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?
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.
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:
- Multiple means of engagement, Affective Networks: The WHY of learning
- Multiple means of representation, Recognition Networks: The WHAT of learning
- 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.
Next steps: Inform your inclusive course design
When you build your course with both Universal Design and Quality Matters in mind, you create a learning experience that provides students with options for engaging their affective networks, recognizing information through representations, and strategically acting upon or expressing their learning. You are designing a course that provides learners with multiple means of moving from novice to expert.
These factors apply to anything you include in your online course to help make it more accessible to all learners.
Use the checklist CELT’s Universal Design Checklist for Your Online Course (PDF) and visit CELT’s Universal Design for Learning Overview page
- 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
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).
If you are interested in hosting one of these workshops for your departmental or college faculty email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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)