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Please Pass the SALT! with Laurel Grigg Mason

Welcome to Episode 27 of the ThinkUDL podcast! Have you ever wondered how large universities support the dynamic variety of learners on their campuses? Well, you are in luck! Today Lillian talks with Laurel Grigg Mason. Laurel recently traveled to Raleigh, NC for the College STAR Student Support Summit where Lillian had the chance to talk to her about what she is doing to support a variety of students with learning differences.  Laurel is the Director of Bartlett Labs at the SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques) Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Laurel and Lillian discuss collaborative classrooms on her campus, examples of UDL implementation in which students can choose different percentages for the worth of their assignments, and how she and her colleagues empower students when classes and/or syllabi aren’t as organized with UDL principles as others, and why variety in assignments helps all kinds of students. They learn how specialists and tutors (over 100 of them trained in UDL principles) at the SALT center help students to identify how they best learn and help them to choose the right classes and methods for learning for themselves. And Laurel and Lillian also get a chance to learn about Laurel’s interest in cross-cultural student support, specifically what the differences are in how parents and specialists support students in America and in Italy. So please join host Lillian Nave and her guest Laurel Grigg Mason as they delve into how to support and empower college students, whether you are an instructor, tutor, peer, learning specialist or parent.


Website: The University of Arizona SALT Center

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Collaborative Learning Classrooms: Click HERE to learn more about the variety of collaborative learning spaces


[Lillian] Welcome to think UDL the Universal Design for Learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host Lillian nave and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching learning guiding and facilitating but how you design and implement it and why it even matters.


[Lillian] Welcome to Episode 27 of the Think UDL podcast: Please pass the SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques)! with Laurel Grigg Mason! Have you ever wondered how a large university supports the dynamic variety of learners on their campus? Well, you are in luck! Today I talk with Laurel Grigg Mason of the University of Arizona in Tucson Arizona. Laurel came to the campus at East Carolina University for a College STAR Student Support Summit where I had the chance to talk to her about what she is doing to support a variety of students with learning differences.  Laurel is the Director of Bartlett Labs at the SALT Center SALT stands for Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. We discuss collaborative classrooms on her campus, examples of UDL implementation in which students can choose different percentages for the worth of their assignments, and how she and her colleagues empower students when classes and/or syllabi aren’t as organized with UDL principles as they could be, and why variety in assignments helps all kinds of students. We learn how specialists and tutors (over 100 of them trained in UDL principles) at the SALT center help other students how to identify how they best learn and help them to choose the right classes and methods for learning for themselves. And we also get a chance to learn about her interest in cross-cultural student support, specifically what the differences are in how parents and specialists support students in America and in Italy. So please join us as we delve into how to support and empower college students, whether you are an instructor, tutor, peer, learning specialist or parent. And if you are interested in learning more about the SALT center or other topics discussed in this episode, please look at the resources for this episode on our web page.  And that’s episode 27 with Laurel Grigg Mason, Please pass the SALT!

[Lillian] Welcome to the college star students for Network retreat where I get to interview several personnel who are helping our students across the nation and today I have Laurel grig Mason and Laurel could you introduce yourself and what you do at the University of Arizona

[Laurel] Oh sure, thanks for having me. So, I am the director of Bartlett labs at the SALT Center at the University of Arizona. SALT stands for Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques and my role is really to work on assessment and research on learning and college success for students who have learning differences. But in my years with the SALT Center, I’ve served in the capacity of learning specialist, tutoring manager, associate director, and even interim director at one point.

 [Lillian] Wow, great! So you’ve been there 15 years?

[Laurel] yes.

[Lillian] Yeah, so you’ve got a lot of experience with working with students and seeing students success stories and what to do good.

[Laurel] yes.

[Lillian] So, first question I ask all my guest is what makes you a different kind of learner?

[Laurel] Hmm. I definitely prefer things visually so when I think about learning information I like to organize it visually but I also have to write things down or I won’t remember it or understand it as well. S,o I tended to use a lot of graphic organizers mostly tables. I don’t know why my default is tables, but it is. I like to categorize things in that way; tables or outlines.

[Lillian] Oh, great! Yea, so you also probably like infographics too?

[Laurel] As long as they’re not too complicated.

[Lillian] Yeah, good. Very good; well organized visual information.

[Laurel] Correct.

[Lillian] So, when you were working at the SALT Center, you were working with students that are taking a multitude of classes and I’m wondering what it looks like, there on the back end. What are your perceptions of students, some of whom have instructors who implement Universal Design for Learning strategies or use those guidelines and others who probably don’t know about them? I mean, the University of Arizona is a really big place. So, I bet you have a variety of instructors. So, can you tell me and our listeners what it looks like when you’re helping students that have a variety of these instructors who may be on a different part of that spectrum of knowledge on UDL.

[Laurel] Sure. You know, I could talk about the positives first…

[Lillian] Great.

 [Laurel] …because I think our campus is doing some really good things in terms of instruction. They’ve recently developed a number of collaborative classrooms which are designed to increase engagement among students around the topic to be learned for that day. And so I think that that’s been very good for our students where they don’t just have to sit and listen to a lecture and if they have ADHD potentially zone out and miss significant chunks of information. I think the downside of the collaborative classrooms might be for some of our students who are a little, who have more social challenges where that interaction with their peers can be more challenging. But I think that our faculty are pretty cognizant of that. At least those who are teaching in those classrooms and are trying to make sure that it’s a safe space and that, you know, students can still engage as fits them best in those smaller collaborative groups.

[Lillian] Yeah.

[Laurel] But I think it’s been really good for their retention and their learning in those particular classes because they’re able to process the information in different ways when they’re working in those collaborative groups. They’re usually doing something visual, they’re usually having a discussion and I do think that that helps them to understand the information better and remember it for later.

[Lillian] For sure.

[Laurel] There are some other faculty who are utilizing other aspects of UDL that I think are really working too – a couple of professors offer students the ability to choose different percentages that affect their grade. So like, the paper can count for more, or the tests can count for more, or a project can count for a higher percentage of their grade. And so that gives them a lot of choice and really allows them to play to their strengths, which I think is a nice way to organize their classroom when it gets hard for students. The main things that I see are a lack of organization in the syllabus and in the classroom. So, it’s not clear where to find information or what they should be learning each week or what they should be reading. The information might be there in the syllabus, but it’s just so visually hard to decipher…

[Lillian] Yes.

 [Laurel] …that it is really easy for students to miss those details when it’s not clear and that’s a big part of what our specialists and our tutors are helping students with in those classes is pulling out those details that their brains are skipping over because of the visual fog.

[Lillian] Yeah, it’s like decoding…

[Laurel] Yes.

[Lillian] It’s encoded somewhere in there and some students are much better able to get that out and some students need a little help. But, wouldn’t it be great if everybody had the equal chance if it were well organized? Then everybody would have this equal chance to get at the information they’re supposed to be learning.

[Laurel] Yeah, exactly. And then some of the classes that only have one modality for expressing their knowledge whether it’s like for tests and that’s your grade. Or, even sometimes it’s only a writing assignment and for some students that’s very challenging and they would prefer a test. And so, sometimes instructors think like look I’m working with all learners because it’s all these writing assignments but that doesn’t help all students either.

[Lillian] Yes.

[Laurel] So I like to see a mix of assessments.

[Lillian] Absolutely, absolutely. And we do know from the research, in the literature, that is gonna help all of our students. So, that’s great! So, are there particular go-to faculty on your campus that you see are really UDL superstars or rock stars? And why?  Why would you send – if you’ve got students that say, “what class should I take?” If I’ve got an extra class and I could take anyone what which one should I take and why would you send them there?

[Laurel] Well, at our Center we do try to avoid recommending specific classes to students, just for philosophical reasons. But I think our approach would be to explain to a student what we know about a course and we might highlight these policies or processes that are very student friendly, or learner friendly. When we’re describing the characteristics of the course to a student. And then we let them make their own decisions in terms of what courses to enroll in while consulting with their academic advisor. I think with the University of Arizona being so large, our specialists don’t want to get into the role of academic advising and that’s the reason that we would shy away from recommending a specific course.

[Lillian] Right. That makes total sense.

[Laurel] Yeah, but I could say like maybe they need to take a biology or a chemistry class and there are three different instructors teaching that course. We might go through this process to say okay this is these are the methods that this instructor uses and these could be like more representative of Universal Design for Learning and these are the methods that this instructor uses to teach the course which may not incorporate as many of those aspects and then allow the student to make the decision as to which one they want to enroll in.

[Lillian] Oh, absolutely – totally makes sense. And you are empowering those students to be making choices on their own about, “well, this seems to make more sense for me because I know I know how I learned and I know this is going to be engaging for me” or “I know this is going to be an absolute nightmare if I have to sit through 40 hours of straight lecture you know you know my brains gonna be wandering I need to have some sort of lab part or engagement part”. So they could choose maybe which section or something like that.

[Laurel] Correct, yes. That’s exactly it.

[Lillian] So, you’re really helping your students to self identify how best they are an expert learner?

[Laurel] I would say so. That’s very much a focus of what both our specialists and our tutors are doing with students. It’s helping them to assess their own strengths and weaknesses their own preferences and styles and then trying their best, as best they can, to match that up with the courses that they’re taking, or the major that they’re choosing, or other extracurricular experiences that they engage in as well.

[Lillian] Yeah, that’s great. So, in the SALT Center are there particular ways that you incorporate UDL in how you interact with your students? And, what are those ways?

[Laurel] It’s hard for me to identify specific practices because it’s just so built into what we do. Because we’ve been doing this for 40 years now, our 40th anniversary is coming up. And I don’t think it’s something we explicitly think about anymore. But, the way that our specialists work with students is designed to include multiple modalities, right. So, it’s rare that they’re leaving they’re meeting with their specialists without something that they’re taking with them that’s visual- a paper, a reminder. It’s rare that they leave a session not being prompted to put something in their phone or in their computer. There’s a lot of dialogue and back-and-forth and self-reflection and information finding and information processing that are happening in those meetings. So, that’s just the way we do things. But I can say that from the tutoring side, because we utilize a peer tutoring model and we hire about a hundred peer tutors every year, that the training process for them is very much rooted in universal design. So, if students are not getting what they need out of class time, that’s where our tutors come into help them process the information, learn information, figure out how to express that information on an assessment in the future. And so we really do focus on how my particularly differences affect the learning process and then how can tutors when going through the course content think of different ways to present the information so that students can understand it, encode it, and then be able to express it later. And so, we teach them a lot of learning strategies and learning theories so that they can be responsive to the individual student. There’s no one method in particular that we teach them…

[Lillian] Right.

[Laurel] …because I don’t think that would be very effective for all learners.

[Lillian] Right. Right, exactly. It would not really be a universal design that way. So in the beginning you told me that you are working a lot with assessment and research for college success?

[Laurel] Yes.

[Lillian] Can you tell me about some of the projects you do in that area?

[Laurel] Sure. So, let’s see. Some of it is utilizing our own internal data that we keep on our students regarding their visits or the content of their sessions and so it’s just getting a handle on like what are we doing with our students. One very simple example might be that we started asking our specialists to record the number of minutes that they spent on a particular topic of support with students. And that could range from executive functioning to academic strategies to navigating the campus both the physical and online environments to self-discovery and major exploration some social and emotional concerns that don’t rise to like a clinical level. You know, things like loneliness or frustration or positive things too. – And then – sometimes some crisis situations and crisis management and so by collecting these data we were able to say our specialists are spending this percentage of time on these types of topics with students. And it helped us to understand if we needed to provide professional development support in those areas based on how much our specialists were engaging with students in those topics. So that’s like a smaller level project but then in terms of research, I’m doing a few cross-cultural comparisons with an Italian partner looking at how specialists in the two different countries are supporting students. And then also looking at how parents are involved in the college-going process in those two different contexts. It’s just been kind of fun.

[Lillian] Uh-huh, okay! So, my eyes got really big our podcast listeners can’t see that but when you said you’re doing some cross-cultural research I would love to know about that. That’s one of my great interest is intercultural competency and how that relates to Universal Design for Learning. So, what can you tell me about this experiment or these ideas about how your Italian counterpart is doing and what you’re looking at?

[Laurel] Yeah, well this is just getting started so I don’t have, you know, a ton of information on it yet. But, we had a visiting scholar who has been with us since September. And she’s actually leaving next week and so and we’ve devised these two projects looking at both parents and specialists because they are just starting a support program that is much like the support programs convening here at this College star summit at their University. And we wanted to see like are the difficulties that students encounter and specialists encounter and their work with students similar in each country’s context, or does the way disability is framed or the way the university is organized change what those difficulties are and how specialists go about supporting students.

[Lillian] Mm-hmm. Wow! So, this is just getting underway.

[Laurel] Just getting started.

[Lillian] Wow! That is exciting!

[Laurel] Yeah.

[Lillian] I feel, I can’t wait to hear about it now. I’m gonna be bugging you about this. This is so interesting to me.

[Laurel] Oh good. Yeah.

[Lillian] And I also know, I mean, my first study abroad I lived in Italy and that was you know so it’s super close to my heart and then I taught Italian art for a couple years as well but it’s a very different culture to the Americans and I would imagine and you know a very family-oriented and I’m an imagine that that parental part that other part of the project is it would show quite a few differences what are the kinds of questions you’re looking for or looking at.

 [Laurel] So, with the parents we were kind of trying to figure out in what ways did they support their students in choosing and enrolling in college, and there were things as we were translating the survey where I would say well that wouldn’t exist here. Like that would be impossible, like contacting individual faculty members like a family I remember doing that. Like that just would never happen here. I don’t know how they would do it. She’s like, “really?” And then you know something that didn’t really exist in her context was like social media parenting groups.

[Lillian] Oh, wow.

[Laurel] I said, “I think a lot of parents in the United States get information from those types of groups” and she was not aware of that being something the Italian parents engaged in.

[Lillian] Wow, yeah that’s totally true. I’m a member – I just sent my daughter off to college this year and there are several different groups and books and Facebook, you know, that oh that will talk about you as a parent at this moment in your life. Like what did you to prepare for college, what do you do when they leave. You know, how about the younger siblings and all of this stuff. [Laurel] Yeah, and I think there are parenting groups specific to ADHD and ADHD at particular age levels including the college group.

[Lillian] Right.

[Laurel] You know, specific to different universities as well.

[Lillian] Yes.

[Laurel] I think it’s a big source of support for parents here at least and it’ll be interesting to see what they say about that.

[Lillian] Right. Right, oh that sounds just amazing and very interesting just for me personally that’s cool! I’m so glad I get to talk to you and meet you and this in this way.

[Laurel] Well, thanks!

[Lillian] So, I guess my last question is what sort of advice would you give to – if you’ve got new faculty coming to the University of Arizona and you get a chance to talk to them as they begin teaching today’s student what would your what are the big main ideas that you want them to know as they begin teaching, because you’ll be seeing their students in your center?

[Laurel] I think for me it all comes down to that organization of the course and being clear. Because I think if students know what to expect both in terms of what they will be learning but then what the assignments are that they can adjust and that they can excel. So, I would say good organization is the first step and then finding ways to engage students in different types of learning activities that can highlight their strengths. Now, not all of them need to be that way, but everyone should have the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in the way that they best can. So, if you offer different types of formative and summative assessments then you give everyone that chance of doing the best in the class that they can. And I would say, actually, I do like the courses that have frequent formative assessments as well. I have seen that our students tend to respond to those well and it gives them a better sense of how they’re doing in the class…

[Lillian] Yeah.

[Laurel] …because they’re seeing their progress and they’re getting feedback more frequently than the classes that just do very few summative assessments.

[Lillian] Right, right. So, a formative assessment would be something that professors are getting information about how much the students know and the students are getting feedback right away about how they’re doing. That could be something like a in-class Kahoot quiz right and they see their answers, right?

[Laurel] Correct.

 [Lillian] Either no stakes, or low stakes or something like that. And then the summative is something like a midterm and a final.

[Laurel] Correct. Yeah, yeah. And we’ve had some professors use some really cool technology tools for those formative assessments and it could be something like a quiz on a clicker device or Kahoot. But they’ve even done it with more text on like Slido. Oh, you know, so send me your key takeaway from this class. Or, what’s one lingering question from this class on Slido.

[Lillian] Yeah! Oh, that’s great. So much more information they’re getting like so it’s better than going five classes and realize four classes ago they didn’t get it right.

[Laurel] Yes.

[Lillian] Yeah, four or five classes down and everybody is lost. So, I mean so much better so much better.

[Laurel] Yeah.

[Lillian] Well, thank you so much Laurel! It’s really been a pleasure to talk to you and hear about the exciting things you are interested in and all the things that you’re doing to help students at the Salt Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson and thanks for for joining me on the podcast.

[Laurel] Thank you so much; it’s been a pleasure!


[Lillian] You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.


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