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What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL) gives all students an equal opportunity to succeed.

  • This approach to teaching and learning offers flexibility in the ways students access material and show what they know.

  • UDL also looks for different ways to keep students motivated.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching and learning that gives all students equal opportunity to succeed.

To understand what UDL is, it helps to understand what it’s not. The word universal may throw you off. It may sound like UDL is about finding one way to teach all students. But UDL actually takes the opposite approach.

The goal of UDL is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove any barriers to learning. It’s about building in flexibility that can be adjusted for every person’s strengths and needs. That’s why UDL benefits all learners.

This approach to teaching or to workplace training doesn’t specifically target people who learn and think differently. But it can be especially helpful for the 1 in 5 kids and adults with these challenges — including those who have not been formally diagnosed. It can also be very helpful for English language learners.

Watch this video to see what UDL looks like in a fifth-grade classroom.

Dive deeper

Bringing universal design to the classroom

Even if you’re not familiar with the term universal design, you’ve likely encountered it in your everyday life. Common examples include automatic doors and dictation tools on smartphones.

These designs help people with disabilities. But other people may also want to use them. For example, closed captioning is often used in noisy places like restaurants and airports to help everyone follow what’s being said on TV.

UDL brings that approach to the classroom or to workplace training. UDL helps build in more ways a diverse group of learners can access information and show what they know.

Explore examples of UDL in classrooms

3 main principles of UDL

UDL is a framework for how to develop lesson plans and assessments. It’s based on three main principles:

1. Engagement

Look for ways to motivate learners and sustain their interest. Here are some examples:

  • Let people make choices 

  • Give assignments that feel relevant to their lives 

  • Make skillbuilding feel like a game 

  • Create opportunities for learners to get up and move around

2. Representation

Offer information in more than one format. For example, the instructor could provide a worksheet along with:

  • Audio, which could be as simple as saying the written directions out loud

  • Video showing how to solve one of the problems

  • Hands-on learning

3. Action and expression

Give learners more than one way to interact with the material and to show what they know. For example, they might get to choose between:

  • Taking a pencil-and-paper test

  • Giving an oral report 

  • Making a video or a comic strip

  • Doing a group project

See a side-by-side comparison of UDL and traditional education .

How UDL helps students who learn and think differently

UDL helps all learners. But here are some of the ways it may be especially helpful to the 1 in 5 kids and adults who learn and think differently:

  • Makes learning more accessible in general education classrooms, which is where most kids who learn and think differently spend most or all of the school day.

  • Presents information in ways that adapt to the learner, instead of asking the learner to adapt to the information.

  • Gives students and workplace trainees more than one way to interact with material. UDL builds in flexibility that can make it easier for learners to use their strengths to work on their weaknesses.

  • Reduces stigma. By giving a variety of options to everyone, UDL doesn’t single out the few who receive formal accommodations for a disability.

See how UDL can help break down barriers to learning .

Next steps

UDL is regarded so highly that it’s mentioned by name in the nation’s main education law. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages states and districts to use federal funding to help teachers expand the use of UDL.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom