Universal Design for Learning

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Table of Contents

What does UDL (Universal Design for Learning) mean?
Why is UDL important for education?
The Universal Design for Learning guidelines and principles

What does UDL (Universal Design for Learning) mean?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for instruction that prioritizes the design and development of curriculum that is effective and inclusive for all learners by considering differences in mental, physical, and cognitive abilities during the planning process. In addition to helping all students be successful by allowing them to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, applying the principles of UDL to a curriculum can also save faculty and administrators time and frustration and ensure that learning is more accurately implemented and assessed.

Watch this short video to understand what UDL means:

Why is UDL important for education?

The UDL approach offers guidelines for making informed decisions about what practices are optimal and ensures comprehensive instructional design practices that can address a full range of learning abilities and disabilities present in any group of students.

Watch this video of Dr. David Rose speaking about UDL:

The Universal Design for Learning guidelines and principles

The UDL guidelines were developed in response to calls from the education field for practical advice and can be used by educators, curriculum developers, researchers, instructional designers, parents, and anyone else who wants to implement the UDL framework in a learning environment. The guidelines support the process of customizing instruction for individuals by:

  • Helping educators incorporate appropriate and adjustable support, scaffolds and challenges into the instructional environment from the very beginning.
  • Including modifications, adjustments and changes that are not afterthoughts or add-ons.
  • Helping create lessons and curricula that are accessible to all learners through careful planning and design.
  • Helping maintain “desirable difficulties” or challenges that are relevant to the goals of learning and eliminating “undesirable difficulties,” i.e., barriers to learning that are irrelevant to the goals of learning. 

The guidelines are organized around the three principles of UDL:

Provide multiple means of Representation: This is the “what” of how information is perceived and comprehended. Because individuals and their brains are different, they perceive and comprehend information in many ways. Therefore, the curriculum should have enough flexibility for teachers and students to determine the most appropriate way to access the content. Here are some examples how instructors can provide multiple means to access the content:

  • Perception: Provide multiple means for students to interact with content that doesn’t depend on a single sense like sight, hearing, movement or touch.
  • Language and Symbols: Clarify vocabulary, symbols, syntax, structure, and mathematical notations, and illustrate concepts through multiple media to promote understanding across languages.
  • Comprehension: Activate background knowledge, highlight patterns, features, big ideas and relationships. Guide information processing and visualization and maximize transfer and generalization.

Here’s a video that explains multiple means of representation:

Provide multiple means of action and expression: Learning is more than the transfer and reception of information. It requires learners to be proactive, strategize, organize, and communicate learning. This principle addresses “how” learners navigate a learning environment with ease and express what they know. Here are some examples illustrating how instructors can provide multiple means of action and expression in their curricula/lessons:

  • Physical action: Allow students the option to interact with accessible material and tools by varying methods of response and navigation and optimizing access to tools and assistive technologies.
  • Expressions and Communication: Use multiple media for communication, multiple tools for construction and composition, and scaffold the learning process.
  • Executive Functions: Help students compose and share ideas using tools that can help them attain learning goals by using appropriate goal-setting practices, supporting their planning and strategy for learning, helping students manage information and resources and enhance their capacity for monitoring their progress.

Here’s a short video that explains multiple means of action and expression:

Provide multiple means of engagement: This third principle is the “why” of learning and focuses on how learners can be engaged and motivated to learn. Here are some examples how instructors can provide multiple means of engagement in their curricula/lessons:

  • Recruit Interest: Optimize individual choice and autonomy, relevance, value, and authenticity and minimize threats.
  • Sustain Effort and Persistence: Balance challenges and support to ensure that learning occurs most efficiently. This can be achieved by creating opportunities to collaborate with peers or providing alternatives in the tools and scaffolds offered for a particular assignment.
  • Self-regulation: Harness the power of emotions and motivation in learning by promoting expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation, facilitate personal coping skills and strategies, and develop self-assessment and reflection skills.

Here’s a short video that explains engagement strategies:

UDL tools are most useful in supporting the design of lessons or units, assessing instructional methods or materials, and facilitating discussions about curriculum. These guidelines are flexible and should be mixed and matched in the curriculum and with individual learners as appropriate. Please visit the CAST website for further details about these principles and guidelines.

  • CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

    Hall, T. E., Meyer, A., & Rose, D.H., Eds. (2012). Universal design for learning in the classroom: Practical applications. New York: Guilford Press.

    Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

    Rose, D.H., & Gravel, J.W. (2010). Universal Design for Learning. In P. Peterson, E. Baker, & B. McGraw (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 119 – 124). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

    UDL Group. (n.d.). History of universal design for learning. Retrieved from https://udlgroup.weebly.com/history-of-universal-design-for-learning.html