty in UD principles is crucial to helping them support students with disabilities (Sweener & Kundert, 2002).


The Cooperative for Teaching and Learning (CTL) conference at our school is a venue for instructors to present the best and most promising practices to their colleagues. Training allows faculty to stay updated on current pedagogy, theory, and practice. For community college faculty, having the tools to deal with diverse students in the classroom is essential to achieving successful learning outcomes (Outcait, 2002). The Universal Design Team decided to deliver a presentation at the conference. The presentation objectives were for faculty participants to be able to identify challenges students with disabilities face inside and outside of the classroom as well as UD strategies they can implement to promote the learning of all students in their classes. We modeled the application of UD principles in our presentation, just as we encourage faculty members to do in their classrooms. Specifically, we created various ways for participants to learn about disabilities and UD. We provided an overview of UD, including its nine principles (Burgstahler, 2015), as a framework to improve learning for all students. That part of the presentation was visual along with some audio elements. It was followed by a UD-focused game, which was both an active learning experience and an example of a UD strategy that increases awareness of disability-related issues. Throughout the training we created a welcoming and understanding environment, which is also an important part of a universally designed class.

“In order for someone to be really effective, they must walk in another person’s shoes, even if it’s for a few minutes. Those few minutes will leave a lasting impression on one’s mind.” This is a quote from a former CNM student with a disability. In one of his classes, he gave a presentation on what it was like to have his disability by having his classmates do a role-playing experience. The members of the class left with a much better idea of what he experiences on a daily basis and could then better relate to him as a person, student, and classmate. We decided to expand that idea in the design of our role-playing game. The purpose of the game was to help instructors understand the challenges some students have in and outside of class. Many students are perfectly capable of learning the material that we present to them, but we might need to consider making adjustments in timelines and modes of presentation to facilitate students’ demonstration of their knowledge and capabilities. Barriers can intentionally or accidently prevent students from reaching their goal of graduation (Cheng, 2013).

In our game, there are four volunteer players who represent students. The object of the game is for the four “students” to reach a mortarboard on the other side of the room and graduate. One student has a visual impairment, another uses a wheelchair, the third has a hearing impairment, and the fourth has a psychiatric disorder. Each student has a volunteer guide who has a set of color-coded cards (see Appendix) that they read in sequence to the student and the rest of the audience. Necessary props include: a mortarboard, a blindfold, a rolling chair, noise dampening headphones, and the cards. We printed the cards in color, one color for each student and laminated the cards for ease of use. Cards should be pre-sorted and read in sequence by each guide. Approximate number of students, guides, and audience members should ideally be 10 people. This can be done with fewer players. The organizer acts as the master of ceremony (MC) and referee. This can be done in front of a larger audience.

The cards describe events that might happen to a student. The student is instructed to move towards or away from the mortarboard depending on the event described on the card. Some of the events are specific to the student’s disability, while others are things that could happen to any student. In some cases, the player is asked a question and has to make a decision. The audience then decides, based on their reaction to the student’s decision, what the consequence will be. Does the student move forward toward graduation or take a step back?

For example, the guide could read the following card,

Uh-oh! You’re a statistic! Your car is stolen, along with your textbooks and laptop. Take three steps back.

The “student” then moves away from the prized mortarboard. Similarly, other cards prompt the student to move forward. However, some cards prompt the “student” to make decisions.

Your specially-equipped van breaks down. You are unable to get to class for a week. What do you do?

Here the student has to make a decision. Once the student shares their decision with the group, the audience then determines how many steps forward or backward the student should take. This is based on their professional determination, as educators, of the wisdom of the decision. The MC acts as referee, and then directs the student to move the recommended number of steps.


In January of 2015, we piloted the UD Game at our annual CTL conference. Like many academic conferences, our sessions run 75 minutes. This afforded us ample time to run the UD Game. Approximately 30 faculty members attended our session. After our initial overview of universal design and the project, we started the game.

We explained the rules, the roles and the guidelines to the audience. Four faculty members stepped up to play the students; four guides stepped up as well. Both veterans and new faculty served as volunteers. For about 30 minutes, we played the game. Players lined up on the right side of the conference room.

We began with steps forward for the blind student. He quickly moved ahead through cards that offered him bonuses for support and outreach to campus resources. Our student in the wheelchair (a veteran faculty member) quickly became frustrated. She wasn’t moving ahead toward the goal of graduation, symbolized by the mortarboard on the left side of the room. The audience started chiming in: “The student lost her backpack! That happened to one of my students this semester.” The audience jumped in, especially keen to support the “students” and offering advice when they drew cards that created crossroads. We even had one student ask to move ahead a bit further than the audience recommended! The audience supported her, feeling for the student facing all the challenges outlined in her cards. 

In sum, the game resulted in one student touching the mortarboard and winning the game. The crowd was inspired by the exercise. At the start of our session, folks remained silent, listening to our slide overview of the principles of universal design. By the time we ended the game and opened the floor to questions, participants were lively and asked provocative questions about UD, policy, and challenges in supporting students on our campuses.

As an outcome, the faculty identified UD principles and how they could be used in assisting students and managing their classrooms. From the feedback and numerous questions at the end of the session, the faculty expressed the ability to identify student challenges and determine how UD practices could benefit all students in their classes. Specifically, their questions included everything from how to support students with respect to classroom layout: “How do we organize our classroom so that all students can see the instructors? How do we keep the chair reserved for disabled students from being used by other students? Where can we go to have our materials closed-captioned? Where do we find out about how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to students?”


The success of the UD Game encouraged us to continue this method of professional development in raising awareness of UD principles and best practices at CNM. In our upcoming academic year, we will offer our game again at Faculty Focus Day, our opening professional development event at the College. After this presentation, we made a few modifications. Moderators will clarify that the audience must determine the number of steps backward or forwards based on the student’s crossroad decision. That is, some cards require the “student” player to make a decision as to what they would do under the circumstances presented by the card. The audience then “judges” this decision, rewarding a good decision with steps forward or a poor decision with steps (or rolling) backward.

We feel strongly in modeling the behavior that reflects the most effective practices for universal design in professional development. A multi-modal approach to faculty training allows for a more interactive experience that encourages engagement with UD principles on a personal level. Many of our faculty members only interact with information about students’ disabilities when a student presents an ADA accommodation letter. The game is a way to encourage dialogue about how UD practices can alleviate some of the challenges students with disabilities face in their classes. We invite others to use this game to promote campus understanding of challenges students with disabilities face and how the universal design framework can be used as a tool for student engagement and success.


Burgstahler, S. (2015). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice (2nd Ed). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press.

Central New Mexico Community College, (n.d.). Fact sheet. Retrieved from

Cheng, L. (2013). A resource manual for community college faculty to support students with learning disabilities. Alliant. International University; Psy.D. Dissertation No. 3603328. ProQuest doc. ID: 1469025412.

Grubb, W. N. (1999). Honored but invisible: An inside look at teaching in community colleges. New York: Routledge.

Outcalt, C. L. (2002). Community college faculty: Characteristics, practices, and challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sweener, K., Kundert, D., May, D., & Quinn, K. (April 01, 2002). Comfort with Accommodations at the community college level. Journal of Developmental Education, 25(3), 12–42.