What Is Universal Design for Learning ?

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What Is Universal Design for Learning ?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) draws its inspiration from the broader concept of Universal Design (UD), initially pioneered in architecture. UD aims for inclusive access to architectural spaces for all users.

As Higbee and Goff (2008) suggest, UD emphasizes accommodating the needs of a diverse user base in the creation of spaces, products, or programs. Architectural examples embodying UD principles include features like curb cuts benefiting various users (e.g., individuals on skateboards or parents with strollers), as well as automatic doors, elevators, and lever-style door handles (Higbee & Goff, 2008).

These principles of Universal Design have transitioned into the educational sphere through various models, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL; Rose & Meyer, 2000), Universal Design for Instruction (UDI; Scott et al., 2003), and Universal Instructional Design (UID; Silver et al., 1998). According to Higbee and Goff (2008), these models are interrelated and complement each other.

Our focus in this post is on Universal Design for Learning, popularly known by the acronym UDL. My purpose behind this post is to introduce you to UDL, explain what it is and talk about the different ways you can use it in your classroom to enhance your teaching and boost students learning. To learn more about UDL, I encourage you to dig deeper into references at the bottom of the post.

What is Universal Design for Learning ?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a multifaceted framework that can be understood through various insightful definitions provided by different experts in the field. Each definition offers a unique perspective on UDL’s purpose, application, and impact in educational environments.

To start with, Courey et al. (2013) define UDL as “a set of principles and techniques for use in the classroom along with the design of accessible instructional materials.” This definition highlights UDL’s practical application, focusing on its role in shaping classroom practices and creating materials that are accessible to a diverse range of learners. It underscores the importance of UDL in addressing the individual needs and preferences of students, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to learn effectively.

Expanding on this, Evans et al. (2010) describe UDL as “a framework that helps teachers match research-based instructional methods with students’ specific strengths and challenges” (p. 42). This perspective emphasizes the adaptability of UDL, highlighting its role in enabling educators to tailor their teaching strategies to the unique learning profiles of their students. UDL, in this context, becomes a tool for personalizing education, ensuring that teaching methods are not only grounded in solid research but are also responsive to individual student needs.

Gargiulo, R. M., & Metcalf, D. J. (2023) provide a broader view of UDL, defining it as “an instructional framework, a vehicle for diversifying instruction in order to deliver the general education curriculum to each pupil” (p. 11). They stress that UDL is about removing barriers to access rather than reducing academic challenges, emphasizing its role in promoting flexible, equitable, and accessible teaching methods. This perspective paints UDL as a means to democratize education, ensuring equitable access to learning for all students, including those with disabilities.

Further elaborating on the flexibility and opportunities UDL offers, Evans (2010) notes that it provides “flexibility and opportunity for teachers and students by incorporating collaborative partnerships, technology tools, and differentiated instruction” (p. 42). This definition brings to light the dynamic nature of UDL, illustrating how it fosters a collaborative learning environment enriched with technology and varied instructional methods. It’s an approach that benefits both teachers and students, catering to diverse learning styles and enhancing the overall educational experience.

Lastly, the term ‘universal’ in Universal Design for Learning does not “imply that ‘one size fits all’”, as Higbee and Goff (2008, p. 1) state; it rather signifies the framework’s commitment to universal access. This concept is crucial as it delineates UDL’s focus on inclusivity and accessibility, ensuring that education is tailored to meet the diverse needs of all learners, rather than adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

As Evans et al. (2010) explain, the UDL framework is deeply intertwined with our understanding of brain functionality, recognizing the importance of three primary networks: recognition, affect, and strategic. These networks are essential for processing, integrating, and applying information, and each aligns with a key component of UDL: diverse methods of representation, varied means of engagement, and multiple ways of expression. This alignment underscores UDL’s comprehensive approach to creating adaptable and inclusive learning environments.

Principles of UDL

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, as developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST; Rose & Meyer, 2000), is centered around three core principles: Representation, Engagement, and Action and Expression. Evans et al (2010) noted that each of these principles is aligned with a particulalr brain functionality or network. different brain networks.

Drawing on insights from CAST and Evans et al. research, the following is a quick overview of each of the UDL principles:

  1. Multiple Means of Representation (Recognition Network)
    This principle is associated with the brain’s recognition network and focuses on the “what” of learning. It emphasizes the importance of presenting information in various formats to accommodate different learning styles and preferences. Teachers leverage this principle by integrating key facts, ideas, and concepts into their teaching and aligning them with students’ prior knowledge and experiences. The goal is to present content in ways that resonate with each student’s strengths, thereby enhancing their connection with new information.
  2. Multiple Means of Engagement (Affect Network)
    The second principle, which relates to the “why” of learning, involves the brain’s affect network. This aspect of UDL addresses student motivation and interest, aiming to make learning experiences more relevant and engaging. Teachers engage students by linking lessons to real-life scenarios, sparking their interests, and encouraging social interaction and collaboration. This principle also considers individual social preferences and emotional connections to the learning material, recognizing the importance of emotional engagement in the learning process.
  3. Multiple Means of Expression (Strategic Network)
    The third component focuses on the “how” of learning, involving the brain’s strategic network. This principle acknowledges the diversity in how students process information and express what they have learned. It advocates for offering various ways for students to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of a subject. This approach allows for a range of expression methods, catering to different abilities and preferences, and provides students with choices in how they communicate their learning, thereby fostering a more inclusive learning environment.

The integration of UDL principles into educational practice requires a proactive approach. As Gargiulo and Metcalf (2023, p. 11) emphasize, these UDL principles should be “built into instructional design rather than added on later as an afterthought.” This proactive integration ensures that educational content and methods are inherently inclusive and effective from the outset, addressing the diverse needs of all learners in a holistic and thoughtful manner.

Key Benefits of Universal Design for Learning

Here are some of the key benefits of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) I synthesized from the various sources cited in this post:

  • Facilitates Inclusive Education: UDL ensures that learning environments cater to the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, thereby promoting inclusivity.
  • Addresses Diverse Learning Styles: By providing multiple means of representation, UDL accommodates different learning styles, helping students to better understand and engage with the content.
  • Enhances Student Engagement: UDL’s emphasis on diverse means of engagement keeps students motivated and interested in the learning process.
  • Improves Accessibility: Through varied teaching methods and materials, UDL makes education more accessible to students with varying abilities and backgrounds.
  • Supports Personalized Learning: UDL allows for personalized instruction that meets individual student needs, enhancing learning outcomes.
  • Encourages Flexible Teaching Approaches: It prompts educators to think creatively about how they teach, encouraging innovative and adaptive teaching strategies.
  • Promotes Higher Order Thinking Skills: By offering multiple means of expression, UDL encourages students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways, fostering critical thinking and creativity.
  • Builds a Collaborative Learning Environment: UDL’s principles foster collaboration and peer learning, enhancing the social aspect of education.
  • Reduces Barriers to Learning: UDL proactively identifies and minimizes barriers within the education system, making learning more accessible and effective for everyone.
  • Prepares Students for Real-World Challenges: By linking learning to real-life scenarios, UDL prepares students for practical, real-world challenges, enhancing their readiness for life beyond school.
  • Enhances Teacher Effectiveness: UDL equips teachers with a toolkit to meet diverse learning needs, making their teaching more effective and responsive.
  • Supports Educational Equity: UDL contributes to educational equity by ensuring that all students, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds, have equal opportunities to learn and succeed.

How to Integrate UDL in Teaching?

UDL is being used in various content areas including lesson planning (Courey et al, 2013; Van Laarhoven et al., 2007), mathematics (Kortering, McClannon, & Braziel, 2008), science (Dymond et al.,2006; Kurtts, Matthews, & Smallwood, 2009), and reading (Meo, 2008).

The key to an effective implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the classroom involves incorporating strategies that address its three core principles: multiple means of representation, engagement, and action and expression.

Here are some practical examples for each principle:

1. Multiple Means of Representation

  • Use of Diverse Teaching Materials: Incorporate a mix of texts, videos, diagrams, and audio recordings to present information. This variety caters to different learning styles, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners.
  • Interactive Learning Tools: Utilize interactive whiteboards, online simulations, or educational apps to make abstract concepts more tangible and engaging.
  • Customized Reading Materials: Provide reading materials at varying levels of difficulty or complexity to suit different reading abilities. Offer options like audiobooks or e-books with adjustable text size and background color for accessibility.

2. Multiple Means of Engagement

  • Real-World Connections: Link lessons to real-world scenarios or current events to make learning more relevant and engaging. For instance, use a local environmental issue to teach about ecosystems in science class.
  • Choice-Based Assignments: Allow students to choose from a range of assignment topics or formats, enabling them to engage with content that interests them or in a manner they find most compelling.
  • Collaborative Learning: Organize group activities or projects that encourage peer interaction and teamwork. This approach can cater to social learners and foster a sense of community in the classroom.

3. Multiple Means of Expression

  • Varied Assessment Methods: Instead of relying solely on traditional tests, offer alternative assessment methods like presentations, portfolios, or creative projects. This allows students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that align with their strengths and preferences.
  • Technology Integration: Use technology tools such as blogging, digital storytelling, or video creation for students to express their learning. These tools can be particularly engaging for tech-savvy students.
  • Flexible Response Formats: Allow students to respond to questions or assignments in various formats, such as orally, in writing, or through art. This flexibility accommodates different expressive abilities and reduces barriers to demonstrating understanding.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) represents a significant shift in educational practices, focusing on inclusivity and personalized learning experiences. The main strength of UDL principles is that they allow us educators and teachers to create a learning environment that is adaptable, engaging, and supportive for every student.

This approach both benefits students with diverse learning styles and abilities and enriches the teaching experience, allowing educators to explore a range of innovative instructional strategies. Indeed, the real-world application of UDL principles prepares students for the challenges beyond the classroom, equipping them with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate an increasingly diverse and complex world.


  • About Universal Design for Learning, CAST, accessed through https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl
  • Courey, S. J., Tappe, P., Siker, J., & LePage, P. (2013). Improved lesson planning with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Teacher Education and Special Education, 36(1), 7–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888406412446178
  • Dymond, S. K., Renzaglia, A., Rosenstein, A., Chun, E. J., Banks,R., Niswander, V., & Gilson, C. L. (2006). Using a participatory action research approach to create a universally designed inclusive high school science course: A case study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31, 293-308. https://doi.org/10.1177/154079690603100403
  • Evans, C., Williams, J. B., King, L., & Metcalf, D. (2010). Modeling, Guided Instruction, and Application of UDL in a Rural Special Education Teacher Preparation Program. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 29(4), 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/875687051002900409
  • Gargiulo, R. M., & Metcalf, D. J. (2023). Teaching in today’s inclusive classrooms : A universal design for learning approach (4th edition.). Cengage.
  • Higbee, J.L., & Goff, E. (Eds.). (2008). Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing universal design in higher education. Minneapolis. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED503835.pdf
  • Kortering, L., McCLannon, T., & Braziel, P. (2008). Universal design for learning: A look at what algebra and biology students with and without high incidence conditions are saying. Remedial & Special Education, 29(6),352-363.
  • Kurtts, S., Matthews, C., & Smallwood, T. (2009). (Dis)Solving the differences: A physical science lesson using universal design. Intervention in School & Clinic, 44(3), 151-159. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451208326051
  • Meo, G. (2008). Curriculum planning for all learners: Applying universal design for learning (UDL) to a high school reading comprehension program. Preventing School Failure, 52(2), 21-30. https://doi.org/10.3200/PSFL.52.2.21-30
  • Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2000). Universal Design for Learning. Journal of Special
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    , 15 (1), 67-70.
  • Scott, S. S., McGuire, J. M., & Shaw, S. F. (2003). Universal Design for Instruction: A new paradigm for adult instruction in postsecondary education. Remedial and Special Education, 24(6), 369-379.
  • Scott, L., Bruno, L., Gokita., T., & Thoma, C. A. (2022). Teacher candidates’ abilities to develop universal design for learning and universal design for transition lesson plans. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 26(4), 333-347, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2019.1651910
  • Silver, P., Bourke, A., & Strehorn, K. C. (1998). Universal Instructional Design in higher education: An approach for inclusion. Equity and Excellence in Education, 31(2), 47-51.
  • Van Laarhoven, T. R., Munk, D. D., Lynch, K., Bosma, J., & Rouse,J. (2007). A model for preparing special and general education preservice teachers for inclusive education. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 440-455.

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