Everyone Can Learn Better with Universal Design for Learning

Leonardo Tissot
Leonardo Tissot
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Quick Take: Do you know about UDL? Universal Design for Learning is an approach to curriculum that gives students equal opportunities to learn and succeed.

Teachers and professors are often working hard to guarantee students make the most out of their classes. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one way to maximize learning for pupils. By following UDL’s three principles – Recognition, Action & Expression and Engagement – along with a diverse set of practices, there’s a better chance at student success.

Have you ever watched a film with subtitles? Even if you haven’t, have you ever thought of how many people benefit from them? Closed captions help many viewers globally to easily follow a storyline and understand dialogue. Subtitles are often used in the following scenarios: watching a film in a foreign language, for the hard of hearing, to watch a movie quietly so as not to disturb others, used in public spaces where TV is transmitted without sound, among others.

Universal Design for Learning is similar to closed captioning in that it applies the same principle: it addresses the needs of different types of people. UDL is an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students.1

According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. It also provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone, instead of a one-size-fits all solution. Rather, it is a flexible approach that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.2 It is also closely related to academic effectiveness as UDL empowers excellence in teaching and learning. Learn more about Academic Effectiveness.

To go deeper into the meaning of UDL, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) provided a definition in 2008, which goes as follows:

The term Universal Design for Learning means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) Provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) Reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.3

Why universal? It relates to classes that can be understood by everyone regardless of culture, background, strengths, needs and interests. Most importantly, the curriculum should provide genuine learning opportunities for every student.

Why design? Effective design encourages student engagement and their desire to learn every day.

Audio and video formats, interactive tools, and other technological devices and applications can help students have a better learning experience. Learn more

Neuroscience Helps Us Understand How the Brain Processes Learning

Illustration Recognition Networks (the “what” of learning)

Recognition Networks (the “what” of learning)
For example, identifying letters, numbers, a writer’s style, among others.

Illustration Strategic Networks (the “how” of learning)Strategic Networks (the “how” of learning)
For example, writing a paper or solving mathematical problems.

Illustration Affective Networks (the “why” of learning)Affective Networks (the “why” of learning)
How to engage and motivate students so they want to learn.

The Three Universal Design for Learning Principles

For UDL to work, teachers must put it into practice. That’s where the three Universal Design for Learning Principles come in.

1. Representation: showing information in different ways. Teachers and professors must present content and information to students using multiple types of media, graphics and animation. Highlighting critical features and activating background knowledge is also an important recommendation.

2. Action & Expression: allowing students to approach learning tasks and demonstrating what they know in different ways. Teachers and professors must provide students with options to express their knowledge and provide constant feedback and support, according to proficiency level.

3. Engagement: offering students with learning opportunities that keeps them engaged and sustains their interest long-term. What inspires one student might not inspire another. By providing them with options they can choose what best meets their interests.

Putting UDL Principles into Practice

When thinking about the different ways to present content to students, technology often plays a big role in grabbing students’ attention. This, unfortunately, involves a level of investment most schools simply cannot afford. However, for James Cressey, assistant professor of education at Framingham State University, in Framingham, United States, gadgets are not always necessary to apply UDL principles, or more specifically, the principle of Representation.

“If students are reading an article, that is great, but that could be a barrier for some of them, because of a visual impairment, or a learning disability. If we can allow an audio format, then the students can listen to that,” Cressey says. “If the technology to do so is not available, a teacher or classmate reading that article out loud to the other student works in the same way”, he adds.

The same is true for Engagement. According to Cressey, especially when teaching children, breaking up students into small groups in order to design a learning activity that involves sharing with the rest of the class and to keep students interested in the content, and the use of Lego building blocks or even musical instruments to present class subjects, are some examples of interactive activities that can enable engagement. “In my experience, such activities really got them much more engaged,” Cressey says. “There were some students who told me that they enjoy having a short lecture where the professors are presenting information clearly, but pairing that with something interactive and ‘hands-on,’ with movement and interpersonal skills that provided other means of engagement. But of course, there were other students who preferred the quiet reflective grading activities that they would normally do,” he adds.

In terms of the Action & Expression principle, Cressey says producing a CD, presenting content for parents and friends (and not just classmates), or even going on-air at a local radio station to talk about a subject they learned about in school, are some ideas that can be useful and produce interesting results.

Origins of Universal Design for Learning

UDL originated in the 1990s, when the term Universal Design (UD) was coined by architect and designer Ron Mace at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. Later, the UD philosophy found fertile ground in the field of education, where it was adopted as a conceptual and philosophical foundation on which to build a model of teaching and learning that is more inclusive. As it was stated by David Rose, one of UDL’s founders, “UDL puts the tag ‘disabled’ where it belongs—on the curriculum, not the learner. The curriculum is disabled when it does not meet the needs of diverse learners.”4

The Main Challenge: Finding the Time to Implement New Ideas

Cressey believes that implementing a new approach like UDL on a larger scale is very challenging, especially within a public school system. “Having been a classroom teacher myself, I know that teachers often see trends that come and go because of poor implementation. If a new approach is not introduced well – often with not enough training for teachers – then it is not sustainable overtime,” believes Cressey.

Ongoing coaching and professional development, therefore, is one of the challenges of a UDL high scale implementation. Therefore, using the first year to plan and prepare the best approach is essential.

Banner 5 Tips When Implementing UDL

5 Tips When Implementing UDL

1. Determine goals to help students know what they’re working towards and to stay on track.

2. Offer students different ways to complete their assignments.

3. Build flexible workspaces where students can either work individually or engage in group activities.

4. Provide students with constant feedback on their performance. If possible, on a daily basis.

5. Allow the use of different mediums, including print, digital and audio materials.5



The Challenge of Making Education Accessible To All


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1 U. (2010, January 06). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=9&v=bDvKnY0g6e4.

2 What is Universal Design for Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2018, from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl.

3 How Has UDL Been Defined? (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udldefined.

4 Universal Design for Learning: A Concise Introduction [PDF]. (2011). ACCESS Project, Colorado State University.

5 CAST, U. F. (n.d.). 5 Examples of Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/5-examples-of-universal-design-for-learning-in-the-classroom.

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