Universal Design for Learning

Essential for some, beneficial for all.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL is a set of design principles meant to guide teachers in reducing learning barriers for students. This is done through improving motivation, presenting information in a variety of ways, and expanding how students can express their understanding.

Although the first objective of UDL is to help students with special needs, following these design principles may benefit all students through improved teaching and communication.

UDL organizes learning into three components called networks:

Affective NetworkThe why of learning - includes motivation, engagement, purpose, reflection, and self-regulation to create learners who are purposeful and motivated.

Recognition NetworkThe what of learning – includes background knowledge, vocabulary, visuals, information processing, and contextual understanding to create learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable

Strategic NetworkThe how of learning – includes goal-setting, planning, strategies, and monitoring to create learners who are strategic and goal-directed

Universal Design for Learning diagram showing the three networks explained above.

Why should I care about UDL?

As an instructor, the ultimate goal is to have all students successfully meet the learning outcomes of your course. By engaging students, and providing multiple means of representation and expression through UDL principles, instructors can eliminate common barriers and increase the chance that all of your students will complete your course successfully.

Not all barriers will be visible to you or even known to students themselves. There are sensory and physical disabilities, reading difficulties, emotional challenges, socio-cultural differences, attention deficit disorders, language barriers, issues with executive function, or even a lack of background knowledge, to name just a few of the hurdles that students must overcome.

Typical curriculums that involve reading a textbook and listening to a lecture are designed for a homogenous group of students and will not meet the needs of different learners. Alternatively, a curriculum that offers students a variety of pathways to knowledge acquisition such as watching a video, listening to a podcast, reading a journal article, or exploring a topical website, allow students to choose the medium for building their understanding of the topic.

This variety of choice does not change learning outcomes or remove the work students must do to build understanding, but instead reduces limitations to doing that work.

Why choice matters

Since UDL requires instructors to consider student differences, initial planning of multiple instructional methods and materials will be more time consuming. The benefit, however, is that overall student learning may improve. One way of thinking about why this may be is in the following example.

Think about how you use GPS when driving to a new location. You use a variety of variables such as distance, estimated time of arrival, and traffic patterns to decide your preferred way to get there. Perhaps the shorter route requires driving through rush hour city traffic but you’d prefer to spend an extra 15 minutes taking a longer but safer highway until you’re comfortable with the route. Maybe you’ve been driving all day and one route will have a preferred stopping point that you wouldn’t have cared about if you’d started further along your journey.

In a classroom setting, the destination is your learning outcome. The goal is for every student to arrive successfully, but not every student has to take the same route to get there. In this analogy, the student makes choices about their planned route, and adjust as they go and as new understandings arise. They are active in their choices and forcing a single route creates sub-optimal experiences and results for both the teacher and the student.

Because all students are different and make meaning of content in their own way, you will never be able to create a single optimal route. This does not mean they can do whatever they want, but that increasing choices improves learning efficiency.

Creating choices for routes to learning can allow students to get to their destination sooner and with less frustration. It also encourages learners to begin to think for themselves and check in on their own learning. This increase in choice by providing students with options for accessing curriculum and interacting with materials to improve learning for all students is the purpose of UDL. Students do not benefit from making the route harder than is necessary (see Cognitive Load), nor from making the destination easier, but from allowing them to choose their optimal path to reach or exceed your learning outcomes.

Here's how you might use UDL

Universal Design for Learning requires instructors to have a flexible approach to teaching, which offers students options. In order to address which activities or assignments allow for flexibility, review your learning outcomes and ask yourself:

  1. Do I offer a variety of materials or paths in order to learn content to achieve each outcome?
  2. Do I offer multiple means of representation and expression for each learning outcome?
  3. Do I engage my students in active learning and encourage them to see the value in content knowledge?

If the answer is no, instruction is not matching UDL guidelines.

To address this, first begin with a single learning outcome. For example, a Biology 101 course has a learning outcome of:

Learning outcome:

“Students will analyze and critique scientific studies.”

Note that this goal does not state that a student must complete a specific activity in order to succeed. However, atraditional class with a rigid structure would probably require students to attend class lectures, read specific texts, and then take a final exam at the end of the course to demonstrate their understanding.

Instead, analyze this learning outcome using the three components of UDL.

Blue icon showing the number 1.

The Affective Network

The “why” of learning in which there are multiple means of engagement.

This involves providing options for:

  • Recruiting interest
  • Sustaining effort and persistence
  • Self-regulation

As an instructor, a few examples for how to provide these principles are:

  • Share clear outcomes, goals, or objectives
  • Provide adequate resources and challenges
  • Foster a welcoming and collaborative community
  • Provide regular feedback
  • Provide opportunities for choice
  • Get to know students
  • Minimize threats and distractions
  No Choice Choice Instructor’s Role
Engagement All students must read studies about vaccinations.

Let students explore topics of interest and choose their own studies.

Discuss a variety of topics in class. Give examples. Encourage students to explore interests.
Blue icon showing the number 2.

The Recognition Network

The “what” of learning in which there are multiple means of representation.

This involves:

  • Background knowledge
  • Categorizing
  • Organizing
  • Learning new information
  • Identifying big ideas and relationships
  • Processing visuals and audio

As an instructor:

  • understand student differences
  • clarify vocabulary
  • scaffold new information
  • illustrate through multiple media
  • ensure accessibility options
  • offer alternative methods
  No Choice Choice Instructor’s Role
Representation All students must read 3 research based journal articles. Students can use a variety of methods to access 3 studies, including journal articles, websites, videos of conference proceedings, documentaries, etc. Guide students in research skills, and provide resources.
Blue icon showing the number 3.

The Strategic Network

The “how” of learning which involves multiple means of action and expression.

This involves:

  • expression
  • action
  • communication
  • planning
  • strategies
  • goal setting

As an instructor:

  • provide multiple means of expression
  • support development of executive functioning (goal setting, monitoring, reflection)
  • provide a variety of tools
  • give practice opportunities
  • support fluency of skills
  • Give opportunities to monitor performance
  • give choices
  • allow for multiple means of response
  • encourage assistive technologies when needed
  • model actions and behaviors
  • provide examples
  No Choice Choice Instructor’s Role
Expression All students complete an 8-10 page paper. Students can create a project of their choice including a video, podcast, brochure, paper, or presentation. Make expectations clear. Provide a guideline and rubric.

To be clear, students are not choosing their own learning outcomes, but instead how to reach these outcomes with guidance from the instructor.

It can be difficult to think of new types of activities or assessments. Explore the following links to help think through alternative options.