Universal Design Learning: Evidence for its Use in Higher Education

By: Kristen Mosley

Our prior piece on Universal Design Learning, reviewed the three underlying principles of this type of instructional planning:

  1. Provide multiple means of Engagement,
  2. Provide multiple means of Representation, and
  3. Provide multiple means of Action and Expression.

As an important reminder, one hallmark of UDL is its proactive nature. UDL aims to plan for all possible types of learners before they enter the classroom, as opposed to incorporating accommodations for diverse learner needs retrospectively. The incorporation of UDL into your instructional planning is therefore a surefire way of thinking of the students first and the curriculum second. Today’s post dives into UDL’s use in higher education settings and provides evidence for how it can support your own classroom’s instruction.

A recent review of 18 studies aimed to provide empirical evidence on the effects of UDL in K-16 education settings.1 Six of the studies were conducted in higher education and are the focus of this post. Of the six studies that examined the effects of using UDL in higher education settings, four included students in undergraduate and graduate teacher training courses. The remaining two studies were conducted with first-year nursing students and students in an introductory psychology course. Both quantitative and qualitative methodologies undergirded the studies, revealing a variety of outcomes.

UDL in Teacher Preparation Settings

The first two studies conducted with pre-service teachers examined how receiving training grounded in UDL impacted teachers’ ability to incorporate its key elements in their own lesson planning. These two studies examined how the use of UDL in teacher training classrooms supported pre-service teachers in their own ability to apply UDL to their lesson planning. In the first study, findings revealed that the pre-service teachers who were taught via UDL went on to develop lesson plans that were more inclusive and provided significantly more opportunities for their own students to provide multiple opportunities to engage in, represent, and demonstrate their learning (effect sizes = .58-.65).2 In the second study, pre-service teachers demonstrated significant growth in their ability to incorporate multiple ways for students to represent knowledge in their lesson plans (ES = .91).3

The remaining two studies examined how teachers were personally impacted by receiving UDL-based instruction from their university professors. The first study included pre-service social studies teachers and found that the teachers who participated in coursework grounded in UDL demonstrated greater motivation about teaching (ES = .17).4 The second study was conducted in an online setting in which both undergraduate and graduate pre-service teachers were participating in UDL-based synchronous, online learning. This study concluded that the teachers who participated in this course demonstrated greater confidence in their own learning (ES = .40), greater confidence in their own ability to teach online (ES = .50), and a stronger sense of self-efficacy (ES = .31).5

UDL in Non-Teacher Preparation Settings

Regarding the studies that were conducted in higher education spaces that were not with pre-service teachers, one examined the effects of UDL instruction on nursing students and the other on students enrolled in an introductory psychology course. The first study was qualitative in nature and revealed that first-year nursing students who engaged in a course with UDL instruction demonstrated increased confidence and improved relationships with their instructor.6 In the second study with students in a psychology course, the study’s methodology was quantitative and experimental. In the experimental condition, the course incorporated the second principle of UDL (Provide multiple means of Representation); the comparison condition did not incorporate this element of UDL. When comparing outcomes between the two conditions, findings revealed that students who received instruction that included even just one element of UDL demonstrated improved access to knowledge (ES = .10) and greater engagement in the course (ES = .15).7

This review of studies examining the effects of UDL in higher education settings is limited by the small number of studies in higher education (n = 6). However, findings still reveal how the use of UDL in post-secondary settings can support students’ abilities to strengthen their own instructional design processes, engagement and self-efficacy as students, and relationships with their university instructors. When planning for your course(s) next semester, consider how you can design with the students and their varied needs top of mind, and what impact this may have on their in-the-moment learning as well as their longer-term development as lifelong learners.

1. Capp, M. J. (2017) The effectiveness of universal design for learning: a meta-analysis of literature between 2013 and 2016, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 21:8, 791-807, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2017.1325074

2. Tzivinikou, S. (2014). Universal Design for Learning – Application in Higher Education: A Greek Paradigm. Problems of Education in the 21st Century 60, 156–166.

3. Navarro, S. B., Zeveras P., Gesa R. F., & Sampson D. G. (2016). Developing Teachers’ Competencies for Designing Inclusive Learning Experiences. Educational Technology & Society 19:1, 17–27.

4. Halat, E. & Karakus, F. (2014). Integration of WebQuest in a Social Studies Course and Motivation of Pre-service Teachers. The Georgia Social Studies Journal 4:1, 20–31.

5. He, Y. (2014). Universal Design for Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Enhancing Learners’ Confidence to Teach Online. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10:2, 283–297.

6. Kumar, K. L. & Wideman, M. (2014). Accessible by Design: Applying UDL Principles in a First Year Undergraduate Course. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 44:1, 125–147.

7. Davies, P. L., Schelly C. L., & Spooner, C. L. (2013). Measuring the Effectiveness of Universal Design for Learning Intervention on Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 26:3, 195–220.