Universal Design for Learning 101 – A Crash Course for Teachers

universal design for learning tips for teachers teaching in a high school classroom

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of educational principles and practices that aim to make learning more accessible and effective for all learners, regardless of their individual abilities or disabilities.

Universal Design for Learning creates an environment where every student has the opportunity to learn in the same way, eliminating any barriers caused by differences in ability levels.

UDL emphasizes three core areas:

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

The best online resource to learn more in-depth about Universal Design for Learning is The UDL Guidelines site – it links to relevant research and includes links to download beautifully designed graphic organizers. I have one of the graphic organizers pinned to the bulletin board behind my desk – I love haveing it near when lesson planning.


UDL Principle #1 - Multiple Means of Engagement

Multiple Means Of Engagement encourages learners to use their personal interests and strengths when learning new concepts. Through this approach teachers create lessons that allow students to explore topics on a deeper level by connecting them with real-world situations or adapting subject matter so it becomes more relevant for their daily lives. UDL also looks at how physical environments can influence learning by making sure that layout designs are flexible so that everyone can access resources comfortably regardless of any challenges they may have due to physical limitations or disabilities.

Affect represents a crucial element to learning, and learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. There are a variety of sources that can influence individual variation in affect including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge, along with a variety of other factors. Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.

UDL Principle #2 - Multiple Means of Representation

Multiple Means of Representation refers to providing different ways for students to access information. This could be through a variety of formats such as visuals, audio, text, or video; allowing the student to choose which modality works best for them. Different types of representation can help students understand course materials in more depth and provide multiple entry points into learning topics.

Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information quicker or more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Also learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because they allow students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential.

UDL Principle #3 - Multiple Means of Expression

Lastly, Multiple Means of Action and Expression is about giving students different methods for demonstrating what they know. Instead of just having students take a paper test or write an essay, teachers have opportunities to assess comprehension through multiple types of activities such as creating projects or using technology-based assessments like online quizzes and simulations. By offering options that better fit how individual learners communicate what they know, UDL allows all students the chance to show their knowledge in meaningful ways.

This principle used to be “Multiple Means of Expression”, but it as been revised to now include multiple means of action.

Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.

Why Use Universal Design in the Classroom?

By implementing Universal Design for Learning into classrooms educators are able to maximize participation and success among diverse groups while providing instruction at a higher quality than traditional methods sometimes permit. Ultimately this approach helps ensure that all learners have equal opportunities with regard to reaching their full potential in an academic setting while feeling respected throughout the process which is why UDL has become an increasingly popular teaching strategy across many educational systems around the world today.

History of Universal Design for Learning

The history of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) dates back to the 1990s, when it was first developed by researchers and advocates who sought to create a more equitable educational system. The concept of UDL is based on the notion that all learners have unique physical, cognitive, and psychological needs and that providing a universal design for learning can better accommodate those differences. UDL is also rooted in the idea of ‘inclusive education’, which aims to ensure that people with disabilities have access to quality educational opportunities.

In its earliest form, UDL was described as a framework and set of principles guiding the design of instruction and assessment practices so that these practices were more accessible to all students. It was initially developed by CAST (the Center for Applied Special Technology), an organization whose mission is to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through technology and research-based strategies. At the heart of this framework lies three major principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement.

Universal Design's Rise in Popularity

Since its development in the 1990s, UDL has continued to rise in popularity due to its effectiveness in supporting student success across a range of contexts. Specifically, UDL has been used within educational settings such as K-12 classrooms and university lecture halls. It has also been implemented within workplaces where employees are expected to take part in professional development activities or interact with co-workers who may have different levels of ability or experience with certain tasks. Currently, many teachers view UDL implementation as essential for meeting their students’ diverse needs while promoting equity and inclusion within their classrooms.

As research on UDL continues evolve and become more specialized across various fields of study, so too has our understanding of how it can be adapted according to individual contexts while still meeting the same goals – namely providing equal learning opportunities for students regardless of ability level or background. With this increased knowledge comes an increased recognition that there is no one ‘right way’ when it comes to implementing Universal Design for Learning; rather, educators must use their knowledge base and creativity when designing classroom activities that meet the needs of all learners in order for them to be successful.

Picture of Carley 📚 Teacher Author @ Visual Thinking Classroom

Carley 📚 Teacher Author @ Visual Thinking Classroom

B.A., B.Ed., Graduate Certificate in Teacher Librarianship // carley@visualthinkingclassroom.com