Chapter 7: A Universal Design for Learning Approach to Computing Education

dis/Ability, Ableism, and Identity in CS

By Maya Israel, Meg Ray, Joanne Barrett, Nykema Lindsey, & Carla Strickland

Learning Objectives

Part A

Part B

Part C


There has been a great deal of discussion about increasing access and participation of all learners in K-12 computer science education. However, less attention has been given to the participation of learners with dis/Abilities. What we know is that if learners with dis/Abilities are provided with effective instruction and accessible tools and materials, they succeed in computer science education (Israel et al., 2015). On the other hand, we also know that these learners enter computer science classrooms that are often inaccessible and have teachers that may not believe in their ability and right to learn computer science alongside their peers. 

In this chapter, we will highlight instructional approaches to effectively include all learners in CS education, including those with dis/Abilities. We will also reflect on our own experiences with dis/Abilities, biases and assumptions about who belongs and does not belong in CS education. Lastly, we will explore approaches to address the types of barriers students with dis/Abilities face through the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.

Including all learners requires three major things: (1) inclusive mindsets and beliefs that all learners can learn computer science and deserve to be including in computer science education, (2) equity-focused pedagogical practices that actively includes supports, strategies, and accessible tools that support all learners, and (3) advocacy for the inclusion of all learners. 

Throughout this chapter, we hope that you engage in active reflection, challenge assumptions about what we know about students with dis/Abilities, and experiment with how to apply UDL within your own CS teaching practice.

Where these ideas come from

UDL4CS is a Research Practice Partnership between the University of Florida, New York City Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools, CS4GA/Georgia Department of Education, and other practitioners working towards increased participation of learners with dis/Abilities in K-12 computer science education.

dis/Ability, Ableism, CS, and YOU

Part A. - Personal Experiences with Disability

Warm Up Activity

Complete the warm-up activity below. It will help you to connect your prior knowledge and personal experiences to the content in this chapter. 

Stop & Jot or Doodle

Take out a piece of paper or open up a digital notepad or canvas. Take 2-3 minutes, or even longer,  to complete this activity. You can use a timer if you’d like to.

Reflect on your own experiences as a student, teacher, and/or parent related to disability and ableism in school. What comes to mind when you think about disability and ableism through your experiences in school? Capture your thinking through writing or drawing. 

No matter what your experiences are, they are yours and they will inform the perspective that you take as you go through the following chapters. Bringing awareness to our own perspective can give us context and also help us to widen or look beyond that perspective.

What is Disability?

There are several different lenses that people may use to define and describe disability. The model that is most prevalent in the United States is the medical model, which focuses on a doctor or licensed professional diagnosing a disability and “repairing” or treating it to the greatest extent possible. The disability rights community embraces a more comprehensive social model, that sees differences as neither good nor bad, but accepts them as just different. The social model sees differences in minds and bodies as diversity, and focuses on how society aids in the disablement of some people because of the way that it is built and organized and the way that it embraces able mind/body norms. When we built buildings or sidewalks that did not meet the needs of all, we ‘disabled’ some. Things like curb cuts and ramps make a huge difference for access. The social and medical models can be seen as two ends of a continuum with many people’s views falling somewhere in-between. There are also other models including legal models, like the way that our special education system is built on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other laws, as well as functional and personal models. There is the potential to view things differently depending on the lens with which you choose to look through. We want to make you aware that there are these different lenses, and that we hope that people will become more aware of them, and take the time to consider more of them and be open to perhaps, broadening their perspectives to allow for greater acceptance, regardless of the labels that society tends to assign.

In this reflection, we will take a broad view of disability. We consider disability any variance (physical, sensory, cognitive, neurological, psychological, developmental) that impacts, limits, or makes more difficult major life activities in society as it exists today. We also hold a dialectical perspective on disability, making room on the one hand for concepts like neurodiversity that people see as a positive identity that they would not change, and on the other hand for chronic or terminal illnesses that some people wish to have cured or treated. We invite you to consider that what may have been previously identified as a negative, because it did not meet a medical milestone could in fact, be identified as a positive by an individual, because it is an essential part of who they are. Let’s not highlight what a person can’t do, but rather shine a light onto what they can do.

Returning to the Warm-Up

Now that we have shared a definition of disability, has this changed your warm-up Stop & Jot response? If so, take a moment to adjust your reflection.Could you determine if your personal orientation reflected more of the social or medical models, or does it fall somewhere in between them?

Why is it important to consider students with dis/Abilities in CS?

There are currently approximately 7.2 million students with dis/Abilities in U.S. public schools of which 15% are receiving special services. Most students with dis/Abilities are taught alongside their peers, but it’s also important that we don’t forget about students in self-contained or segregated settings. One of the best positions for framing thinking around students comes from Section 1400 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004) It is important to note that IDEA identifies thirteen categories of disabilities that can be found within the Act, that are guided by the medical model. For example Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is identified, but severe emotional trauma that could be transient, is not.

The lack of inclusion of students with dis/Abilities is a social justice issue. Inclusion of ALL students is beneficial to students and society as whole. Additionally, it is important that we include students with dis/Abitilies in CS Education, regardless of their goals of achievement, as they bring a unique perspective that will broaden CS education to and for the changes in technology that will happen. The perspectives that learners bring and their experiences with technology can impact the future directions and advances that can and should happen as society embraces all different types of technology users.  Inclusion has been shown to be at worst neutral, and more often beneficial to all students academically and socially (Ruijs & Peetsma, 2009). It is important to point out that the inclusion of students with dis/Abilities is not there for the benefit of their abled peers, but for the benefit of all students.

As if this were not enough justification for inclusion of all students in CS education, it is also common that Black, Indigenous and Latinx students as well as multilingual learners are overrepresented in categories that are highly interpretive and high stigma (e.g. emotional & behavioral disorder, specific learning disability, intellectual disability) (Finch, 2012). Added to this is the fact that they are more likely to be placed in a more restrictive or separate environment (Webb, 2020). Overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and Latinx students students in special education is entrenched in test bias, poverty, poor/insufficient  instruction, lack of resources and lack of qualified professionals with the skill and knowledge to work with students of diverse backgrounds (Blanchett, Klinger & Harry, 2009; Sullivan & Artiles, 2011).

We also compound this problem of providing access to CS for all when we acknowledge that it is also common that students with dis/Abilities that are in self-contained situations are not assigned to CS courses. When they are provided with opportunities to engage in CS courses, this time is identified as less sacred than other subject areas and typically, students who require special services are pulled out during CS classes. Students in ICT settings only have one teacher during a CS class. It has also been identified that in the CS classroom, when there are paraeducators present, the paraeducators often don’t feel comfortable with CS content and are less able to contribute in CS classes. As a result students are left with a curriculum that is below their abilities or worse, they are not provided with scaffolding to access the regular curriculum.

Disability is a natural part of the human experience. Every member of society should have the same rights to access the benefits of technology, and hence the need to understand how it is created. While the benefits of technology can help everyone, and you may argue on behalf of some folks more than others, no one knows where the next great creative ideas that benefit us may come from. All students, regardless of social or medical labels, should be given the opportunity to learn computer science. If for no other reason, at some point, every one of us could experience a form of disability. While some are present at birth, others may happen due to life experience, and still others, might be temporary. It is important that we acknowledge that all of these conditions are part of the human experience and we need to appreciate and honor that fact. This inclusive mindset means that all students, including those with a range of dis/Abilities, can learn computer science. What some students learn may be modified or different, but they all can participate in some way that is meaningful and makes meaning for them. Perhaps It may be meaningful in that it helps them to develop skills like self-regulation, or that they can create an artifact that brings joy. The inclusive mindset does not discriminate and provides learning opportunities for all students. Through this chapter we hope that you will discover that even small changes in the planning process can make a big difference in how included all students feel in their classrooms.

Your Experience with Disability

Now that you’ve read the definition of disability that we are using for this course, it’s time to dig deeper into the reflection that you did earlier. Take 10-15 minutes to identify and express the defining experiences that shape your perception of disability throughout your life. These might include books or media that made a strong impression on you as a child, important relationships in your life, teaching experiences, and perhaps the personal development of your identity as a person with a disability. Select an option below to capture and express your thinking.

Option 1

Create a digital or mixed-media collage. Consider including images, words, headlines, emojis, audio clips, and anything else that you can think of to creatively express your defining experiences with disability. 

Below is a sample collage that depicts some feelings and experiences of an individual in relation to their family, friends and schooling.

Option 2

Create a digital or paper timeline of your experiences. The timeline can be a linear listing of experiences or include multimedia artifacts. Color code each timeline entry to indicate the emotional or affective aspects of the experience. For example, you may choose to color an unpleasant experience that made you angry red, while coloring a positive experience yellow, or a profoundly life changing event with several bright colors to indicate intense and mixed emotions. It’s up to you how you want to create this effective code.

If you are working through this course with a partner or group, consider sharing aspects of your collage or timeline, and  listen as other people share theirs.

Below is a sample timeline:

lists chronological experience from elementary school where spec. ed. students were separated, middle school a friend with a brother with downs syndrome, high school grandmother is in wheel chair from strokes. College dad has heart attack and becomes disabled, friend's brother dies at age of 23 and as adult teacher, have students in my class and was not prepared for the experience.

What is Ableism?

The term ableism is a loaded term and can meet a range of actions, statements, attitudes, and interactions. Thus, defining it can be tricky.  

Read the definition from Thomas Hehrir, a leading advocate for children with disabilities and leader in defining special education policy

[Ableism is] the devaluation of disability [that] results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids.

Take a moment to view this video:

Sadly, ableism perpetuates negative connotations about those with disabilities. It changes the narrative about our assumptions about learners. Remember the shoe metaphor and the myth of the average learner. , We should not assume everybody fits into the same (average) shoe size. Similarly, we cannot assume every learner comes into the CS classroom with the same experiences, strengths, and needs. We should leave averages to   statisticians! . Instead of assuming all students should learn the same, we want to design instruction that is flexible to meet all our learners. Additionally, we never want to perpetuate the idea that not having a dis/Ability is “good” and having one is “bad.” These biases that creep into our thinking are hurtful to not only those with dis/Abilities, but to all of society as whole.

Consider the following reflection questions:

Ableism: Scratching the Surface

This slide presentation by Camarie Shepard Mot will guide you through an exploration of ableism including including terminology different layers of ableism, and things you can do!

Ableism and the 4 I’s

Ableism can occur on a personal level, but is also embedded within the layers of our institutions and culture. Ableism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, different types of oppression intersect and compound the effects. Keep this in mind as you explore the 4 I’s below.


Often subconscious embedded ideas and attitudes within a culture or society

Example: News articles often have headlines and pictures of people without disabilities who show kindness to a person with disabilities, and praise them and declare that they have done something remarkable

An example article was:

Student commended for act of kindness when matched against wrestler with physical disability

A high school student is being commended for an extraordinary act of sportsmanship, going to the mat in a wrestling match against a younger opponent with a physical disability.

While the intent of these stories is to be inspiring and encourage others to be kind, the unspoken messages are:

Similar stories sometimes crop up about kids being nice to a trans student at school or to a student who is a recent immigrant. How might intersectionality come to play in this situation? How might it change or amplify the consequences for the person with a disability in the story?


Institutional ableism is the inherent bias in the practice that the laws were designed to protect against. Beratan (2006) identifies it as the “discriminatory structures and practices, as well as uninterrogated beliefs about disability deeply ingrained within educational systems, [that] subvert even the most well-intentioned policies by maintaining the substantive oppression of existing hierarchies.” Approximately 50% of e and the relative deemphasis on de-escalation and disability awareness training (Abrams, 2020). 1-2 examples (autism, deaf)


Black, disabled people killed by police have a disability (Ruderman 2016). Many factors embedded within the institution of policing contribute to this, including the emphasis on immediate compliance stats (Thompson, 2021).  

An example within CS education is the lack of accessible tools and curricula that are developed and adopted by schools and school districts. Institutions often do not consider accessibility in making purchasing decisions, which result in exclusion of many students with disabilities from CS education.


This type of ableism is what happens between the social interactions within relationships between people. Consider two parents of a toddler recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes. One parent wants to “cure” the disease, and not have his child appear as different from other kids at the new preschool. The other parent wants all kinds of special arrangements and preparations at school, including a note home to all the classroom parents worried about birthday cakes and halloween candy. The first parent is an example of interpersonal ableism, his wanting to “fix” his child rather than adjust to potential limitations. In a CS education classroom, assumptions about the abilities, motivations, and challenges of students with disabilities influences the way that teachers, administrators, and peers interact with students with disabilities and the opportunities presented/not presented to them.  


This type of ableism is what comes from your own mind, but these beliefs often come from multiple sources including our previous experiences and the messaging that we have received about ourselves in relationship to ability. Intrapersonal awareness can empower a student to take risks; other times, it can limit what a student attempts or believes is possible.

In the context of CS, these personal beliefs can influence whether a student enrolls in a CS class, persists when presented with a challenge, or attempts to participate in a robotics competition. This intrapersonal one is very tricky. Imposter syndrome makes us not believe in our abilities when we have them. Internalized messages either conscious or unconscious can make us feel badly about ourselves when we absolutely should not feel bad at all.

Consider these examples of able body/mind privilege:

  1. I can be assured that my entire neighborhood will be accessible to me.
  2. I was given curricular materials which showed people like me as a role model.
  3. I can be assured that assumptions about my mental capabilities will not be made based on my physical status.
  4. I can do well in challenging situations very often without being told what an inspiration I must be to other able-bodied people
  5. It is unlikely my employer will ask me about current or past medical information and feel that they can legitimately do so.
  6. I am unlikely to be forcibly subjected to treatment which, though carried out in the name of my health and well-being, might be considered abuse in other contexts.
  7. I can be pretty sure of finding people willing to give me career advice that is based around my strengths and ambitions, rather than their assumptions about my sanity or ability level
  8. I can buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, magazines featuring people that look like me and have the same physical status.
  9. I can go to a grocery store and know that I can access anything that I need without any assistance.
  10. I can enter a clothing store and purchase items without feeling like I am being judged by the personnel that work there.

These examples are meant to help you think about how you have an invisible backpack. There are beliefs that are held about you, as well as beliefs you hold about others based on what is visible. Unfortunately, those beliefs can easily turn into biases. Biases, that might be unintentionally harmful. Hopefully, this exercise thinking about what beliefs might be hiding in pockets of your backpack will help you on your journey.

Have you or any member of your family experienced ableism? Are there able-bodied/mind privileges that were not visible to you before?

Ableism and Intersectionality

Let’s consider what you can do in your classroom to combat ableism. Here is a short and useful guide that you can review: Combatting Ableism in Education

Now that you have read the guide and given thought to your own practice here are a few tips:

Part B: Our Approach - Universal Design for Learning                 

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an instructional planning approach that focuses on ways to include the broadest range of learners by reducing barriers to learning, considering accessibility, and increasing the flexibility of instruction. Basically, UDL helps us answer a fundamental teaching question: How can we plan and teach lessons that include all learners? UDL relies on two important areas in answering this question: (1) our increasing understanding of neuroscience and how the brain works, and (2) a commitment to the full participation of all of our learners.

Warm Up Activities

Below are two warm-up activities. Pick ONE activity to help set the stage for this chapter.

Warm Up Activity 1

Take a few minutes to reflect on the following prompt:

What does an inclusive classroom mean to you? (What does it look like? What does it sound like? What are students doing?) 

Warm Up Activity 2

Please think about your own teaching and consider whether you have done any of these things:

If you answered yes to any of these instructional practices, you implemented aspects of UDL! It is important to remember that while some aspects of UDL may be new (including the framework and applications in computer science education), you likely already implement some UDL practices. When taught about the framework for the first time, many teachers indicate that they already implement some, if not many of the practices, they just had not had the opportunity to think about them in terms of the overall UDL framework. By learning about UDL, you’ll start to notice the practices you already do and new practices that you can add to increase accessibility and inclusion in your classroom.


This video from CAST provides an introduction to UDL.  


UDL Defined

UDL is an instructional planning and teaching approach that is designed to proactively meet the needs of all learners by reducing barriers to learning. It is a research based framework designed from our understanding of how people learn (CAST citation). One of the advantages of designing learning with the UDL framework is that you build a curriculum to be accessible by removing barriers before they become part of the environment. A more traditional view of curriculum is that it is built as one static piece, with lessons building upon previous lessons in one set way. In this environment, lessons need to be differentiated by accommodations to learners needs.  When curriculum is designed with the UDL framework, we switch the focus to be on the learner.  While we are not saying that accommodations won’t be needed, the goal is to design in ways that many barriers are removed resulting in less accommodations for special needs. For example, if a lesson that requires a student to listen to an audio file, it can be designed with access to a closed captioned file, or better still included as a file with someone signing the content rather than a single audio file that would be a barrier for some.

UDL Mindsets


Take a few minutes to think about the learners in your classroom. Can you identify your “average” learner?  What motivates that learner? What challenges does that learner face? What language does that learner speak? What is that learner’s background experience?

UDL Mindset 1: There is no such thing as the “Average Student”

It’s probably very difficult to describe the “average learner” in your class. In fact, neuroscience tells us that it is actually impossible to describe the average learner as that learner does not exist! Todd Rose, in his book, The End of Average explains that there is so much variation amongst all of us that there simply is no such thing as the average learner. 

In fact, we all have a unique learning profile that includes our preferences, strengths, and areas of challenge. In fact, the differences between our learning profiles are more diverse than our fingerprints! So, we need to debunk the myth of the average learner!

Picture of a fingerprint with a magnifying glass

We have a jagged learning profile.

The image shown here represents two learners. The idea is that the orange bar in the middle would be average points for the skills listed. However, each of the two people represented, although they might show the same overall test scores, the reality for each skill falls all over the place and their learning profiles show a great deal of variation.

Mindset 2: All students deserve access to CS education

We use the term “CS for All” a lot in computer science education. However, what does this mean? From a UDL and inclusion mindset perspective, it means:

Mindset 3: Flip the Narrative: Consider barriers in the learning environment. We are not trying to “fix” our learners

Reflection Activity: 

What are some barriers that you notice during CS instruction?

When we plan our CS instruction, we want to try to anticipate the barriers that may exist that would prevent all of our students from being able to fully participate. 

Sometimes, when we consider barriers, we start thinking of challenges that the students are facing. For example, we might think, “My students can’t read the directions in this CS assignment.”  However, when we think of barriers from a UDL perspective, we flip the narrative and consider how Aliana’s challenges with reading reflects a challenge in the learning materials. Instead, we may say, “The text complexity is a barrier to understanding the directions of this CS assignment.” 

This simple shift moves us from pathologizing and “otherizing” our learners to finding solutions!


Try flipping the narrative and think about learner abilities in a different way.

 For example:  Eliana doesn’t have strong enough English skills to do well on today’s activity.  Could become: I need to include a translanguaging option for today’s activity to not impede Eliana’s understanding of the coding challenge.

Here are some more examples. Please try to reframe these to help remove barriers for these students.

Now that you have reoriented these scenarios, reflect on the following questions:

The 3 principles of Universal Design for Learning

UDL helps us think about the learning environment, our curriculum, and our instructional approaches all with the intention of reducing any possible barriers to learning. UDL seeks to remove barriers for all students, regardless of background, language, abilities and physical limitations.

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) coined the term UDL and based it on neuroscience research. Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that are wired together in unique ways. This understanding helps us understand WHY there is no such thing as an average learner. CAST uses the term  “neuro-variability” to represent the fact that no two human brains are alike (CAST, 2018). Just like no two fingerprints are alike, there are infinite possibilities in the variation of human brains. This neuro-variability is evidence that learners do not have an isolated learning style, rather learners rely on many parts of the brain working in concert, which will also change in different contexts (CAST, 2018). We are unique in why we want to learn, what we take in and process information, and how we demonstrate our understanding of what we know. So. UDL explains this variability in three ways:

Engagement: The “why” of learning: What is important or motivates us? We all come into CS education with different motivations, interests, challenges, and experiences.        

Representation: The “what” of learning: We all have different preferences for how we take in information and those preferences change depending on the content area, our level of expertise in that content area, and even our mood.    

Action & Expression: the “how” of learning: We all have preferences and strengths for how we learn including using physical action and different types of  communications.

Screen Shot 2011-12-01 at 7.29.57 PM.png


At the beginning of this chapter, we said that many teachers already engage in practices that are UDL, they just did not recognize them as such because they were unfamiliar with UDL . Now let’s take a moment for you to think about what you are already doing in these three areas. If you want to see these categories in greater detail to help you brainstorm  You can refer to the UDL guidelines ( to help prompt you while you brainstorm. 




Multiple Means of Engagement

Multiple Means of Representation

Multiple Means of Action & Expression

How are you engaging learners?

How do you recruit their interest? How do you help them sustain effort? Do you help students reflect on their learning?

How is information presented to the learners?

Do you use multiple formats (e.g., text, video, demos)? How do you activate background knowledge? How do you promote understanding across languages?

How are students demonstrating their learning?

Do you give a choice in product? Do you provide opportunities for physical action? Can students use multiple media? How do you help students set and achieve goals?                            

While you do not need to feel that you need to accomplish every item on the framework every time, we want to point out the features of its structure. The format of the UDL guidelines is that there are 3 guidelines for each of the “how," “why," and “what” principles.  There is an access, a build and an internalize guideline for each principle.  The guidelines are then supported by checkpoints, and checkpoints are presented as a bulleted list of action items that support the intersection of the guideline and the principle. There are  31 checkpoints in all. While it may seem overwhelming to have to accomplish 31 different practices within the framework, as noted earlier, they are common sense and good practice so there is a lot of overlap for what teachers already do. What is new is thinking about the framework as a whole and keeping the end goal of guiding learners to become expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, as well as strategic and goal-directed. Really, nothing that a teacher wouldn’t want for a learner, but a new lens to look through, that instead of changing the learner to fit the shoe, you empower the learner to find their own shoes!

What’s Coming Next

In the next section, we will show specific examples of how you can integrate UDL into your own CS instruction. You will see examples and consider a 4-step approach to implementing UDL in CS education.

Part C: Our Approach—Universal Design for Learning

Explore Our Approach

We have already been introduced to the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an instructional planning approach for meeting the needs of all learners by reducing barriers to learning. In this chapter, we will explore how UDL can be used in our classrooms and provide practical strategies and approaches specific to K-12 computer science (CS) education.  

Revisiting the definition of Universal Design for Learning

In the last section of the chapter we defined UDL as a framework of  instructional planning and teaching. UDL is an approach that is designed to proactively meet the needs of all learners by reducing potential barriers to learning. It is based on our understanding of how people learn (CAST citation). We will begin the extended look at the three principles below with a warm up activity as an example of UDL. For some learners, barriers to CS education include challenges starting with a “blank coding canvas” opening up to begin a project with no code or objects leaves them with no contexts or clues to begin. Still others might be challenged by needing to complete multi-step problems with limited scaffolding. As an alternative, we suggest  providing multiple entry points. Providing different options for students could give different experiences and students can participate in the activity and be given choices in how to do so. Simply put, we anticipated barriers to participation and found a way of addressing that barrier by providing multiple entry points to the project.

The three principles of UDL in K-12 CS Education

Multiple means of Engagement: Warm Up Activity

In this guided exploration activity, you can choose between various versions of a Scratch program that teaches about weather. All of the versions of the program have the exact same aim. However, there are several approaches, or entry points that can be used to examine and modify this code. Take the next 5-10 minutes to explore these options. The options include:

Reflect: Which method(s) did you try? How might you use a similar approach in your classroom? What benefits and challenges do you expect to find in using these approaches? 

The three approaches above illustrated the use of explicit Use-Modify-Create, Fixing Buggy code, or a Parsons Problem (exploded code). You could use these, or a combination of them as alternative access points for learners.  The coded examples also present opportunities for discussions with students. How might you improve the existing code? What enhancements might be made to the project? In this way, you can also provide ample opportunities for differentiation. Some enhancements can be simple and others more complex. For example, in the Scratch example about weather in all of the samples it is always precipitating.  Another version which is linked here  includes a new feature to stop the precipitation - pressing the ‘s’ key will bring out the sun. Not shown, but possible enhancements include adding movement for the cloud, collection of accumulating snow at the bottom of the stage, or even the addition of a rainbow for a few seconds after the arrival of the sun.

The warm-up exercise above has allowed us to jump right into all three UDL principles: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. Throughout this section, we will explore each of these principles separately, but in reality, they often overlap! 

Finding different entry points that speak to the needs and skills of the learners is one way to meet multiple guidelines at once head on.  In this section, we are focused on Engagement, so this activity focuses both on access and supporting effort and persistence.

Multiple Entry Points - Various Versions of the Scratch Weather (Precipitation) Simulation

Full worked example

Adding a clone

Intro demo not complete (32 degrees is incorrect)

Corrected “or” logic version

Exploded code


We want learning computer science to be fun and personally relevant. For example, if my family did not celebrate Christmas, it would be more worthwhile and relevant to me to be invited to create a program around a holiday that my family does celebrate. We want to provide learners with options for tapping into their interests and motivation. Another way of doing so is by offering learners choices and even allowing for collaboration. 

Even though computer science can be fun, and students can be motivated to participate, once they begin to code they will inevitably create something that does not work as they expected.  When code doesn’t work according to plan it can make computer science frustrating and difficult. Therefore, engaging students in computer science also requires them to be able to maintain that interest and persist when it is difficult. We need to provide learners with strategies to help them be self directed and persistent, otherwise, hands fly up and the teacher can be overwhelmed with questions. One way to to help learners with their self regulation is to provide them with learning objectives that are positive, and resonate with the learners so that it makes them aware of what they have accomplished. These learning objectives or goals are restated as learner I can statements.

"I Can" Statements

Making learning objectives known helps students sustain effort and persist, even if the learning task is challenging. For example, by creating an “I can” statement for students, we change the objectives into language that is student facing and makes the goals explicit for the learners (Israel & Lash, 2020) . Examples include:  

In addition to coaching students to embrace these I can statements, we can add a physical component by asking them for feedback with their thumbs. We can encourage students to gauge their own understanding and provide us with feedback using their thumbs. For example, at the beginning of a lesson, a student may indicate that they kind-of feel confident about the I can statement “I can use math language to write pseudocode that a friend can follow to create a polygon” by showing a thumb to the middle or a bit towards the ground. By the end of the lesson, their thumb may raise a little indicating growth in understanding. 

Illustration of a thumb up, thumb to the side, and thumb down.

Providing Options for Personally Relevant CS Activities

Offering student choice is one way of increasing engagement because it helps to recruit and support student interest. When students have autonomy to add personal relevance to their work, they will be more likely to want to engage with that work. For example, when students are learning about fractional parts along a numberline, they can be given a choice in how to demonstrate their understanding of this concept. They could animate a math story problem in Scratch. In the Figure below, the student animated a story where a monkey moved across a number line on a magic carpet. 

It is also important to make the choices clear and explicit for learners, especially at the start of a new project. As any parent knows, it is often more productive to present young learners with choices, than an open-ended question. For example, “would you like a sandwich, yogurt, or a piece of fruit?” usually results in less frustration for parent and child than the open-ended “what would you like to eat?”

If you return to the warm-up lesson above, you will see that we provided you with choices! Allowing you to look at the options and choose the version you would like to work on, you were experiencing choices about how you wanted to approach the assignment.

Teach and Reinforce Metacognitive Strategies for Debugging

The final guideline for engagement has us focus on self-regulation. In order to help students with self regulation, we should facilitate personal coping skills and strategies. Teaching students how to debug and deal with frustration when their plan does not work as intended is crucial. One approach for teaching debugging is using a strategy such as the Debugging Detective. It includes a series of questions such as “What did I want my code to do?” and “What happened when I ran my code?” It then includes a series of Yes/No questions that cue students to think about their code. Figure # shows a screenshot of this strategy.


Multiple Means of Representation

Since no two brains are alike, it logically follows that we are all different in how we perceive the world around us. Taken a step further, this logic implies that we will have preferences in how we want to perceive and take in information. This range of preferences can also be recognized and utilized when it comes to learning new information. Simply put, there is no one way to learn that is best for everyone, so options are important! Additionally, our preferences may change. These changes can be long term or fleeting, related to mood, health, or how much sleep we had last night. As a result, sometimes we might want to read about something. Other times, we may want to listen to an explanation or watch a demonstration. Given this fact, it is important to plan for options in how we perceive new information. A few examples include:

Providing Alternatives to “single mode” ways of presenting information.

We want to avoid providing only auditory or visual information, but having alternatives. One way of doing so is by providing video tutorials or other worked examples of how to solve problems similar to those the students are attempting. Video models and worked examples provide a multi-modal way of presenting information. Many CS curricula and tools include worked examples. If these are not available, we can create our own worked examples.

Clarify New CS Vocabulary

CS includes many new concepts, some of which are abstract. For example, a term as simple as variable is something students may have heard in a math course. However, a variable in computer science and the assignment of its values in relation to an equals symbol may be very different from their math experience. The rewiring of a new neural pathway for something already familiar can be challenging. In some cases, learners may already have existing knowledge. It is important to consider how to introduce a concept or remap it for a learner. Questions that come to mind are: Do you have to build upon it? Do you need to alter it? Do your learners have existing knowledge to build upon? Or more importantly, is the knowledge that they possess accurate for your content? Clearly, there are multiple possibilities each time you introduce a new term which speaks to the importance of classifying symbols and the descriptive language.

The image below presents a Frayer Model as a way of introducing new concepts. We place the concept at the center of the map and then we fill out the four quadrants by providing a definition, facts and/or characteristics as well as examples, including some options of non-examples to try to help break misconceptions. Please see the Frayer model about precipitation that could be used to frame the lesson for students learning to code from the examples in the table above building out the concept in Scratch through various entry point. Immediately below is a Frayer model for the concept of loops. Loops are required to keep the precipitation falling, so in this case we have a model for the science concept, as well as for the CS concept of loops.

Frayer Model Precipitation concept model.

Frayer Model Code example.


Let’s return to our warm up exercise where we took a look at the relationship of precipitation to temperature. In terms of comprehension, we can draw upon what learners already recognize about a topic. For example, guiding questions that are important for underlying assumptions need to be addressed before the learner can take the next steps. In this scenario you could ask learners leading questions like:

With this scenario we can build upon what the learners already know and scaffold the next steps to their learning. Under the correct conditions, this simple scenario can be used to expand to additional concepts such as:

These steps would be examples of supplying background information, highlighting patterns or critical features and the checkpoint that this scenario most fulfills would be providing a visualization in terms of the UDL checklist items. 

Multiple Means of Action & Expression

We turn now to the “how” of learning. Similar to allowing choices in our warm up example, you can also think about allowing choices in your communication of the assignment. For the warm up event, you could supply a storyboard or an illustration of the scenario. Indeed, the scenario that we used in this example fulfills many of the checkpoints because Scratch is media rich - you can use existing sprites, let students search for them online, or draw or paint them by hand. The current scenario is lacking (intentionally) in user instructions. Here you could invite students to make recommendations on how to inform the user how to best use this project. In the worked example, the temperature can be set by having the user click on the tree sprite. There are no instructions anywhere within the project to inform a user. Learners could brainstorm many alternatives to make this project more user-friendly. Some suggestions can include:

Similarly to our discussion of the debugging detective, debugging is a vital topic in learning computer science. In terms of this principle, it applies to the need for developing a student's executive functioning. The metacognitive strategies that are developed through various debugging methods all reinforce the importance of this guideline. 

One possible explicit debugging strategy, referred to as the “reuse strategy” by Co et al ,2019, involved helping students to find the behavior they wanted to implement, and then use that code found elsewhere to help them achieve their goal. This method provides feedback to the students in terms of their goals. What were they trying to code, and what piece of code had they already seen that could help them achieve this goal. Once again, our multiple iterations of our weather simulation from the warm up, could provide working models of code for additional objects or sprites and behaviors like downward movement of a sprite and disappearing and reappearing from the cloud, user interaction on a click of the tree, or creating clones from multiple raindrops or snowflakes, or the sun to act as a trigger to stop all movements. 

Now that we have taken an overview of UDL and the principles from our computer science, let's consider ways that we can put it all together and summarize what we have learned about UDL.

Overall, we must have clear and measurable steps for your learners, and in particular, we advocate restating these as “I can” statements. 

Another important thing to do for your learners is to, as much as possible, anticipate as many barriers as you can. While you will never be able to capture all of them, anticipating and removing as many as you can should always be one of our objectives. Realizing that the barriers can be physical limitations, hardware or software limitations, language, lack of scaffolding or other things that are more transient or not even visible. Regardless, do your best in anticipating barriers and brainstorming solutions. Anticipating and planning for barriers will help your learners have the best user experience possible.  What goes hand-in-hand with this is designing measurable goals and outcomes. Plan ahead of time as to how you will assess your learner’s achievements (or lack thereof). Try to determine a plan for assessing learner outcomes that address the barriers that students may encounter.  For example, offer options in points of entry or project and artifact choices that allow learners to take ownership of their learning in as productive a way as possible for them. As teachers, we all want to go home at the end of the day knowing we have done the best that we can for our students and that we have created the best possible scenario and atmosphere for them to be successful.  The final thought is upon reflection. Take the time to assess what has been done by you, and by your learners. Honest, supportive reflection is healthy to help us grow and keep improving which is an important element for learners and their teachers.


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Universal Design for Learning & Disability - Multiple Entry Points

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