Universal Design for Learning Overview

Universal Design for Learning and the three different brain networks

What is Universal Design for Learning?

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).

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 multiple means of engagement, Affective Networks: The WHY of learning
  2. Multiple means of representation, Recognition 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.

Why Universal Design for Learning is 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; are able to 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 in order 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 policy. Universal Design for Learning provides a strategy for compliance with laws regarding accessibility and also promotes more effective learning for all students.

What You Can Do 

Using the resources below as a starting point, take some time to review your course with UDL in mind. Consider the course goals, learning objectives, assessment and evaluation methods and teaching strategies you use in the course. How can you apply principles of UDL to enhance teaching and learning? You may be able to make some changes relatively easily (change PowerPoint slides to improve color contrast, provide captions for images used in course content, etc.) Other changes make take longer to complete (provide closed captioning for videos and audio files), but are worth the investment to support student learning.


If you aren’t sure where to start, contact CELT via phone at 515-294-5357 or email celt@iastate.edu.

Additionally visit the Student Accessibility Services website, call 515-294-7220 or email accessibility@iastate.edu for more information on resources available to students.

ISU Online Resources

Online Resources Elsewhere


  • 110th Congress (2008). Higher education opportunity act: Public law 110-315, sec. 103, p. 122 stat. 3088. Retrieved 2-25-2011 from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/
  • National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2014). What is Universal Design for Learning? Retrieved 8-18-2015 from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl
  • 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)