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Universal Design for Learning (UDL)


Universal Design

The term universal design was coined in the field of architecture in the early 80’s. The underlying concept is to incorporate in the design of all product features that make them:

aesthetic & usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or status in life.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal design for learning (UDL) is essentially a movement started by a small band of education researchers looking to explore using new technologies to provide better educational experiences to students, helping them to overcome barriers commonly presented in education. The result has been an evolving framework based on the three networks of the learning brain:

  1. Affective, the why of learning;
  2. Recognition, the what of learning; and
  3. Strategic, the how of learning;

and the need to:

  1. Stimulate interest and motivate students for learning,
  2. Present information and content in different ways, and
  3. Differentiate the ways students express what they know/learned (CAST).

In UDL the focus is on the learning environment and the creation of the learning environment instead of adapting the individual student or student functions to fit within that environment. Anticipating the needs of all students and building in features to meet those needs from the very beginning increases usability for everyone. The UDL framework provides guidance in the creation of curricula that meets the needs of all learners. In the diverse class/course of today that includes English Language Learners, the full-time employee/full or part-time student, students with disabilities, the overwhelmed and anxious student, veterans who have experienced great trauma, adults returning to school after many years, and more.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act and the US DOE’s National Education Technology Plan of 2010 both emphasized UDL as a framework to benefit all learners. As formally defined, universal design is “… a concept or philosophy for designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities… (without requiring assistive technologies)... ” and universal design for learning is “… a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that provides flexibility…; and reduces barriers… provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations… ” (Higher Education Opportunity Act, 2010).

UDL involves curriculum developers, faculty, staff, and institutions in commissioning curricula and learning environments that are created from the outset to make learning accessible to highly diverse learners. Digital technology continues to be a cornerstone in the theory and practice of UDL, enabling customization, alternate representations, and true interactivity, addressing all of the networks of learning from the outset.

Below you will find a universally designed presentation by UK faculty member Roger Brown.


How do I incorporate UDL into my instruction?

UDL is simply about applying teaching strategies in more flexible ways and providing students with options or choices in engaging with the course/course content, accessing course materials, and demonstrating knowledge. Strategies can be extremely simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement or they can be somewhat complex and time consuming, perhaps even costly. Different subjects may lend themselves to different strategies than others. Different teaching styles and philosophies may work better with specific strategies. UDL can be incorporated into existing courses or into the design and development of a new course.

The following are examples of multiple strategies for each of the three principles of UDL. (You also can download a PDF file of additional strategies at the bottom of the page.) You will notice that strategies can fall in more than one category, perhaps across all three principles.

Multiple means of engagement in learning:

  • rubrics
  • examples of assignments
  • giving choices/options
  • collaborative assignments/group work
  • models & scaffolding
  • specialization
  • simulations & games
  • reducing participation risk
  • direct & immediate feedback
  • knowledge checks
  • practice exercises or tests
  • reminders
  • real world examples
  • dissecting from end to beginning
  • clear rationales & personal benefits
  • consistency
  • step-by-step guides
  • Read&Write Gold

Multiple means of representing information:

  • flexibility – providing choices/options
  • multiple document formats (including digital text)
  • audio recordings of lectures; podcasts
  • short videos with captions
  • multimedia syllabus with links
  • manageable chunks of information
  • posting student notes
  • repetition
  • summaries of complex concepts
  • graphics & animation (including 3D)
  • optional review or extension/ challenge sessions
  • online or face-to-face options
  • handouts of PPTs
  • mind/concept maps/graphic organizers
  • outlines or note-taking guides
  • use of contrasting color
  • clear & concise language
  • white space
  • physical models
  • simulations
  • demonstrations
  • multimodal communication
  • Read&Write Gold

Multiple means of action & expression of knowledge:

  • choice in assignments or final product
  • authentic assessments – application/projects
  • take home final
  • templates
  • multimedia projects
  • multiple drafts or successive work
  • choice of topic(s)
  • 3d printing project
  • strategic teams; group presentations/ products
  • groupwork, but turn in individually
  • students locate and create content

Additional Resources


UDL Theory & Practice

UDL on Campus

National Center on Universal Design for Learning

Postsecondary Education and UDL

UDL Guidelines

UDL Guidelines Graphic Organizer