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Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Erin Stapleton-Corcoran, CATE Instructional Designer
February 12, 2022

WHAT Heading link

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework for creating learning environments that address the diverse needs of learners. At its core, UDL provides students’ flexibility in the ways they access and engage with course materials and demonstrate mastery of learning objectives.

UDL has been gaining in popularity as a pedagogical practice and inclusive teaching strategy in recent years as a result of shifting demographics in the U.S. higher education system. The lived experiences of our students are highly diverse, and, for many, English is not their first language. In addition, more and more students with both visible and non-visible disabilities are pursuing postsecondary education.  All students come to our college classrooms with varied learning preferences and strengths with respect to academic habits and familiarity with the U.S. university system.  As educators, we have responsibilities to create an equitable and accessible learning experience for our diverse and talented student body.

UDL At A Glance

students learn in different ways

Students learn in different ways.

UDL, Accessibility, & Accommodations

Equality. Accommodation. Accessibility.

The differences between equality, accommodation and accessibility.

UDL and accessibility both seek to increase learning access and reduce barriers for students to engage equitably in the educational process. The primary goals of UDL and accessibility are compatible and are widely acknowledged as crucial to fostering an inclusive learning environment.  Importantly, UDL does not negate the need for learning accommodations, which are modifications or adjustments made for an individual with a disability on an as-needed basis. When implemented effectively, UDL-grounded learning environments provide full access to every learner, including those with varying language skills, diverse backgrounds, and hidden or visible disabilities.

Watch this video to learn more about the intersections between accessibility and UDL: Accessibility and UDL

From Universal Design to Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning grew out of the larger Universal Design movement, which was oriented towards Architectural design thinking.  Architect Ronald Mace–who in 1987 first coined the term “Universal Design”— challenged the approach of designing for the average user and provided a template for more accessible and usable products and environments for all users, not just those with identifiable disabilities. Mace, in cooperation with other scholars and professionals affiliated with Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University defined Universal Design as “the design of products and environments to be usable to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages and abilities.”

The universal design philosophy asserts that accessible, equitable environments (such as buildings, products, or services) is not a special requirement that benefits a minority of its users, but is intrinsic to and fundamental to good design. Every user benefits from accessible, usable, convenient design. (Story, Mueller, & Mace, 1998).

Mace and his colleagues at the Center for Universal design established seven principles for the universal design of products and environments (Connell et al, 1997). These were later translated to an educational context relevant to student learning and instructional design.

Below is a chart detailing the seven principles of Universal Design applied to Universal Design for Learning with definitions and examples of each:

WHY Heading link

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based on neuroscience research, which has identified three primary neurological networks that impact learning.

It looks at human variability based on parts of the brain that manage the “why” (affective network), the “what” (recognition network), and the “how” (strategic network) of learning (Rose & Meyer, 2002; CAST 2018).

Three Principles of the UDL Framework

UDL guidelines, developed by Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), promote the development of curriculum that includes the following three principles: engagement, representation, and action & expression. We elaborate below on each of these three principles and their relationship to the neurological networks that affect learning.

Multiple means of engagement: This principle aligns with the affective network and addresses the “why” of learning: why is this material relevant to students and their personal goals and motivations? Multiple means of engagement focuses on stimulating interest and motivation for learning for all students. Strategies include providing options for recruiting interest, for sustaining effort and persistence, and for self-regulation. When implemented well, learners are attentive to what is being taught and are motivated to learn more.

Multiple means of representation: This principle aligns with the recognition network and focuses on the “what” of learning: what are students expected to learn, engage with, and access to succeed in the course? This principle focuses on presenting information and content in different ways, including providing options for perception, language and symbols, and comprehension.  In short, this recognition network facilitates a learner’s ability to collect knowledge.

To view a full discussion of the UDL Framework, visit CAST UDL Guidelines

Different parts of the brain are used when learning in different ways.

Multiple means of action and expression: This principle aligns with the strategic network and focuses on the “how” of learning: how will students engage in different learning experiences and demonstrate what they know and what they are learning? This principle focuses on differentiating the ways that students can express what they know. This includes providing options for students to engage in physical action, expression and communication, and executive functions. Action and expressions come into play when learners complete activities and assessments that allow them to practice competencies and apply the knowledge they have acquired.

HOW Heading link

The task of implementing UDL in your courses can feel overwhelming and you might not know where to start.

Keep in mind that UDL is a process and can be implemented incrementally and in a series of iterations. You can start with small changes that align with UDL principles, and revise over time.

Teaching strategies for implementing UDL Heading link

Below are some strategies that you may consider implementing in your course to address each of the three principles of the UDL Framework (CAST 2022).

Getting started integrating UDL into your course

There are many ways to integrate UDL into your courses.  What strategies might you use to get started without feeling overwhelmed when making curricular changes? In Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, the authors suggest identifying a place in your course that bogs down your students and use that as a launch point for applying UDL principles. They call this technique the “Plus One Approach.”  By this they mean asking yourself:

  • Where do my students consistently have questions or misunderstandings about the course material?
  • Where do my students seem to get things wrong on exams or assignments?
  • Where do my students ask for explanations in a different way from the one I provide? (pp 134).

After you’ve identified these “pinch points,” try to find just one more way to engage learners that currently exists in your course. This can include providing an additional source, introducing an element of choice in assignments or assessments, or providing access to lecture materials, notes, etc. in a different modality.

Another way to integrate UDL into your courses is by utilizing a lesson plan. Allison Posey (2019) breaks down lesson planning with UDL into three stages:

Proactive design: in this stage you analyze the objectives of the lesson, anticipate the variability of your students (looking at variability through the representation, engagement, and action and expression learning networks) and add design strategies into the lesson that provide options for learners. This stage aids in reducing barriers to learning and ensures learners can achieve the objectives of the lesson.

Implementation of the lesson: in this stage you deliver the lesson, observe how students are (or aren’t) using the options you have implemented, and get feedback on what learners need to achieve lesson objectives.

Reflection and redesign: in this stage you evaluate where revisions and improvements of your lesson are needed. At the end of the lesson gather learner feedback and look at their work to determine what was working and where learners showed that their learning was less successful.

You can access Posey’s step-by-step UDL lesson planning template here.

UDL and Course Modality

There are a variety of modes of delivery for courses at UIC and you may be teaching in more than one modality.  Here is a list of general strategies that can help promote accessibility and flexibility across multiple teaching modalities:

  • Deliberately choose course materials and activities with a range of student circumstances in mind (e.g., physical abilities and disabilities, financial and technological resources, time commitments such as work or family care obligations).
  • Proactively invite requests for accommodations as a chance to include everyone more fully in learning (through a non-stigmatizing syllabus statement, a reminder in class, an email).
  • Present course material in a variety of modalities (readings, diagrams, lectures, podcasts) rather than relying on one mode of engagement.
  • Accompany verbal instructions with a written corollary. (Multiple modes can be helpful to students with processing disabilities as well as multilingual learners.)
  • Clearly articulate core course learning objectives so you can make deliberate decisions about what elements in the course can be revised, adapted, or made optional in response to individual and/or collective student needs.
  • Build in opportunities for student choice: e.g., flexible or self-paced deadlines for assignments if possible, multiple options for topics or modalities for assignments, optional opportunities for instructor or peer feedback on drafts.
  • Design course policies that provide clear pathways if students need to be absent, turn in work late, leave class early, etc. Explain how these are designed to support student learning when unforeseen circumstances arise; avoid framing such policies as simply punitive.

Here are some ways to think about UDL in specific course modalities:

Evaluating UDL in Your Classroom

How will you know if your efforts to implement UDL are effective? Your students are a great resource for feedback when implementing UDL. Asking for input from your students is a great way to determine whether your designs and interventions are helping your students in the ways that you intend, and ways that they find helpful.

A UDL implementation rubric based on CAST guidelines is another useful resource you might consult in gauging and assessing the degree to which you are effectively integrating UDL principles into your course. You can download UDL Implementation Rubric here (Toland 2019).

RESOURCES Heading link