Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum and teaching that provides equal opportunities for learning to all students. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 includes a concise definition of UDL that emphasizes reducing barriers while providing appropriate supports without compromising rigor.
“The term ‘universal design for learning’ means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that–
provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient” (110th Congress, 2008).
Why is UDL important?
How can UDL inform your course design
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 etc. This simple anticipation exercise can help prime you for the creative work that is universal design.
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?
The UDL framework three principles include:
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)
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.)
See additional activities on CELT’s Engaging Students Online page.
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.
Next steps: Inform your inclusive course design
- If you aren’t sure where to start, contact CELT via phone at 515-294-5357 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Additionally visit the Student Accessibility Services website, call 515-294-7220 or email email@example.com for resources/support available to students.
- Consider using these ISU staff members for help with your course or questions about accessibility:
- Instructional designers/academic technologists in your college
- ISU Library’s Accessibility Services & General Information webpage
- Digital Access website
- Student Accessibility Services website
- eAccessibility Initiative from Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach website
- Contact our CELT staff members
ISU Online Resources
- The Center for Universal Design in Education’s Introduction to Universal Design in Education webpage
- The Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) website
- The Ohio State University’s UDL In Course Design website
- The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) website
Essential components of web accessibility, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, How to meet WCAG 2.0 (quick reference), and Mobile web best practices
Host an Accessibility or Quality Matters workshop
- 110th Congress (2008). Higher education opportunity act: Public law 110-315, sec. 103, p. 122 stat. 3088. Retrieved 2-25-2011 from https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/index.html
- National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2014). What is Universal Design for Learning? Retrieved 8-18-2015 from https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl
- Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, March, 1987. 3-7. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED282491)