Universal Design for Learning

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Summary: Universal design for learning is a framework for rethinking traditional classroom activities and resources to meet diverse student needs. Vary the way you present content, activities you use in class, and assessment techniques to meet these diverse needs.

Universal design for learning (UDL) helps improve student learning outcomes by providing choices in the learning environment from what they engage in, to how and when they engage. This type of variety creates a more motivational atmosphere through increased learner agency.

If you usually lecture, add other activities during the class period that let students engage in peer learning. 

If you usually center activities around peer or group learning, add in some activities that allow students to explore the topic on their own.

The idea is to add variability to your course methods, materials and assessments for the benefit of every student, rather than simply to modify existing activities as way of accommodating a subset of students (which is how people usually interpret accessibility, accommodation and universal design).

Applying universal design to your classroom also means that everyone will find some activity that they enjoy working on, at least some of the time.

Universal design is creative work

Ask yourself: who are the students that might show up in your classroom? Consider disability, race, ethnicity, national origin, language learner status, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, veteran status, and et cetera. This simple anticipation exercise can help prime you for the creative work that is universal design.

Evaluate your teaching goals against your current course components

Consider multiple ways to teach and deliver content, have students demonstrate their knowledge, and engage with other students. Ask: What are my learning goals? Why am I doing things the way I’m doing them?

Let’s look at what UDL means in terms of actual course design.

What do these principles actually mean in your course? 

The UDL framework is comprised of three principles:

  • Create (or use) multiple means of representation (content) 
  • Create multiple means of engagement (activities) 
  • Provide multiple means of actions and expression (assessment) 

You can use this framework as inspiration in planning a course that honors the variability that exists both with each student and within each classroom. There is no one best way; vary things. Change it up. 

Conveying content

Organize information in a way that empowers students to make connections. Some people would say this is just “good teaching” (and we would say it’s how people actually learn). Some examples:

  • Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships, especially around points where students may get stuck
  • Present concepts and big ideas in simple language before introducing new vocabulary
  • Clarify vocabulary, acronyms and symbols
  • Use a variety of media throughout the course, such as video, animations, or other multimedia (and offer these in alternative formats)
  • Explicitly connect new information to background knowledge
  • Make sure the videos you assign or use in class have captions (and turn the captions on when showing one in class)

Diversifying activities 

Consider the multiple interactions that are happening in your classroom at one time. Students should be interacting with each other, with you, with the content, and with the technology (whatever form that takes). Some examples:

  • Vary the types of activities and assignments (but don’t use technology just for technology’s sake; the technology-driven activities you design should be meaningful and useful in and of their own right)
  • Integrate self assessments and reflection opportunities (raising self awareness of learning aids learning)
  • Encourage students to use and apply the information, not just access or recall it; design assignments that are authentic to real-life work to optimize relevance, value and authenticity 
  • Foster intentional collaboration and community, to support students who need that interaction for their learning (building community often helps marginalized and non-traditional students as well)
  • Minimize distractions (e.g., use plain and simple writing, minimize the number of decorative elements in your course websites and on your slides, etc.)

Assess student’s knowledge

Assessment activities tend to have higher stakes in your course. They are where students tend to spend the most time and attention. Therefore, put your energy for universal design here. Some examples:

  • Assign a non-traditional assignment instead of a research paper (e.g., mapping project, digital story, in-class presentation, or online exhibition)
  • Ask students to respond using non-traditional formats (e.g., a podcast or video recording), and vary these response parameters throughout the semester
  • Ensure the tools you encourage for these non-traditional activities are accessible

At all levels and in all contexts, increase the amount and frequency of the feedback you give. To save time, you can use rubrics to give feedback, rather than authoring unique responses to each student.

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