Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Universal Design for Learning

Student walking next to a building

“Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." 

–Ronald Mace, Architect  
(Center for Universal Design, 2008)  

The 20th century brought remarkable social advancements in civil and human rights. An important part of this story is the Universal Design (UD) movement, which promoted the accessibility and usability of public environments, buildings, and products for all. UD is design that is equitable—in other words, usable, marketable, and appealing to people with a diverse range of abilities, characteristics, and preferences. Examples of UD are so commonplace in our daily lives that they escape our notice—wide walkways, sidewalk ramps, and automated doors are a few that come to mind. 

Over time, UD's reach expanded to digital spaces like the internet and audiovisual media. This shift from physical to digital environments inspired educators, who applied UD tenets to the barriers of traditional course design (Tobin & Behling, 2018). The resulting framework—Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—as articulated by the foundational work of researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), advocates for curriculum and course design centered on the diverse needs of learners. 

Background

Like UD, UDL aims to achieve the highest level of functionality and user-friendliness for as many people as possible. It involves the purposeful design of course outcomes, materials, and assessments in ways that promote equal access and a positive experience for all students.  

Understanding UDL 

The history and tenets of UDL are intertwined with civil rights efforts for people with disabilities, so it is often discussed in conjunction with accessibility and accommodations. But UDL as a practice is distinct.  
 
UDL refers to the process of making learning usable and effective for all, while accessibility refers to the ability of a device, product, service, or environment to be usable by as many people as possible. Accessibility is an important aspect of UDL, and they often go hand in hand. But UDL extends beyond accessibility to addressing learner preferences and other characteristics.  

Institutional accommodations, such as those provided through Student Life Disability Services, can and should complement UDL. But while accommodations happen on a case-by-case basis per legal requirements, UDL is a holistic course design framework.

Proactive Design 

Effective UDL requires forethought and strategy in all areas of course planning and design. But the end result allows students to access, learn, and interact in a variety of ways, addressing the needs and preferences of a wide range of learners. Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory (2009) identify the following key principles of UDL. 

  • Equitable use: Design is appealing and usable for all. 
  • Flexibility in use: Choice in methods of use and consideration of preferences is part of the design. 
  • Simple and intuitive use: Consistency and ease of use are considered. 
  • Perceptible information: Information is clear, well-organized, and presented in several ways to accommodate various learner needs.  
  • Tolerance for error: Guidelines and instructions help to steer the learner away from errors or hazards. 
  • Low physical effort: Navigation is clear and requires no unnecessary redundancies. 
  • Size and space approach and use: Appropriate space to accommodate various learner needs is made available. 

Importantly, UDL builds on good backward design. Backward design centralizes course goals when designing assessments and selecting content. In practice, this means articulating connections between

  • Outcomes: What can students do by the end of this course?
  • Assessments: How will I know students have achieved the goal? 
  • Content: How will I guide students toward achieving the goal?

Well-designed courses empower students to achieve learning goals without unnecessary constraints. As CAST reminds us, "Always keep in mind the learning goal. Get rid of barriers caused by the curriculum and keep the challenge where it belongs!" (CAST, 2010). Along this line, UDL adds a fourth consideration to traditional backward design: 

  • Access: What barriers prevent students from achieving the goal?

The proactive approach to preventing barriers to access is an essential component of UDL.  

Despite its benefits, UDL is sometimes met with skepticism. After all, full accessibility for all learners sounds like an impossible task. Some educators may feel overwhelmed or unsure how to start, while others may fear that UDL will sacrifice the quality of the whole for the benefit of a few. But in practice, UDL can streamline instructor labor by providing an intentional framework for course planning and by reducing the need for later remediation. Moreover, UDL goes beyond providing equitable access to marginalized students to enhancing the learning experience for everyone. Mindful tactics such as sharing study resources and providing assignment options offer all students meaningful support and ownership in their learning. 

At its core, UDL is about anticipating and meeting unnecessary barriers to student learning with compassion, understanding, and reasonable flexibility. As disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage writes, UDL is "not a tailoring of the environment to marginal groups; it is a form of hope, a manner of trying" (2017). 

In Practice

To apply UDL to your course, you must address three distinct but overlapping considerations. All learning materials and activities you develop should provide, from the outset, multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. 

  • Engagement refers to how students are motivated to learn. Students are empowered when they can apply knowledge to their lived experience.  
  • Representation refers to how content is received by students. Students should be able to access the same information in various formats, whether auditory, visual, or textual. 
  • Action and expression refers to the ways that students show their knowledge and skills. Students may demonstrate learning and share their ideas through various means, such as writing, video, and audio.  

For a quick explanation of these categories, watch the video UDL at a Glance by CAST.

Multiple Means of Engagement  

Students share how specific strategies instructors used to foster community and provide feedback and support increased their motivation and engagement.

Engagement is highly individualized for each student and is based on both physical and cultural differences. For example, some students thrive in real-time class discussions, while others need time for introspection and individual reflection to form their responses. Engaging students is essential to ensuring they receive key course material as well as to motivating them to participate. 

To integrate multiple means of engagement in your course, you might: 

  • Make material and assignments relevant to real-life contexts. Use engaging stories and examples to deliver content. Affirm the various ways students can apply learning activities to their personal circumstances, future careers, and current events.  
  • Incorporate low-stakes opportunities for practice of essential skills before important assessments. For example, if your online course's final assignment is a virtual oral presentation, include time for students to practice using CarmenZoom and speaking to peers synchronously throughout the semester.  
  • Build classroom community so students feel supported, and include a variety of group and individual activities. Allowing students to choose whether they work individually or with peers will accommodate various learning preferences and personalities. 
  • Give students choice and autonomy when it comes to the level of challenge, tools used, communication channels, and methods of reflection and self-evaluation.  
  • Provide individualized feedback, support, and coaching to students on their progress, performance, and individual learning goals. 
  • Adapt assessments to support individual students when possible. For example, you might modify a traditional paper assignment by reducing the required length or allowing a video submission instead. While multiple methods of expression should be built into every assessment, responding to individual student needs will show your support.

Remember, however, that UDL isn’t about last-minute individual accommodations so much as big-picture planning. Think carefully about how you will accomplish the above when designing and building your course. 

Multiple Means of Representation  

Offering multiple means of representation for your course content ensures students can access the same information in various modes, such as visual, auditory, or textual. This is an important component of accessibility but will improve the course experience for your entire class. While accessible design is imperative for people with disabilities, all learners take advantage of accessibility features depending on the situation (Chisholm & May, 2009). For example, a student studying in a noisy coffee shop will benefit from captions when viewing a lecture video in CarmenCanvas.  

To integrate multiple means of representation in your course: 

  • Provide captions for all videos and offer transcripts of all audio recordings and podcasts. 
  • Include audio descriptions for visual examples. 
  • Use alternate text or captions to explain important images, graphs, and figures. 
  • Confirm text and documents are accessible for screen readers.  
  • Make key content stand out—highlight big ideas and clearly indicate relationships between concepts. 
  • Clearly define specialized vocabulary, or limit its use, to support students with varying disciplinary knowledge, abilities, and linguistic or cultural backgrounds. 

As you create your course, review your materials to ensure that students won't miss information if they opt for different means of representation.  

Multiple Means of Action or Expression  

Older and younger student talking

One of the most important interactions students share with you is in the work they complete throughout the term. Just as students engage with and respond to content differently, so too do they vary in their preferences for demonstrating learning. 

To integrate multiple means of action and expression in your course: 

  • Use a variety of assessment methods so students can show their knowledge in multiple ways. Don’t limit graded work to traditional tests and exams. Include a range of formative assessments, such as case studies, group activities, quizzes, homework, and reflection papers.  
  • Plan multiple options for assignments that let students choose the medium for their work. Look at your learning outcomes and leave as much flexibility in assignment instructions and expectations as you can. For example, some students have difficulty with writing but excel when speaking, and vice versa. Others may surprise you with their creativity, preferring to make a video, podcast, infographic, or website. Offering choice will increase engagement by encouraging students to display learning in formats more aligned to their skillsets, interests, and career goals. 
  • Provide necessary resources for completing all course activities. This goes beyond clear instructions and rubrics for assignments to sharing additional guidance or tools needed to complete tasks. Supplemental materials to support writing, research, and technology skills will help all students achieve your outcomes.  Learn more about Supporting Student Learning in Your Course
  • Give guidance for project management, especially for major outcomes with limited assessment options. Some students have difficulty with executive functioning or hold additional responsibilities outside your class. Provide clear models of how to organize time and labor while keeping your expectations explicit. Scaffold a big or complex assignment, such as a final research paper, by breaking it into manageable steps or tasks over time. 
  • Set up multiple platforms for communication in your course and allow students to choose how they want to interact. For example, you might have both in-class discussions and Carmen discussions and let students participate according to their preferences. Encourage students to share video or audio posts in online discussions if that is more comfortable for them. 
  • Maintain flexibility and understanding with deadlines. While it's important to set submission policies, the nature of individual abilities, skillsets, and circumstances can affect students’ workflow. It is possible to maintain standards for performance alongside empathy for your students.

Integrating support, choice, and flexibility in course activities and assessments will benefit all of your students. Learn more about best practices for Designing Assessments of Student Learning.  

UX Tip

Peer Collaboration 

In a 2006 article on UDL in college classrooms, David Rose et al. describe the value of choice in student discussions. Consider setting up optional Carmen discussions or Teams channels based on various student needs. You might have a Review Forum for sharing questions, challenges and study tips, an Advanced Forum for expanding on material, and a Collaborative Forum for brainstorming and peer feedback. 

Summary

Ask yourself the following questions when designing your next course: 

  • Engagement: Do I provide multiple means to engage students? Where can I integrate choice and autonomy or make content more relevant to students’ lives? Have I included a variety of ways for students to practice, interact, and build community?  

  • Representation: Is my key content presented using multiple modes beyond text, including graphics, audio, and video? Have I used captions, transcripts, alternate text, and audio description to make material accessible? Is my content clear, organized, and presented in ways that support students with diverse abilities, disciplinary knowledge, and language proficiency? 

  • Action and Expression: For which assignments and activities can I provide multiple options or channels for participation? How can I make instructions and expectations for learning activities explicit? What resources and supports will help students complete important tasks? 

Though it requires forethought and effort, proactively applying UDL will help you minimize barriers to learning and maximize success for all of your students. 

References

  • CAST. (n.d.) About universal design for learning. https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl  
  • CAST. (2010, January 6). UDL at a glance [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/bDvKnY0g6e4  
  • Center for Universal Design. (2008). About UD. https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/about_ud.htm
  • Chisholm, W., & May, M. (2008). Universal design for web applications. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, Inc.  
  • Dolmage, J.T. (2015). Universal design: Places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632/3946  
  • Dolmage, J.T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.  
  • Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 17. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ844630  
  • Tobin, T.J., & Behling, K.T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.