Universal Design for Learning

Introduction and Definitions

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational approach based on the broader Universal Design philosophy. Among the many definitions for universal design for learning are the following:

Universal design for learning (UDL) is a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners and eliminates unnecessary hurdles in the learning process. This means developing a flexible learning environment in which information is presented in multiple ways, students engage in learning in a variety of ways, and students are provided options when demonstrating their learning. Cornell University Center for Learning Innovation

Universal Design for Learning is a proactive framework that provides guidelines for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that can work for all students. It advocates flexible approaches tailored to address diverse students’ needs, taking into account individual variability. Marshall University

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum and teaching that seeks to minimize barriers and maximize learning for all students (CAST). In practice, taking a UDL approach involves providing students with multiple pathways to connect with the work of the course, encounter course content, and practice and demonstrate their learning. Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence

Implementing Universal Design for Learning is not the same as providing accommodations to students who request them. Students with documented disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations that remove barriers to learning. When students request accommodations, instructors need to modify or adjust their instructional methods and/or assessments to honor the requests; this is done on an as-needed basis. In contrast, UDL strategies are part of an inclusive teaching approach and are implemented during the initial course design. Their goal is to provide full access to every student. This approach is designed in anticipation of student variability along a range of dimensions. Both approaches seek to increase learning access and reduce barriers, and implementing UDL strategies does not negate the need for individual-based learning accommodations.

Benefits of UDL for Students and Instructors

According to the Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence, utilizing UDL principles in curriculum design benefits the instructor and the students in the following ways:

  1. Integrate diversity: UDL helps instructors appreciate the variability in learning preferences and strengths and provides guidance for course design decisions that result in a more accessible, adaptable, and inclusive course.
  2. Maximize learning: UDL enables instructors to design courses and lessons that can meet students where they are and more fully engage students during learning.
  3. Minimize barriers: UDL helps instructors minimize barriers by creating a learning environment in which students do not have to overcome obstacles in order to have their learning needs met.
  4. Reduce retrofitting: UDL minimizes the need to make changes to course design or teaching practice once that course has commenced, reducing the labor and confusion that can accompany such changes during the semester, for both students and instructors.


Underlying Principles

The Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning, developed by the Center for Advanced Special Technology (CAST), are based on three principles:

  1. Multiple means of representation: Based on the premise that learners access information differently, this principle focuses on presenting information and content in several different ways.
  2. Multiple means of action and expression: Because students vary in their abilities to demonstrate their learning in different ways, this principle means providing flexible and multiple ways for students to express their knowledge or show their skills.
  3. Multiple means of engagement: Students are motivated to learn for different reasons and vary in the types of learning activities that keep them engaged; therefore, this principle focuses on stimulating interest and motivation for learning in all students by providing multiple ways to engage in course activities.


Applying UDL Principles to Courses

UDL principles include providing multiple means of presenting material and assuring that students have a variety of ways to express themselves and to engage with course material.

These principles can be applied to the design of a course as well as to the specific instructional materials, teaching strategies, and methods of assessment. The key characteristics of a universally designed course are clarity, flexibility, and accessibility. UDL also emphasizes strategies for scaffolding and providing cognitive supports for learning. Here are some examples of ways to implement UDL in courses:

1. Syllabus

  • Include a disability or accessibility statement. Consider creating your own statement, in addition to Alliant’s statement. Highlight these statements when you review the syllabus during class.
  • Include information on student resources and the procedure for requesting accommodations.
  • If you include a statement about your teaching philosophy, state your commitment to UDL and its underlying principles.
    • Example: As your instructor, I feel I have a responsibility to do everything within reason to actively support a wide range of learning styles and abilities.  As such, I have taken training and applied the principles of Universal Design for Learning to this course.  Feel free to discuss your progress in this course with me at any time.  In addition, if you require any accommodations, submit your verified accommodations form to me during the first two weeks of the course.
    • Example: I am committed to the principle of universal learning. This means that our classroom, our virtual spaces, our practices, and our interactions be as inclusive as possible. Mutual respect, civility, and the ability to listen and observe others carefully are crucial to universal learning.
  • Provide a clear overview of the course, including goals and learning objectives
  • Create a learning guide for each week
    • Outline the specific learning objectives for that week and specify how they relate to the assignments
    • Provide specific due dates and a detailed calendar

2. Instructional materials

  • Deliberately choose course materials with a range of student circumstances in mind (e.g., physical abilities and disabilities, financial and technological resources, time commitments): Use a variety of materials such as online resources, videos, podcasts, and PowerPoint presentations
  • Use multiple means of representation when preparing your course materials (e.g., print, digital, audio).
  • Allow students to choose mode for acquiring information (e.g., watch a video or read an article that convey the same content).
  • Create accessible materials:
    • CAST has information on how to design materials that are in line with universal design principles for Microsoft products (Word or PowerPoint) and other applications (e.g., Adobe)
  • Provide a glossary for jargon/ terms
  • Use large fonts for slides, graphics, and charts.
  • If creating a website,
    • Present content via text and visuals
    • Make sure audio content is captioned and transcribed
    • Make sure content can be reached with the keyboard alone
    • Spell out acronyms

3. Teaching strategies

  • Present information in multiple formats, including text, graphics, audio, and video
  • Provide alternatives for visual and audio content (transcripts/ captions)
  • Supplement your lectures with PowerPoint slides and speak/summarize all content aloud
  • If use video clips, be sure to both introduce the video and summarize the main points
  • Use group discussions
    • Provide time for individual reflection and writing prior to the group discussion to allow more students to gather their thoughts
    • Use a variety of formats: working in pairs, small groups, or large groups
    • Offer online formats, such as a forum for online discussion or blogging, to allow students to participate
  • Use multiple strategies to present content (e.g., case studies, role play, hands-on activities, field trips, and guest speakers)
  • Provide cognitive supports
    • Provide some structure at the beginning of each class: outline key points, connect them to course objectives, and give a preview of the material to be covered
    • Provide a summary at the end of each class: point out patterns and relationships and connect the content covered to other course content
    • Give students organizing clues when you present
      • Example: I have explained the four main points, and now I am going to summarize them.
      • Example: These are the main topics I have covered today. Next time, we will discuss …
    • Present background information for new concepts using pictures, artifacts, videos, and other materials that are not lecture-based
    • Scaffold student learning (provide support to reduce the complexity of a task) by creating outlines, summaries, study guides, and copies of PowerPoint slides.

4. Methods of assessment

  • Consider using combinations of assessment methods (e.g., written assignments, electronic portfolios, oral presentations)
  • In some instances, allow student choice of assignment or assignment type
    • Example: students can type a discussion board response or record an audio response
    • Example: students can write a paper or take an exam
  • For each assignment, make sure the instructions, the layout, and the format of the assignment are clear and easy to navigate
  • Give instructions both orally and in writing
  • When possible, consider
    • Permitting open books and notes during assessments
    • Providing unlimited time for assessments
    • Allowing backtracking during online quizzes and exams (so students may check their answers)
    • Allowing flexible or extended due dates
    • Distributing points across a range of assignments, lowering the stakes of any given assignment
    • Breaking down written assignments into manageable steps that allow for giving feedback along the way (e.g., create an outline; draft an annotated bibliography; complete one section at a time)
    • Allowing students to share their drafts at several points in the process of completing an assignment

Getting Started with Implementing UDL

Below are suggested steps for introducing UDL principles into teaching if you have already designed a course:

  • Reflect on how your course is going
    • Identify a place in your course that is problematic for students
      • Where do students consistently have questions or misunderstandings about the course material?
      • Where do students often get things wrong on exams or assignments?
      • Where do students ask for explanations in a different way from the one you provide?
      • Are there additional ways to engage learners than currently exist in your course?
      • Think about small changes you can make to the organization of the course or to your teaching and assessment methods (Ask students to help you to design changes.)
      • Could you offer more flexibility in the way you
        • Present content?
        • Engage students in learning in your course?
        • Assess student learning?
      • Could you provide greater clarity in your
        • Presentations?
        • Instructions?
        • Explanations?
      • Clearly articulate core course learning objectives so you can make decisions about what elements in the course can be revised, adapted, or made optional
      • As the semester/term progresses, check in with your students to see how things are going; conduct a midsemester/term evaluation
      • Reflect on how it went.
        • Did it work for you?
        • For your students?
        • Did students attain the course learning outcomes?
      • Make necessary adjustments for next time you teach the course
      • Enlist the help of other faculty; talk with them about your experiences implementing UDL and ask about what they have done



About Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

UDL on Campus

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education
Getting Started

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education
UDL Syllabus

Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence
Universal Design for Learning

 Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation
Universal Design for Learning

University of Illinois/Chicago Center for the Advancement of Teaching Excellence
Universal Design for Learning

Alfred University MyAU
Universal Design for Learning

University of Tennessee/Knoxville Office of Information Technology
Universal Design for Learning

Marshall University
Universal Design for Learning

Johns Hopkins University
Hopkins Universal Design for Learning

Georgetown University Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship
Universal Design for Learning

TEAL (Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy) Center
Universal Design for Learning

Durham College Center for Teaching and Learning
Universal Design for Learning

Temple University Disability Resources and Services
Universal Design for Learning


Additional Resources

The UDL Guidelines

Cal State Universities EnACT
Universal Design Rubric for Evaluating Course Syllabus

National Center for Accessible Educational Materials

Accessible Syllabus

Durham College Center for Teaching and Learning
UDL Checklists

Center of Disability Studies
Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Settings

University of Washington DO-IT
Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction