As educators across the globe strive to improve educational outcomes for all learners, Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, has received a renewed focus. Introduced in the 1980s by Dr. David Rose and Dr. Ann Meyer through the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, UDL is a proactive framework to help educators make learning accessible for all students. The framework guides the design of instructional goals, materials, methods, and assessments to optimize teaching and learning and reduces barriers for all students, especially those from diverse backgrounds and those with disabilities or support needs.1 To learn how UDL can benefit students (and educators), we spoke with Susan Bruckner, an EDC senior international technical advisor.
What elements comprise UDL, and what are they based on?
The core principles of UDL are rooted in neuroscience and the interaction between the three networks in our brain associated with learning: affect, recognition, and strategy. For meaningful learning to take place, students need to (1) be engaged in ways that are relevant to them (affect), (2) access and make sense of the information being transferred (recognition), and (3) act upon and demonstrate understanding of the content being taught (strategy). UDL also recognizes that variability is inherent in every learning environment,2 from pre-kindergarten through higher education and adult learning and across high-, middle-, and low-income countries. UDL’s three core principles3 thus guide educators to design flexible learning experiences that reach the needs of the broadest range of students.
- Principle 1: Provide multiple means of engagement or the “why” of learning, which is what motivates us and connects us to the learning.
- Principle 2: Ensure multiple means of representation or the “what” of learning, which relates to the information we take in through our senses and how we make meaning from it.
- Principle 3: Allow multiple means of action and expression or the “how” of learning, which relates to how we organize ideas, plan and carry out tasks, and demonstrate what we know and have learned.
What are some examples of Universal Design for Learning, and what are “flexible learning experiences”?
First, let’s start with some examples of Universal Design, another foundation of UDL:
- From architecture, a ramp for a building is a good example. While steps into a building may provide access for many users, they also create a barrier for individuals with mobility challenges. However, a ramp creates greater access not only for those who might use a wheelchair, but also for people managing strollers or navigating heavy or bulky loads. The ramp is a more accessible and inclusive pathway.
- An example of product design is the adjustable car seat. Manufacturers can’t possibly design individualized seats for every car sold, but they can design a seat that provides the flexibility to adjust higher/lower, forward/backward, or upright/reclining to meet the needs of a broad range of users.
- And one of my favorite examples is a GPS system. It allows users to choose how they want to access directions—verbally, through text, and/or graphically through a map.4
In education settings, we find UDL at work when a teacher presents a new vocabulary word through different channels, such as introducing a word by its definition or through concept mapping (characteristics or synonyms of the word), by providing a visual representation, or by sharing real-world applications. Multiple representations aid application and retention.
Another classroom example is providing options for a writing assignment. If the goal of the lesson is understanding the elements of persuasive writing, an assignment that draws upon engagement might allow students to choose their own topics from a provided list of topics. For students who struggle with writing, options for action and expression may include giving students longer writing time, providing writing templates, or allowing them to dictate their story into a tape recorder. With these options, the elements of persuasive writing remain the focus of the assignment, but the physical aspects of writing are no longer barriers to learning.
If we walked into a classroom where the teacher is implementing UDL, what would we see?
That’s a great question. While there are principles and guidelines that inform UDL practice, each classroom is unique. Therefore, implementation will differ according to the teacher’s expertise and their experience with the framework and the students’ unique backgrounds, strengths, and needs. We would, however, expect to see teachers working to create learning environments with these common features:
- Students are motivated and meaningfully engaged in relevant, student-centered activities.
- Students are purposeful and goal-directed in their learning.
- Students are resourceful in seeking knowledge and persistent in working through challenging tasks.
- Materials reflect positive and equitable representations of diverse populations.
- Resources consider the diverse learning needs of students.
- Students are engaged appropriately in whole class, small group, one-on-one, and independent learning.
Are there any common misconceptions about UDL?
As UDL becomes more widely implemented, some misconceptions are being dispelled, but here are some examples I’ve heard:
- UDL is mainly for supporting students with disabilities or UDL will address the needs of all students: While UDL is a framework educators can use with all students to reduce barriers, including for those with disabilities, some students will require further assistance to meet their individual learning needs.
- UDL works like a checklist: While the CAST guidelines support implementation, they are not checklists to be ticked off when developing a lesson—they are a tool for guiding design and implementation.
- UDL can be mastered through one workshop or training: Understanding and applying UDL is an ongoing process. There are certainly small doable actions educators can do right away that incorporate the principles to enhance teaching and learning. However, comprehensive and dynamic implementation takes time, reflective practice, peer-to-peer collaboration, and continuous professional development.
What resources would you recommend for learning more about UDL?
There are a lot of great resources, but I suggest starting with these:
- About Universal Design for Learning: https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl.
- The UDL Approach: https://theudlapproach.com/
- UDL Implementation and Research Network: https://udl-irn.org/
- The Center for Universal Design in Education: https://www.washington.edu/doit/programs/center-universal-design-education/overview
|Susan Bruckner, senior international technical advisor, provides technical/management support to EDC basic education and youth/workforce development projects. She focuses on early grade reading, teacher professional development, community engagement, inclusion, and social and emotional learning.|
|Nora Nunn, international technical associate, is an instructional designer and writer who supports both EDC's international and U.S. divisions. Her work draws on over 14 years of experience in curriculum design, human rights advocacy, and international education. |
1 CAST. (2023). Until learning has no limits.® https://www.cast.org/
3CAST. (2023). Until learning has no limits.® https://www.cast.org/
4TEDx Talks. (1914). The myth of average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4; Ross School. (2013). Todd Rose: Myth of the average - variability matters. Ross Institute Summer Academy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVbFGjpfMUg