Universal Design for Learning

Esther Michela

Three boys looking through a chain-link fence

Learning Objectives

TIP: If you are already familiar with principles of UDL, check out some of the supplementary videos for more information and review, and explore some of the resources at the end of the chapter.


Mr. Hunter teaches 8th grade social studies in a large urban school district. While each of his classes has a unique makeup, through the course of his day he sees students from eight different countries, speaking 4 different languages. All of his students come from rich cultural backgrounds. He teaches students identified as having a disability, some who are gifted, and some who are both. He teaches students who are not identified as having a disability, but who read below grade level or struggle to pay attention. Some read above grade level, some are often bored with school. Some days, Mr. Hunter feels dizzy at the thought of what it will take to meet the needs of all his students.  It just seems easier to focus on the curriculum and just present the required content.

Mr. Hunter isn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed with the increasing focus on individualization. As the diversity of students and their needs become more apparent, teachers need ways to calmly and confidently approach their lesson planning in a way that rejects the one-size-fits all attitude and puts the students and their needs first, but also does not mean creating 30 individual plans.

Universal Design in Architecture

Universal Design (UD) was originally coined by Ron Mace at North Carolina State University as an architectural approach to building structures that includes accessibility features in the original designs. Common features such as stairs, swinging doors, button height, and visual signage can create barriers to access for a wide range of people, but especially those with disabilities. For this reason, architects began to design buildings that took into consideration a wide range of needs, such as providing a way for people who had difficulty walking up stairs as an alternate way of getting to the second floor. In reality, there are many considerations, from flooring and lighting to the width of a bathroom stall, that must be taken into account to provide universal access. By incorporating features in the original design such as ramps instead of stairs and automatic doors instead of buttons, people with and without disabilities may have equal access to aesthetically pleasing structures.

Here's a short, universally designed video that illustrates physical barriers that might exist and how UD takes them into consideration. (about 7 min) 

Watch on YouTube http://edtechbooks.org/-pv

Learning Check

Large staircase in a museum

Consider this beautiful staircase in the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, Germany. Who else might struggle to use these stairs?

  1. Those with heart conditions
  2. Those who use wheelchairs 
  3. Those who use walkers
  4. Those with a broken leg
  5. Those pushing strollers
  6. Small children
  7. Those making a large delivery

Universal Design for Learning

So what does this have to do with teaching and learning?

One thing we can take away from this is that there are unintentional barriers built into the world around us, including our educational system. These barriers can be physical, cognitive, or psychosocial, and they can be found in our schools, curricula, materials, and tools. Just like using a staircase presents a barrier for someone using a wheelchair, aspects of an educational curriculum can present barriers to students accessing necessary information. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) locates the problems of access to education with the design and presentation of educational products, rather than in the students, and is a way to think about planning classrooms and lessons in ways that don’t just fix barriers, but remove them. Take this example.

Three people of different heights standing in front of a fence. The tallest person is the only one who can see over.

Three people want to see what’s on the other side of the fence but two are faced with a barrier to the view. Only the tallest can meet the goal of seeing what’s there without some kind of accommodation. The shortest person has no chance, even if he jumps as high as he can. The person on the right might be able to see by standing on her tiptoes, but that is a tiring exercise.

Three people of different heights standing in front of a fence. The two shorter people are standing on top of boxes in order to see over the top of the fence.

Often, the solution in schools is to provide accommodations that fit the varying needs of students. Generally, students are provided with the equivalent of a “box” to stand on, such as having text read aloud to them or having a scribe to write for them, that will let them access the general education curriculum.

Three people of different heights standing in front of a chain link fence looking through at a building on the other side.

The aim of UDL, however, is to address the need for accommodations by designing lessons, curriculum, and materials that remove the barriers, symbolized by the chain link fence, which all of them can see through without needing any accommodations. This analogy only goes so far, as a fence still represents a physical barrier, but if the goal is only to see the other side, the fence allows each person an equitable opportunity to do so.

Here are a few examples that are commonly seen in schools. Textbooks can present barriers to accessing information for students with visual impairments or reading disabilities. Videos can present a barrier to students who cannot hear. Drawing a poster could present a barrier to students who have a physical disability or poor fine motor skills or just simply cannot draw well enough to express their ideas. Verbal presentations present barriers to students with social anxiety. The list could go on and on. The point is that many of the common pedagogical practices that teachers use will present a barrier to some students, and in those instances, teachers can either try to provide “boxes” for all of the students they know are struggling or replace the fence altogether with something more accessible.

Another approach is to try to teach to the middle or "average" student, hoping that it will cover enough of the students to be effective, but we must realize that there is no such thing as an average learner. Watch The Myth of the Average [http://edtechbooks.org/-ijr](18 min) for a longer explanation with examples relatable to education about designing cockpits for pilots during WWII, or watch The End of Average [http://edtechbooks.org/-Txr] (8 min) for a shorter explanation using examples from what was learned about individual brain patterns measured in functional MRI studies.

The Myth of Average

Watch on YouTube http://edtechbooks.org/-gY

The End of Average

Watch on YouTube http://edtechbooks.org/-UPQ

UDL foundation in neuro and cognitive science

Universal Design for Learning is, in part, informed by research on how the brain functions during learning. It’s important to say up front that this is a very complex and still unfolding area of research. We cannot give it sufficient attention in this chapter, but a 5-video series called Brain Matters [http://edtechbooks.org/-ErD] by Todd Rose is a good place to get a basic understanding. For our purposes, we need to know that learning is a complex process that takes place across three interconnected networks in the brain: the affective, recognition, and strategic networks (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Each network is made up of millions of neurons, and the process of learning any particular skill or information varies for every person based on their individual patterns of strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences within those networks, as well as prior experience, skills, and the learning strategies a student employs. 


4 yellow balls with sad, happy, angry or worried faces

The affective network primarily deals with emotional states. This is the “WHY” of learning (CAST, 2018). Emotions have a powerful effect in learning as they can affect readiness, engagement, motivation, meaning making, and memory. One way to visualize this is to think of the characters in the Disney movie Inside Out [http://edtechbooks.org/-SHb]. The emotion characters had a lot of control over the decisions that were made. Similarly, the emotional state of our students will influence their ability to learn on a given day. 

A few examples of affective variability: People differ in their interests, what excites or depresses them, what motivates them, how they react to social interactions, how they respond to feedback, what feels threatening or safe in a learning environment, how much they need predictable routine or appreciate novelty, or what their ability is to express or recognize emotion in others.


A man looking through binoculars in the outdoors

The recognition network allows students to receive and interpret incoming messages. This could be through reading, listening, hearing, tasting, or touching. This is the “WHAT” of learning (CAST, 2018). We commonly think of the "WHAT" as the content of the curriculum, the skills and knowledge that we want students to know and be able to do. These skills and knowledge are taught through a medium of some kind, through literature, lecture, archaeological artifacts, pictures, videos, math problems, science labs, a recipe, or a game of baseball. 

A few examples of recognition variability: People differ greatly in how they process sensory information. Some examples include levels of sightedness, color blindness, light and sound sensitivity, ability to recognize and interpret symbols such as letters, characters, or mathematic operations, levels of hearing, speed of processing auditory information, appreciation of music, tone deafness or perfect pitch, sensitivity to textures, smells, tastes, or an ability to interpret non-verbal social cues.


The strategic network is made up of the executive functions that allow people to plan, direct their attention, and be intentional about the way they approach a task. This is the “HOW” of learning  (CAST, 2018). The strategies employed in learning include any goal directed behavior, managing time, and monitoring progress toward that goal. As students vary greatly in their ability to be strategic in their learning, teachers need to build in supports to make learning goals salient.

A few examples of strategic variability: People vary in their abilities to think metacognitively, direct and maintain their attention, identify and follow through on goals, notice the passing of time, plan effective strategies for accomplishing a goal, and monitor their own progress or learning.

Getting Started with UDL

Because learner variability leads to an infinite possibility of learner profiles, we can see that there truly is no “average” learner. We need to fundamentally shift the goal of our planning away from those in the middle to planning for that variability by providing flexible, authentic options to students to accomplish learning goals. Universal Design for Learning provides a framework to help teachers do this.

To begin to incorporate UDL into your lesson planning, there are four critical elements to consider; (a) creating clear goals, (b) planning intentionally for learner variability, (c) using flexible methods and materials, and (d) monitoring progress in a timely manner.

1: Clear Goals

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author. CC-BY-ND 3.0

Setting goals for a lesson is one of the first steps in lesson planning. Connecting them to state content standards is common best practice, but making sure that they are clearly defined and separated from the means of assessment may require some explanation.

Consider this 5th grade social studies goal:

Students will fill out a Venn diagram to compare the cultural differences between the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies. (Utah State Standard 1, Objective 1, indicator e.)

As teachers, we need to be very clear about what exactly we want students to know or do after the lesson. The essential goal of the example lesson is for students to compare differences in the colonies, which can be illustrated in many different ways, through a poster, through a verbal explanation, through a powerpoint presentation, or an essay. Giving options for students to choose from is one way to eliminate barriers. This will be discussed more in section 3. What is salient for this principle is that goals must be focused on learning outcomes, without including a method, or means, of assessment. The primary problem with this goal as it’s written is that it defines the only way students can show that they have met the learning objective, by filling out a Venn diagram. This may create a barrier for some students, such as those with visual impairments who cannot see the paper or those with poor fine motor skills who may struggle to write sufficient information in a small space, or a student who has more to say than can fit in the provided space. The original goal could easily be modified to meet this standard by removing the mention of the Venn diagram.

Students will compare the cultural differences between the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies. (Utah State Standard 1, Objective 1, indicator e.)

Clearly stated goals, when shared with students, will help everyone focus their attention and efforts on the most important aspects of the lesson.

Learning Check

2: Intentional Planning for Learner Variability

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author. CC-BY-ND 3.0

As there is no truly average learner, we need to plan for the range of students strengths, interests, and needs. Some teachers with a wide range of student needs have taken this approach: by planning to address the needs of the students with the most difficult challenges, the rest of the students generally reap benefits as well.

Intentional planning for learner variability can take many forms. It may be useful to make a list or spreadsheet to collect information and observations about your students to help inform your planning sessions. Information about your students will not come to you all at once. It requires conscious observation and record keeping to build usable knowledge for your planning.

Examples of Potential Barriers
Presentations and materials fail to provide sufficient examples for critical concepts. Students are expected to understand the presented concepts through reading and lecture. Book content and teacher-selected tools are expected to be of interest to all.
Lecture may be hard to extract key points from and take notes for. One end-of-unit test and one project are used as the only means of giving feedback to students. Lesson activities have a limited range of difficulty level that makes learning too easy or too hard.
Print materials may be difficult to see, decode, or comprehend. A multiple-choice test may not be effective for some students to demonstrate understanding. Feedback and rewards are selected in advance and are identical for all learners.
Content presentation and activities assume same basic background knowledge. Social demands of class or activity may be too stimulating. Individual effort and competition is the norm for all learning activities.


Commonly Used Tools and Strategies for Diverse Learners
English Language Learners Dictionaries and electronic dictionaries, translation programs, text to speech, speech to text, digital texts, closed captioning, collaboration with native speakers and bilingual students. Explicitly teach vocabulary and grammar. Activate and build on background knowledge. Tend to emotional needs. Allow alternative methods for assessment.
Twice Exceptional Students Build on their strengths while minimizing barriers through no, low, and high tech tools. Vary grouping: sometimes group with those with similar strengths who can push learning. Teach organizational skills. Tend to emotional needs. Allow alternative methods for assessment.
Students with disabilities Multi-modality materials, dictionaries and electronic dictionaries, text to speech, speech to text, closed captioning for videos. Explicit vocabulary instruction. Activate background knowledge. Teach organizational skills. Allow alternative methods for assessment. 
Gifted Offer options to extend learning, like learning new tools, exploring their own interests to apply the concepts, support other students. Allow alternative methods for assessment. Teach to student interests. Introduce more challenging content first. Allow them to test out of content they know.

Learning Check

3: Flexible Methods and Materials

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author. CC-BY-ND 3.0

Consider that one of your broad, overarching goals as a teacher is to help students grow into expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.  The guidelines and checkpoints below provide guidance on how to accomplish this by providing flexible options to students. To put it succinctly, the three networks in the brain referenced earlier can be tapped into by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression. Providing students with multiple means, or pathways, to engage with content, access the information in a way that is digestible, and then show their learning gives students autonomy and allows them to become independent and self-directed learners.

David Rose, one of the fathers of UDL, briefly introduces the guidelines and explains the intentions behind the organizational structure. Notice that the guidelines have been slightly reorganized since this video to reflect his explanation of the purpose of the guidelines.

Watch on YouTube http://edtechbooks.org/-hnz

UDL Guidelines

UDL 3 guidelines in columnsFor more details about what the guidelines mean visit http://udlguidelines.cast.org/. There, each checkpoint is explained and examples are provided in greater detail. This is one of the most helpful resources to reference when seeking to apply UDL principles in your class.

Multiple Means of Engagement

The affective network correlates with learner engagement. The guidelines have been rearranged to put engagement first, partly because getting learners to actively engage with the material is an essential step in the learning process. We can differentiate engagement between psychological and behavioral engagement. Psychological engagement refers to how students employ cognitive processes during learning, such as paying attention, mentally organizing or analyzing information. Behavioral engagement refers to the physical actions a student uses to interact with the learning material, such as drawing, writing, reading, studying, or watching (Clark and Mayer, 2016). It is possible for students to be behaviorally engaged with a learning task without being psychologically engaged in thinking about it, so our goal as teachers is to support the internal, cognitive engagement.

Recruiting interest, or providing a “hook” to a lesson, is often an early consideration in lesson planning, though engagement must go beyond the hook. Once students are interested, how do we help them sustain their engagement and become self-regulated learners? The bulleted checkpoints provide specific recommendations on how to accomplish this. Important considerations for engagement include providing learners choice and autonomy in authentic and relevant situations.

Video on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Watch on YouTube http://edtechbooks.org/-aS

Multiple Means of Representation

The recognition network correlates to the representation of information. Content can be represented in many ways, visually through text, images, and videos; auditorily through recordings, lectures, and conversation, and through physical objects. Using only one method of presenting material can create a barrier for students. Providing multiple means of representation removes barriers to perception, language and symbols, and comprehension.

An example of this might be using closed captions when watching a video to help the student who has difficulty hearing, the student who has a hard time processing auditory information, and to support students who speak English as a second language. Providing access to digital dictionaries will allow students to look up unfamiliar vocabulary terms. Language translation tools or bilingual dictionaries are powerful aids to build comprehension. These tools are increasingly being built into educational programs so that each student can access content with the needed supports.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

The strategic network correlates to how students show their learning. As discussed earlier, learning outcomes can be met in many different ways. This includes options for physical movement and action as well as options for expressing their learning.

For example, to meet the goal of comparing differences between the colonies, students could use a comparison chart like a Venn diagram, but they could also make a verbal presentation, make a poster, draw pictorial representations, compose a poem or song, build a model, or type a blog post on a tablet or computer. There are times in which a specific format or structured outcome is necessary, such as learning to write an essay. In this case, a teacher could still provide options on the topic of the essay, or whether it could be typed or handwritten.

Learning Check

Which of the following are example(s) of providing multiple means of engagement:

  1. Giving student access to digital, audio, and print versions of a text.
  2. Giving students the choice of topic for a persuasive essay.
  3. Giving students options of tools to use to compose an essay.
  4. Giving students access to the expected learning outcomes.
  5. Giving students options to work with other students in groups.

4: Timely Progress Monitoring

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author. CC-BY-ND 3.0

Universally designing assessment is an important part of progress monitoring. Assessments provide vital information to teachers about the growth of their students, but they can only provide accurate information if students can express their learning. Make sure that the assessment itself does not present barriers, or that tools to overcome the barrier are included. Teachers must also be sure that the assessment matches the learning goals.

Using Technology to Remove Barriers

While technology is not required to universally design a lesson, many of the tools now available can be extremely useful in removing barriers and promoting independent, self-guided learning. Many programs have built-in features that allow students flexibility and options in how they interact. Features could include the option to choose an avatar, change the display colors or font size, turn closed captions on or off, adjust the playback speed, and others. These features allow teachers and students to customize their learning environment to meet individual needs. Using technology for its own sake is not pedagogically sound, but targeted use of technology to remove instructional barriers can transform student learning and engagement.

One obstacle for teachers will be finding these tools and learning how to use them. Luckily, there are educators around the world who seek out and test different resources. The internet is full of ideas and tools. Some helpful websites are listed below.


You may get to the end of this chapter and think that this all just sounds like good teaching that’s been happening for a long time. And you might be right. Good teachers do incorporate many of the practices that UDL promotes, but now we know better why and how these approaches work, and it is my belief that using UDL principles will enable more teachers to be intentional and strategic in their planning to meet the needs of the unique students who come through their classrooms.


Resources for Planning
UDL Guidelines http://udlguidelines.cast.org/ An electronic version of the guidelines where you can read about each principle in greater depth. Each checkpoint includes specific strategies on how to implement them.
The UDL Project https://www.theudlproject.com/ A group of elementary teachers created this site as they explored UDL implementation in their classrooms. It’s a great resource to see what real teachers are doing to problem solve with UDL. There is a blog, a list of planning tools, and examples of  math and language arts lesson plans.
UDL for Teachers http://udlforteachers.com/ Videos explain the 9 principles. Each principle page includes a list of relevant high and low technology tools and apps, along with explanatory videos and supporting articles. A valuable resource to explore  a wide range of flexible tools.
Learning Designed http://edtechbooks.org/-RXq This site gathers searchable UDL related materials, articles, courses, and other resources, free and paid. Free account. UDL credentialing available for those with further interest.
UDL Implementation and Research Network https://udl-irn.org/ Provides resources for teacher implementation, networking, and research. Includes a blog and searchable database.
UDL in 15 Minutes Podcast http://edtechbooks.org/-ed The podcast holds discussions with current classroom teachers on UDL implementation.
Flipped Classrooms http://edtechbooks.org/-sI A post on a practicing teacher’s website about incorporating UDL principles with a flipped classroom.
UDL and the Learning Brain http://edtechbooks.org/-qof A short (2.5 pages) article introducing important aspects of neuroscience that play a role in how the brain functions in a learning environment.
Diverse Teaching Strategies http://edtechbooks.org/-Gt Chapter includes descriptions of needs for racially, culturally and linguistically  diverse learners and 25 strategies with classroom examples.
Technology Resources
Text to speech http://edtechbooks.org/-IC List of free text to speech apps and tools for browsers and devices.
Speech to text https://www.speechtexter.com/
Extension for voice to text on Chrome browsers
Instructions for voice to text function in Google Docs on Chrome browsers
Educational Technology http://edtechbooks.org/-SdC This page shares ed tech tips and  resources for teachers and students.
Closed Captioning http://edtechbooks.org/-reG Resource to help you add closed captions to a youtube video.
CAST - Free Learning Tools http://edtechbooks.org/-MLR A set of free tools created by CAST that can be used for science, math, and reading. A free account may be required.
UDL Editions http://edtechbooks.org/-fq A limited selection of digital literary texts with links to vocabulary, annotation tools, text to speech, spanish translations, and a customizable display built in.
UDL for Teachers http://udlforteachers.com/ Videos explain the 9 principles. Each principle page includes a list of relevant high and low technology tools and apps, along with explanatory videos and supporting articles. A valuable resource to explore  a wide range of flexible tools.
UDL Professional Learning Networks
Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) @CAST_UDL http://edtechbooks.org/-Iy CAST is the organization that developed the UDL principles and continues to sponsor much of the discussion about UDL.
National Center on UDL @UDL_Center http://edtechbooks.org/-pLn Collects teacher examples
UDL Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN) @UDLIRN http://edtechbooks.org/-qR Announcements on UDL and related research
Twitter #UDL To follow all things UDL

#UDLChat Weekly real-time chat about UDL principles between academics and professional teachers. Used for questions and sharing resources any time.


Bostad, B., Cwikla, S., & Kienzle, J (2015). Success of English Language Learners: Barriers and Strategies. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: http://edtechbooks.org/-ZP

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

Gordon, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: theory and practice.  Peabody: CAST Professional Publishing Retrieved from http://edtechbooks.org/-ge

Rose, D.H., Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA.

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author. The original MITS Critical Elements are located at http://mits.cenmi.org/

U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. (2017) Reimagining the role of technology in education: 2017 National Education Technology Plan Update. Retrieved from http://edtechbooks.org/-FZg

Suggested Citation

Michela, E. (2018). Universal Design for Learning. In A. Ottenbreit-Leftwich & R. Kimmons, The K-12 Educational Technology Handbook. EdTechBooks.org. Retrieved from http://edtechbooks.org/k12handbook/universal_design_for_learning

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