Universal Design Learning: A Primer

Photo of a sign that says "you belong".By: Kristen Mosley

Universal Design (UD) aims to account for the many identities and characteristics that an environment may contain. When considered in the context of education, Universal Design Learning (UDL) has been uniquely adapted to learning-focused contexts and proliferated alongside the zeitgeist of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement.1 Today’s post introduces the key principles of UDL. Our goal is to preview how this framework and philosophy can be used in higher education as a tool for reaching all corners of the classroom and taking into consideration the many differences—not deficits—of today’s diverse population of learners.2

Three principles guide the UDL framework:

  1. instructors can engage students in the knowledge-making process in multiple ways, 
  2. knowledge can be represented in multiple ways, and
  3. students can demonstrate their learned knowledge in multiple ways.

As can be heard across all three guiding principles—UDL’s philosophy works in contrast to a one-size-fits-all, wash-rinse-repeat curricular planning perspective. Instead, UDL strives to acknowledge the increasingly diverse group of learners in today’s classrooms by cultivating student-focused instructional planning and decision-making. Put differently, UDL instructors consider the wide-range of possible learners in their classrooms and prepare accordingly for their diverse needs long before they know their enrollments.1

UDL Principle One: Provide multiple means of Engagement

This principle of UDL focuses on the “Why” of learning. With the goal of developing learners who are purposeful and motivated to learn, this principle instructs the curriculum designer to consider the many ways in which a course can recruit interest, sustain effort and persistence, and promote learner self-regulation. For example, an instructor may plan with this principle in mind by incorporating student choice and autonomy in assignments, maximizing relevance of course content, making course goals explicit and salient, offering opportunities for student collaboration, and fostering a learning environment grounded in high expectations matched with high beliefs in all students’ potential. In these ways, the instructor is building in course elements designed with all possible interests and needs in mind.

UDL Principle Two: Provide multiple means of Representation

The second UDL principle capitalizes on the “What” of learning. This principle’s aim is to develop instructional environments that facilitate students’ development as resourceful and knowledgeable learners. With the ever-expanding opportunities in which students engage during and after their undergraduate years, the goal of this principle is to support the development of learning skills that can support learners beyond the bounds of formal education. When planning for the “What” of learning, consider how physical disabilities may impact how a student perceives content, how different language backgrounds and confidence levels may impact how a student perceives the languages and symbols used to describe your content, and strategically plan for multiple entry points to comprehending new material that capitalize on the variety of background knowledge and skills that students bring to your course’s topic(s).

UDL Principle Three: Provide multiple means of Action and Expression

The final principle of UDL focuses on the “How” of learning. Having thoughtfully planned multiple ways of creating engagement in course content (principle 1) and multiple ways of representing course content to address a variety of student backgrounds and needs (principle 2), the final UDL step is to offer students multiple ways to show their learning. When contemplating the third UDL principle, instructors are focused on developing strategic and goal-directed students and accounting for different ways students may best demonstrate their knowledge. That is, UDL instructors balance offering multiple options for students to demonstrate learning while also clearly tying each choice to an end-goal with which students can strategically work towards. Instructors should consider how multiple options may be needed for students engaging in physically representing their knowledge, verbally expressing their learning, and/or strategically executing their plans. While seemingly straightforward, UDL cues instructors to consider how even the most tried-and-true of academic tasks (e.g., writing a paper; filling in an exam answer bubble; conducting a live presentation) may not be best suited for all learners.3

In this primer on UDL, we focused on the three principles guiding the incorporation of UDL into any learning context. In our next post, we’ll dive into what evidence exists for its use in higher education, as well as how UDL has more recently been understood and applied in line with equity-driven instructional advancements.

1. Burgstahler, S. (2020). Universal design for learning. In M. David, & M. Amey (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of higher education (Vol. 1, pp. 1621-1622). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781529714395.n609

2. Silver, P., Bourke, A., & Strehorn, K.C. (1998). Universal instructional design in higher education: An approach for inclusion. Equity Excel. Educ., 31, 47–51.

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