Universal Design for Learning Overview

Universal Design for Learning

Table of Contents

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–

  1. 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

  2. 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?

Every student has a unique profile of abilities, strengths, learning styles, and previous experience. For example, students differ in how they: perceive and comprehend information, can express their learning, and are engaged or motivated to learn.  Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seminal “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” suggests that educators “respect diverse talents and ways of learning,” and as a result educators should use a variety of teaching and assessment methods to make learning accessible to all learners in the course. Additionally, colleges and universities in the U.S. must comply with the Americans with Disability Act and other pertinent policies. Universal Design for Learning provides a strategy for compliance with laws regarding accessibility and also promotes more effective learning for all students.
Universal Design for Learning and the three different brain networks
In addition to publishing a wealth of resources to guide the practical application of UDL, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2018) presents UDL 2.2 as an “educational approach with three primary principles:
  1. Multiple means of engagementAffective Networks: The WHY of learning
  2. Multiple means of representationRecognition Networks: The WHAT of learning
  3. Multiple means of action and expression, Strategic Networks: The HOW of learning”.
These guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

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.

The UDL framework can inspire 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.

Host an Accessibility or Quality Matters workshop

CELT has presented our accessibility and Universal Design for Learning workshops at the Des Moines Area Community College Teaching Conference, The National Teaching Professor Conference, and the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL). CELT has two staff members certified by Quality Matters (QM) to facilitate QM workshops at ISU. If you are interested in hosting one of these workshops for your departmental or college faculty email celt@iastate.edu.