Lesson planning with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Finding the time to adapt lessons to meet the needs of every student can be a daunting task. Lesson planning with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help you design your lessons to teach the range of students in your classrooms.

UDL can transform your classroom practice. However, there is no “magic box” of tools and resources in a UDL classroom. Instead, when you integrate UDL, you’ll notice the following:

  • There is a strong focus on goals. In a UDL classroom, there is a strong focus on learning goals for students. Teachers and students talk about why those goals matter and how they support challenging, meaningful opportunities to learn. You’ll also see students creating their own learning goals. 
  • There is a focus on variability. In a UDL learning environment, differences in experience, knowledge, and ability are expected. Flexible options are built into lessons for all students. That allows you and your students to talk about how different tools or resources support them as they work toward the goal. It also means not all of your students will be doing the same thing at the same time.
  • There is a focus on the barriers in the design of the environment. In a UDL classroom, the focus is on how to change the design of the curricular goals, assessments, methods, and materials — not on how to “fix” the students. For example, you may have asked yourself, “Why aren’t my students engaged?” UDL would encourage you to reframe the question: “How can the design of this lesson better engage students?” 

Learn more about how Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework developed by CAST, can help you design your lessons to meet the needs of all your students. Planning a lesson with UDL includes three stages: Proactive design, implementation of the lesson, and reflection and redesign.

Download a step-by-step UDL lesson planning template.PDF - 37.3 KB

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Step 1: Proactively design 

Proactive design means that you analyze the goal of the lesson, anticipate the variability of your students, and add design strategies into the lesson. That way, you can reduce barriers to learning and make sure all students have pathways to achieve the goal. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

Analyze the lesson goal. 

Why: We have so many goals for our students. We want them to build content expertise. We want them to build skills, develop socially and emotionally, and also meet curricular standards. One of the most critical parts of planning with UDL is to analyze and understand the different parts of a lesson goal. (Those different parts are the measurable outcomes of the lesson and are sometimes known as objectives.)

How: Take one of your curricular standards or objectives and separate the means (how students must demonstrate understanding) from the content (what students need to know).

For example, imagine a lesson in which your students read about the stages of butterfly metamorphosis and then draw a diagram of the process. This lesson has three main objectives — to have your students read, learn the stages of butterfly metamorphosis, and draw a scientific process. To analyze the goal, you need to identify the primary objective for this part of the lesson.

All of the lesson’s objectives are important. In the end, you’ll want students to integrate all of them. But planning with UDL requires you to step back and recognize that there are barriers for students in each of these tasks. You can provide support for these barriers. Consider this:

  • If the primary objective is to work on reading comprehension, engaging with the topic could be a barrier. After all, butterfly metamorphosis may not be compelling to all students. Having a few topics to choose from could help students engage and build their reading skills.
  • If the primary objective is to learn the stages of butterfly metamorphosis, reading a complex text could be a barrier. Because reading is not the essential part of the lesson, there could be a text-to-speech option or a video on the stages of butterfly metamorphosis. 
  • If the primary objective is to learn how to diagram a scientific process, not knowing which pieces of information to include could be a barrier. Having the option to use a template or to collaborate with a partner could reduce the barrier and help deepen the understanding of how to diagram a scientific process.

The UDL Lesson Planning Template can help you analyze the goals and decide on the primary content or skills you want students to develop. It will help you think about the content your students need to understand, group work that may be involved, and different skills they’ll use in the activity or task.

Anticipate student variability.

Why: Once you identify the primary objective for a lesson, then you can anticipate that there will be variability in your students. Some may have a lot of background knowledge and skills. Others may still be learning the language or how to use academic vocabulary. Some may struggle to express what they know, or have trouble with focus.

You can create flexible options in the design of the goals, assessments, methods, materials, and environment — and make them available for all your students.

How: Use CAST’s UDL Guidelines as a tool to help you anticipate variability among your students. Then, design flexible learning options to align with the three broad learning networks of the brain: affective (the “why” of learning), recognition (the “what” of learning), and strategic (the “how” of learning).

To support variability in affective networks, integrate options for engagement, such as:

  • Choice boards to recruit interest
  • Options for collaboration to sustain effort and persistence
  • Options for how students can reflect on self-regulation 

To support variability in recognition networks, offer options for representation, such as:

  • Visual and auditory options for perception
  • Vocabulary supports for language and symbols
  • Graphic organizers for comprehension

To support variability in strategic networks, offer options for action and expression, such as:

  • Assistive technology for physical action
  • Flexible ways to draw, record, write, or build for expression and communication
  • Checklists or rubrics for executive functioning skills 

Add design strategies to reduce barriers.

Why: Providing a flexible learning “buffet” of options for students to choose from reduces barriers to learning. These barriers might otherwise prevent students from making progress or engaging in the lesson. With UDL, you make the options available for all students. That’s because you recognize that each student has different preferences, strengths, and challenges that vary based on the given context. 

How: Reflect on where your students typically get stuck during a lesson or where you tend to have to re-teach. These are the “barriers.” They can help you identify where there might be opportunities to integrate flexible options into your lesson. Identifying specific barriers will help you avoid the problem of having too many options. Make sure your choices align with the skills and knowledge you want students to learn from the lesson.

Step 2: Implement

This phase involves facilitating the lesson, observing, and getting feedback on how students are building the skills and habits. 

Facilitate and observe.

Why: In a UDL environment, your students are invited to take charge of some of their learning decisions. That’s why we say the lessons are “facilitated” instead of “taught.” Students are encouraged to connect learning to real-world issues that matter to them. They’re also invited to show what they know in a variety of ways and build background knowledge to become “expert learners” in the discipline. 

How: As you facilitate the lesson, make sure the goal is clear to students. They should understand what they are working to achieve. Give them access to a variety of options of what their work can look like. Explain how those examples show that students have met the lesson goal.

For example, if your students typically struggle with a new concept after you present it, you could make a short video recording of key ideas. Or you could offer a bulleted list of the key ideas. Students can then choose to use one or more of those options. Make sure that there are options regularly available for any student to use as needed.

During the lesson:

  • Observe how students are — or aren’t — using the options. 
  • Work with students to develop a deeper understanding of what they need — or don’t need — to achieve the goal. 
  • Offer process-based feedback to students as they are working. Connect feedback to progress toward the desired goal.

Step 3: Reflect and redesign

The reflection and redesign phase allows you to consider your next instructional moves. 

Why: This kind of formative assessment can help you plan upcoming lessons and deepen the learning experience for your students.

How: At the end of the lesson, collect feedback from students about how they made progress, what supported their learning, and where they got stuck. Take a look at student work and feedback, too. Don’t forget to use your own observations of the lesson to reflect. Ask yourself:

  • Was the goal meaningful and challenging? Did students know what the goal and objectives were so they could make progress?
  • Did the lesson design anticipate variability? How was there a range of engagement, background understanding, and skills? Were there flexible options available for engagement, representation, and action and expression that students could choose?
  • Could the lesson design further reduce barriers? Where were students still stuck or frustrated? Where did you have to reteach? Can you identify one or two new ideas you could integrate into the design of the lesson next time? How could you collaborate with other teachers and invite discussion with students for ideas to help reduce the barriers, and increase the challenge and meaning of the goal? 

As the year progresses, you’ll get to know your students better. Plus, they’ll become more familiar with the flexible tools and strategies available to them. Lesson planning with UDL will become more automatic and will help the full range of students to become expert learners. 

Learn more about UDL