Universal Design For Learning

To teach effectively, you have to reach your students, students who come to the classroom with varied backgrounds, expectations, abilities, and learning styles. This understanding is at the heart of the philosophy of practice known as universal design for learning (UDL). UDL is part of a larger movement of universal design, which works to increase access for all through designs that—from the beginning—consider needs of diverse people, not just adapting when a situation requires it. For instructors, UDL means designing your course with accessibility in mind—regardless of whether you’ve been approached by a student who may “require” such adjustments.

Why consider UDL?

According to the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, eleven percent of undergraduates report some type of disability—and the proportions have swapped such that the majority of disabilities are now non-apparent (e.g., mental, emotional, psychiatric condition/depression, ADHD, specific learning disabilities/dyslexia), compared to more apparent disabilities (e.g. mobility impairment). Meanwhile, between sixty and eighty percent of students with disabilities don’t actually contact campus university services for “official” accommodation requests/reporting—which means many students in your classrooms may fall in this category without your knowledge.

This is also an issue of social justice. By putting disability and access considerations at the center of our teaching, we join efforts to make higher education accessible to all of our students.

Key Principles of UDL

Many of you have heard about the increase in classroom technologies, but Rose, et al. remind us that it’s important to distinguish UDL from use of “assistive technologies” that are available (from “low-tech” wheelchairs, eyeglasses, or ASL interpreters to more “high tech” computerized support—spell-check, text-to-speech). UDL is about making material that is physically accessible to all, but also about accessible pedagogies.

Based in neuroscientific research and primary brain networks, UDL is grounded in three key principles that are core to learning:

  • Provide Multiple Means of Representation
  • Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression
  • Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Universal Design For Learning Principles

Adapted from the National UDL Center

UDL In Your Course

While several starters and tips for incorporating UDL into your course(s) are listed below, an especially helpful resource for checklists and recommendations on UDL is the Access Project, a project of Colorado State University’s Department of Occupational Therapy. On their website, the Project hosts many UDL materials, including A Concise Introduction to UDL, an UDL Checklist for professors (How Do You Teach?), and a more in-depth UDL Quick Tips chart.

Your SyllabusConsider how you address principles of UDL and access in your syllabus:

  • Do you include a disability or accessibility statement (your approach to disability and accommodations in the classroom)? Do you point this out to students in your in-class syllabus review?
  • Consider what tone you are setting with including such a statement. Since it is your classroom, perhaps create your own, tailored statement. Even if it’s an addition to your institution’s existing statement, this can help you to set the tone of your course.
    • For Georgetown’s recommended statement and other examples, see the Teaching Commons Georgetown Policies page, and select “Disabilities Accommodations.” Consider the placement of such statement(s) on the syllabus, and how you might highlight these during class.
  • Additional suggested practices for UDL & syllabus design

AssessmentConsider how UDL might impact your class assessment approach(es):

  • How can you best assess students’ mastery? Have you considered combinations of assessments that are balanced to provide opportunities for students to use their different strengths (e.g., written assignments, creative submissions, electronic portfolios, real-time data)?
  • Within each assignment, are instructions clear? Are the layout and format of the assignment easy to navigate?
  • Check out our Evaluating Student Learning or Designing Assessment pages for more ideas and suggestions.
  • And if you’d like help with some self-assessment of how well you’re doing with these ideas and issues, feel free to reach out to CNDLS for a conversation or a Mid-Semester Group Feedback Session.

Course MaterialsConsider the accessibility of your course content and information:

  • Providing “multiple means of representation” involves preparing your course materials (whether print, digital, etc.) to be accessible to all students.
  • Creation of accessible materials:
    • The Access Project (also referenced earlier) has many guides that provide information on how to design materials that are in line with universal design principles for Microsoft products (Word, PowerPoint) and other applications (e.g., Adobe).

Class timeConsider how you vary your approaches within the classroom, from methods of content delivery to student participation.

  • Present information in multiple formats, including text, graphics, audio, and video.
  • Try having your lectures supported by handouts or a few PowerPoint slides.
  • Davies et al. of Colorado State University recommend the use of video clips, as long as you are sure to both introduce the video and summarize/debrief main points with the class.
  • Group discussions: There are many ways to use and tailor discussion activities to increase student engagement:
    • Providing time for individual reflection and writing prior to the group discussion may allow more students to be involved and gather their thoughts.
    • Using small groups: a “Think-Pair-Share” exercise with many pairs or small groups discussing ideas can also encourage more low-stakes participation.
    • Offering online formats: a forum for online discussion or blogging provides another space for students to participate and demonstrate comprehension.
  • Use classroom technologies (e.g., clickers, Poll Everywhere) for engagement and/or real-time interaction and feedback.
  • Provide a bit of structure at the beginning of each class: outline key points, connect them to course objectives, and give a preview of the material to be covered in that day.
  • Check out our Planning and Leading Class, Teaching with Technologies, and Active Learning pages for more ideas.

Remember, key principles of UDL include providing multiple means of expression and of engagement—offer students a variety of ways to express themselves and to interact with course material.

Additional Resources

SoTL Note: These resources are helpful for learning more about UDL, but much of the current literature focuses on K-12 education, so there’s a need for additional empirical, peer-reviewed research. If you’re considering Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), learn more at our SoTL Teaching Commons page.

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.