Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design is a concept that originated in the field of architecture. The idea was to design products and spaces that could be used to the greatest extent possible by anyone, regardless of their age, status, or ability. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) applies principles of Universal Design to education. Three primary principles guide UDL. Instructors should provide learners with:

  1. Multiple means of representation
  2. Multiple means of engagement
  3. Multiple means of action and expression

The key word across all those principles is multiple. By providing multiple ways to access and engage, UDL increases the likelihood that a more diverse range of learners can succeed. The common red, octagonal stop sign is a great example of the use of multiples to increase access. It conveys information to users through text, color, and shape. Those who can’t read, can take cues from the color and shape. Those who are colorblind can take cues from the text and shape. Given the diverse needs humans bring to learning, this use of multiples means that UDL-designed courses are more likely to better serve more people.

Multiple means of representation

UDL acknowledges that “learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is represented to them” and that “there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners.” Presenting course content and information in multiple formats makes it accessible to a greater number of learners. Chances are you already do this in your courses. If you assign an article for your learners, you likely also reinforce the article’s ideas verbally through a lecture, you explain key terms, you draw diagrams on the board or show images as examples.

Some options to consider:

  • Create assignments in Canvas rather than uploading a PDF or handing out hardcopies in class. HTML text is readable by a screenreader so those with vision challenges can access the information through the audio version provided by the screenreader.
  • Provide videos with transcripts or closed captions. Learners with vision challenges can access video content through the transcript text. And hearing impaired learners can use closed captions to comprehend the audio content in videos.
  • Provide lecture materials in Canvas. Posting lecture notes and/or slides in Canvas allows all learners the opportunity to benefit from the opportunity to revisit and reflect on your lecture content. While helpful for all learners, this can be especially helpful for those with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Multiple means of engagement

UDL acknowledges that “learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn” and that “there is no one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts.”  If information is not engaging, it is inaccessible to learners. Stimulate learners’ interests and motivation for learning in multiple ways. Being flexible and offering learners a degree of choice as to how they engage can help make the content more relevant to them.

Some options to consider:

  • Explain the importance and relevance of your learning outcomes. Doing so can help build learners’ motivation.
  • Find ways to connect the content to learners’ lives, for example through the use of culturally-relevant examples.
  • Allow learners to self-assess and reflect on how the content impacts their interests to help them take ownership of the information.
  • Break up larger assignments into smaller, scaffolded assignments that allow learners to practice and build incrementally toward your learning outcomes.

Multiple means of action and expression

UDL acknowledges that “learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know” and that “there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners.” For example, some learners may be more comfortable and skilled in expressing themselves verbally, but not necessarily in writing. Employing a variety of assessment strategies throughout the course can empower learners to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that don’t disadvantage them. 

Some options to consider:

  • Allow learners to choose the tool they will use to demonstrate their understanding. For example, if you want to assess whether a learner can think critically about a particular concept, you might offer them a choice to write a paper or record a video to demonstrate their ability.
  • Allow learners to participate in the design of an assignment.