Universal Design for Learning, or UDL for short, is a strategic approach to instruction that prioritizes diversity and accessibility. At the heart of UDL is a belief that a classroom designed for students at the margins is better for all. Rather than instructors devising a curriculum and then retrofitting it to students with different needs, UDL preaches an inclusive, holistic approach from the get-go. Like a curb cut on the sidewalk that helps wheelchair users and anyone with reduced mobility, UDL ends up benefiting all students, not just those with disabilities.
From UD to UDL
UDL evolved from its predecessor, Universal Design (UD). Inspired by the disability rights movement of the 1970s and ’80s, and emboldened by the passage of the ADA in the ’90s, UD is a philosophy and set of principles pertaining to accessible product architecture and design.
When UD is applied to the specific context of education, the result is UDL. Both share the common goal of universal access, but while UD seeks to eliminate barriers from the built environment, UDL strives to do the same in the learning environment. Above all, UDL is an equitable model of teaching and learning that guides the creation of accessible course materials to support diverse strengths, weaknesses and learning needs.
UDL is built on three core principles: representation, action and expression, and engagement. Everyone learns differently due to strengths and weaknesses in the various brain networks that are involved in learning. Therefore, each of the three principles corresponds to a distinct area of the brain.
Representation is all about showing and communicating information in different ways. It can be thought of as the “what” of learning and maps onto the recognition networks in the brain; the sensory areas that perceive information.
Presenting academic content in different ways helps students absorb information and make sense of what they observe. This principle is especially critical for individuals with sensory difficulties or disabilities, who may be unable to take in information that is presented via a single modality. For example, audio and video content present a challenge for those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. Providing audio transcription and automatic subtitling for videos is critical for these learners and helps others who may prefer to learn by reading or those who may not be native speakers of the language of instruction.
2. Action and expression
This principle emphasizes giving multiple ways for students to interact with the material and express their knowledge. This connects to the “how” of learning, or the strategic plans people make to tackle mastering the subject at hand. Correspondingly, these skills map onto areas of the brain that engage in complex reasoning and executive functioning.
This involves giving learners multiple ways to engage with the course material and providing varied opportunities for them to express their knowledge. For example, if the final project in a course is a classroom presentation, a UDL approach would mean offering alternatives such as students filming themselves and showing the video in class, or producing written responses.
Engaging students means looking for different ways to motivate and inspire learners to interact with the material. This principle is all about finding the optimal way for students to connect with what is being taught in order to foster an intrinsic desire to learn and an engaged disposition. This can be conceptualized as the “why” of learning and links to affective networks in the brain that are involved in emotional responses. Offering a variety of reward choices or different levels of challenge illustrates this principle in action.
Positive Effects on Student Success
Beyond the theoretical, UDL has been shown to have a measurable impact on student success. In fact, research shows that this approach helps increase GPA and information retention for all students. A study conducted by the University of Northern Illinois found that exposure to closed-captions increased students’ recall and understanding of video-based information, as those students scored significantly higher on the subsequent assessment when compared with their peers.
Although all students are positively impacted by UDL, the benefits may be experienced most effectively by students with disabilities. While studies show that UDL boosts grades for students with disabilities and without, the results tend to be more dramatic for the former. Regardless of the circumstances, the data paints a clear picture: UDL enriches learning for everyone.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Suppose you decide to throw a dinner party for a large group of friends, many of whom have unique dietary restrictions and preferences. In this scenario, cooking the same dish for everyone wouldn’t work, nor would preparing a custom-made meal for each guest. The ideal solution is a buffet, where you can provide many options, and each guest can fill their plate with what suits them. This is UDL in a nutshell. Providing options and choices gives learners the opportunity to take ownership and personalize their pathways to achieve academic success.
All universities want to see their students flourish academically. Taking a UDL approach is a highly effective way for schools to give students the tools they need to achieve that goal.