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Universal Design for Learning

What are the principles and guidelines behind Universal Design for Learning?

Universal access icon: a stick figure with a circle surrounding them.
Image created by Cam Coulter. Icon by mikicon on the Noun Project.


When we talk about universal design, you might think about universal design of physical spaces and objects, but you can also apply universal design to information and communication technologies (ICT), as we looked at recently (“Principles of Web Accessibility”). In this post, we are going to look at how you can apply universal design to learning.

CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, created the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. According to CAST’s website, UDL is “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” CAST has a section on their website titled The UDL Guidelines which explains UDL and breaks down the framework into principles, guidelines, and checkpoints. CAST has also created a beautiful graphic organizer to help make sense of the framework. I highly recommend you visit their website and check it out.

UDL is a framework that you can use to help create curriculum that works for all learners from the start, without the need for specialized accommodations or modifications. In that way, UDL can help you achieve the first principle of universal design: Equitable Use. With UDL, you can create one curriculum or lesson plan that works for a diverse array of learners, rather than segregate learners with different abilities into different classes.

Principle: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Use a variety of tactics to motivate a learner and capture their interest and attention, to help them answer the question: why should I learn this?

This principle breaks down into three guidelines, and each guideline breakds down into checkpoints. Below, I will state the guidelines, and then explain them in my own words. I think the guidelines and checkpoints make sense once you understand the framework, but to me the guidelines and checkpoints felt too vague when I first read them over. Here’s how I understand this principle:

  1. Provide options for recruiting interest. (Get them interested.)
    • Give learners choice. Allow them to exercise autonomy.
    • Help learners see the value in and relevance of what they are learning.
    • Reduce threats and distractions that block engagement.
  2. Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence. (Keep them interested.)
    • Reiterate and reflect on learning goals and objectives.
    • Use different types of learning activities and assessments. (Don’t always do the same thing.)
    • Support good communication and collaboration.
    • Provide genuinely helpful feedback, often.
  3. Provide options for self-regulation. (Help them stay motivated, and help them know that they can do this.)
    • Learners should believe their goals are realistic and achievable.
    • Use tools like rubrics, checklists, and study guides to strengthen coping skills and strategies and to help the course feel manageable.
    • Use tools like self-assessments and reflections so that learners can see their progress.

Principle: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Present information in a variety of mediums, so that learners are able to access the underlying content no matter their dis/abilities, so that all learners are able to answer the question: what am I learning?

  1. Provide options for perception. (Use visual, auditory, and tactile formats.)
    • Make sure all learners can access the content: provide visual, auditory, and tactile formats.
    • Remember, digital text can count as a tactile format, because people who know braille can access digital text through screen readers and refreshable braille displays.
    • Digital text is also great because readers can adjust the text size and color contrast (or, my favorite, read on e-ink screens).
    • Where possible, go beyond just using digital text. Help learners by providing photos, videos, audiobooks, tactile graphics, and manipulatives.
    • Make sure auditory information is accessible to learners who are deaf or hard of hearing: provide captions, transcriptions, and descriptions of music and sounds.
  2. Provide options for language and symbols. (Provide materials in learners’ native languages, and help learners understand symbols, notations, syntax, and structures they might be unfamiliar with.)
    • If learners aren’t proficient in the classroom’s primary language, provide additional materials in their native languages.
    • Give learners context to learn new and complex things: explain vocabulary, jargon, symbols, notation, and complicated syntax and structures.
  3. Provide options for comprehension. (Give learners context, and help them take away the main ideas.)
    • Supply background knowledge and context. Explain prerequisites and help learners associate new topics with their existing knowledge.
    • Help learners differentiate critical points from secondary ideas. Focus on big ideas and important patterns and relationships. If something is nice to know but less important, let the learner know — don’t throw everything at the learner as if it has equal importance.
    • Similarly, don’t overwhelm the learner by throwing everything at them at once. Break things down into digestible pieces. Use scaffolding, progressive guidance, and step-by-step procedures.

Principle: Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Not everyone is good at taking tests or writing essays. Just because someone failed your test doesn’t mean they don’t understand the content. Use a variety of different learning activities and provide different sorts of formative and summative assessments. Imagine your learner is asking “How can I demonstrate that I know this or can do this?” Give them many different options and ways to show you that they know it or can do it.

  1. Provide options for physical action. (Do more than just look at computer screens or paper all the time.)
    • Try different learning activities or games or project-based learning.
    • Support assistive technology and other tools that learners rely on and are used to using when you plan learning activities and assessments.
  2. Provide options for expression and communication. (Be open to trying out creative learning activities and tools and accepting different types of assessments beyond tests and essays.)
    • Don’t just stick to repetitive textbook exercises, tests, and essays.
    • Offer other sorts of learning activities and assessments, such as speeches, presentations, videos, or art projects.
    • Introduce learners to new and interesting tools, such as graph paper, graphing calculators, virtual or concrete manipulatives, outlining tools, concept mapping software, computer-aided design (CAD), music notation software, math notation software, and other helpful apps.
    • Use scaffolds and aids to support learners throughout the process of learning and performing.
  3. Provide options for executive functions. (Allow learners to demonstrate knowledge and skills at a high-level, in practical and applied ways, rather than in artificial low-level ways.)
    • Support learners to set (and then plan for) their own goals.
    • Help learners save and manage relevant information and resources.
    • Provide ongoing support, monitoring, and feedback.