What Is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

By Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc.
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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework developed by CAST, an Understood founding partner. UDL guides the design of learning experiences to proactively meet the needs of all learners. When you use UDL, you assume that barriers to learning are in the design of the environment, not in the student. UDL is based on brain science and evidence-based educational practices. It also leverages the power of digital technology.


Imagine this: Your students are going to write an essay on the stages of butterfly metamorphosis. 

Some students have seen butterflies grow through the different stages at a local science museum. These students are excited to share what they know. Other students don’t know anything about butterflies and are nervous to write about the topic. And some students don’t like to write—they dread this activity from the moment you say “essay.”

In any class, you know there’s a wide range of enthusiasm, background, and skills among your students. When you plan with this range in mind, you could approach the lesson in several ways.

You could share a mini-lesson on butterfly metamorphosis and have students use a guided worksheet as they write. Or you could set up stations where students are grouped using flexible grouping around understanding of the topic, language ability, or reading level.

But take a step back. In any lesson or task, you can anticipate this range of variability among your students. There’s another approach you can take to plan for this variability in all your lessons: Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Why Use Universal Design for Learning?

The ultimate goal of UDL is for all learners to become “expert learners.” Expert learners are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed about learning.

UDL is a powerful approach because from the very start of your lesson, it helps you anticipate and plan for all your learners. It can help you make sure that the greatest range of students can access and engage in learning—not just certain students.

You don’t need specific tools or technologies to follow UDL’s principles either. Instead, your students choose from the tools and resources you already have. They might use them in different ways.

Also, UDL may change how you think about what prevents students from learning. Instead of thinking that something needs to change about the students, UDL looks at the learning environment. The learning environment can include barriers to learning, like the design of the curricular goals, assessments, methods, and materials. In this way, the learning environment itself can be “abled” or “dis-abled.”

UDL gives you a framework to follow so you can reduce the barriers to learning. The main way to do this is to prepare a learning environment where students have what they need to flexibly meet learning goals. 

What Does UDL Look Like in the Classroom?

Universal design can be found just about anywhere you look—both inside and outside your school. Curb cuts change sidewalks so that they’re accessible to the greatest range of users, including people who use wheelchairs and those pushing strollers. Closed captions make television accessible to people who are deaf or who have hearing loss, as well as people at the gym or spouses who can’t agree whether or not to keep the TV on at night. No two forms of universal design are the same. 

Universal Design for Learning looks different in every classroom. But there are commonalities. To start with, there’s always a focus on building expert learning for all. Other common elements of a UDL experience include:

  • All learners knowing the goal

  • Intentional, flexible options for all students to use

  • Student access to resources from the start of a lesson

  • Students building and internalizing their own learning

In a UDL environment, students rarely do the same task in the same way at the same time. The flexible options will differ across developmental ages. But the framework for having clear goals and flexible options is consistent no matter the grade level or content areas. 

Watch a video of what UDL looks like in the fifth-grade classroom of Understood Teacher Fellow Eric Crouch.

The Three Principles of UDL and How to Use Them

UDL describes human variability based on parts of the brain that manage the “why” (affective network), the “what” (recognition network), and the “how” (strategic network) of learning. Watch as CAST co-founder David Rose explains why UDL emphasizes variability instead of disability

CAST developed UDL guidelines that are based on three main principles that align with these learning networks. The three UDL principles are engagement, representation, and action and expression.

The chart below includes the three UDL principles adapted from CAST. It also gives you some questions to consider and lists some examples of the principles in action. You can print a one-page version of this chart to have on hand while planning a lesson, activity, or routine for your students.

Provide multiple means of engagement

How can I engage all students in my class?

• In what ways do I give students choice and autonomy?

• How do I make learning relevant to students’ needs and wants?

• In what ways is my classroom accepting and supportive of all students?

Examples:

• Survey students about their interests, strengths, and needs. Incorporate the findings into lessons.

• Use choice menus for working toward goals.

• State learning goals clearly and in a way that feels relevant to students.
Provide multiple means of representation

How can I present information in ways that reach all learners?

• Have I considered options for how printed texts, pictures, and charts are displayed?

• What options do I provide for students who need support engaging with texts and/or with auditory learning?

Examples:

• Make it easy for students to adjust font sizes and background colors through technology.

• Provide options for engaging with texts, such as text-to-speech, audiobooks, or partner reading.

Provide multiple means of action and expression

How can I offer purposeful options for students to show what they know?

• When can I provide flexibility with timing and pacing?

• Have I considered methods aside from paper-and-pencil tasks for students to show what they know?

• Am I providing students access to assistive technology (AT)?

Examples:

• Provide calendars and checklists to help students track the subtasks for meeting a learning goal.

• Allow students to show what they know through a variety of formats, such as a poster presentation or a graphic organizer.

• Provide students with access to common AT, such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech.

Family Connection

Families may not be familiar with the concept of students being active participants in setting their learning goals. They may have questions about letting students make their own learning choices. 

Explain at back-to-school night or in a class email that you’ll be using Universal Design for Learning. You can even share a family-friendly article about the UDL approach to teaching.  

Assure families that you have high expectations for all students to become expert learners in your classroom. And explain that you’ll keep working with the students and their families to build the skills and interest to make that happen.

Additional CAST Resources to Explore

 

About the Author

About the Author

Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc. 

is a curriculum and design specialist at CAST.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Brittney Newcomer, MS, LSSP 

is the director of instructional design at Understood for Educators, which she joined after serving in public schools for more than a decade as a teacher, evaluator, and curriculum manager.

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