Everyone Can Learn Better with Universal Design for Learning

By: Leonardo Tissot

Teachers and professors work hard to help guarantee students make the most out of their classes. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one way to maximize learning for pupils. By following UDL’s three principles—Recognition, Action & Expression, and Engagement—along with a diverse set of practices, there’s a better chance at student success.

Have you ever watched a film with subtitles? Or, have you ever considered how many people benefit from subtitles? Closed captions help many viewers globally to easily follow a storyline and understand dialogue. Subtitles are often used in the following scenarios:

  • watching a film in a foreign language
  • for the hard of hearing
  • viewing a movie quietly so as not to disturb others
  • public spaces where TV is transmitted without sound

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is similar to closed captioning in that it applies the same principle: it addresses the needs of different types of people. UDL is an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students.

What Is Universal Design for Learning?

According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. It also provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone.

Instead of a one-size-fits all solution, it is a flexible approach that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs. It is also closely related to academic effectiveness, as UDL empowers excellence in teaching and learning.

To go deeper into the meaning of UDL, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) provided a definition in 2008, that states: The term Universal Design for Learning means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

  • Provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
  • Reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

Why universal? It relates to classes that can be understood by everyone regardless of culture, background, strengths, needs, and interests. Most important, the curriculum should provide genuine learning opportunities for every student.

Why design? Effective design encourages students’ engagement and their desire to learn every day.

Universal Design for Learning

The Three Universal Design for Learning Principles

For UDL to work, teachers must put it into practice. That’s where the three Universal Design for Learning Principles come in.

  1. Representation: showing information in different ways. Teachers and professors must present content and information to students using multiple types of media, graphics and animation. Highlighting critical features and activating background knowledge is also an important recommendation.
  2. Action & Expression: allowing students to approach learning tasks and demonstrating what they know in different ways. Teachers and professors must provide students with options to express their knowledge and provide constant feedback and support, according to proficiency level.
  3. Engagement: offering students with learning opportunities that keeps them engaged and sustains their interest long-term. What inspires one student might not inspire another. By providing them with options they can choose what best meets their interests.

Putting UDL Principles into Practice

When thinking about the different ways to present content to students, technology often plays a big role in grabbing students’ attention. This, unfortunately, involves a level of investment most schools simply can’t afford. However for James Cressey, assistant professor of education at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, gadgets aren’t always necessary to apply UDL principles, or—more specifically—the principle of Representation.

“If students are reading an article, that is great, but that could be a barrier for some of them because of a visual impairment or a learning disability.” Cressey says. “If we can allow an audio format, then the students can listen to that. If the technology isn’t available, a teacher or classmate reading that article out loud to the other student works in the same way,” he adds.

The same is true for Engagement. According to Cressey, you can enable engagement, especially when teaching children, by breaking students into small groups to design a learning activity that involves sharing with the rest of the class and keeping students interested in the content. Other examples of interactive activities that can enable engagement might include using building blocks or musical instruments to present class subjects.

“In my experience, such activities really got [students] much more engaged,” Cressey says. “There were some students who told me that they enjoy having a short lecture where the professors are presenting information clearly, but pairing that with something interactive and ‘hands-on, with movement and interpersonal skills that provided other means of engagement. But of course, there were other students who preferred the quiet reflective grading activities that they would normally do,” he adds.

In terms of the Action & Expression principle, Cressey says some ideas that can create interesting results include:

  • producing a CD,
  • presenting content for parents and friends (not just classmates),
  • or even going on-air at a local radio station to talk about a subject they learned about in school.

The Main Challenge: Finding the Time to Implement New Ideas

Cressey believes that implementing a new approach like UDL on a larger scale is very challenging, especially within a public school system. “Having been a classroom teacher myself, I know that teachers often see trends that come and go because of poor implementation. If a new approach is not introduced well – often with not enough training for teachers – then it is not sustainable overtime,” believes Cressey.

Ongoing coaching and professional development, therefore, is one of the challenges of a UDL high scale implementation. Therefore, using the first year to plan and prepare the best approach is essential.

5 Tips for Implementing Universal Design for Learning

  1. Determine goals to help students know what they’re working towards and to stay on track.
  2. Offer students different ways to complete their assignments.
  3. Build flexible workspaces where students can either work individually or engage in group activities.
  4. Provide students with constant feedback on their performance. If possible, on a daily basis.
  5. Allow the use of different mediums, including print, digital and audio materials.

Make Content Accessible for Students

Academic institutions around the world are prioritizing accessibility to help ensure students with disabilities have equal opportunities for educational success. Yet, many of these institutions don’t realize that adopting inclusive design principles in their teaching, also can improve the learning experience for all students—including first-generation students, international students, and mobile learners, just to name a few.

See how Ally by Blackboard can be easily integrated with Open LMS to solve this challenge. LEARN MORE

Phill Miller
About the author

Phill Miller

Phill is a long time EdTechNerd, and open source junkie. He’s the proud father of an 8 year old son and 6 year old triplets. He enjoys eating cold, half eaten chicken fingers after his kids have fallen asleep and reading British spy novels. Oh, and he’s also the Managing Director of Open LMS. He's been in EdTech for about 20 years, with roles at ANGEL Learning, Moodlerooms, Blackboard, and Oxygen Education. Phill is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Discover our solutions