FCSN // Newsletter // 2016 // Fall 2016 // Examining Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Examining Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Teacher and children in classroom
Scott Lapinski, Doctoral Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College

There is nothing more important than ensuring that every child has his/her learning needs met in the classroom. Each child has a unique set of strengths and abilities he/she uses to learn and grow. With careful planning and partnering with parents, educators can create classrooms that are inclusive and accepting of all learners academically, socially, and emotionally. One way to create more inclusive classrooms is through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

What is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL, a concept developed at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the late 1990s, is an educational framework that helps educators design flexible and inclusive learning environments i. When using the UDL framework, educators are encouraged to focus on creating effective learning environments for all students in the classroom, including students who struggle to learn. This is an important focus because when learning environments are improved for learners who struggle, then the environments are ultimately improved for everyone. In short, everyone benefits.

UDL and Instructional Planning

One of the primary ways in which UDL is implemented is through the proactive planning of curricula. Generally, curricula are educators’ instructional plans. It is what they want to have students learn (outcomes or goals), how they will help students meet the goals (methods), what tools and technology they will provide to students (materials), and how they know if the goals were met (assessments)ii.

To account for the variability of all learners, and to ensure as many barriers to learning are eliminated as possible, curricula need to be designed to be flexible. Creating flexible curricula is important because educators know that learning happens in many different ways. Traditional one-size-fits-all approaches have not been effective in meeting the diverse learning needs of all students. Educators now know that learning is as diverse as students themselves. Instruction is more effective when it is based on students’ strengths. UDL helps educators broaden and diversify the ways they support student learning.

Three Principles: Creating Flexible, Barrier Free Environments

The UDL framework is organized around three principlesiii. Each of these principles is based on what educators know about learning. Though each principle is presented here separately, all three actually work together during learning. Looking at each of these ways we learn can help us better understand the needs of all learners, and ultimately, help educators design inclusive learning environments.

1) Provide Multiple Means of Representation

This principle is based on how we perceive information and interpret the language and symbols being used, and then how we process and comprehend the information. Learners do not do all these things the same way. For instance, within any classroom, there will be learners who have a range of language abilities. This could be due to communication disorders, unfamiliarity or inexperience with the language, or just natural differences in language proficiency. Since educators know these differences exist, they can plan for these differences ahead of time.

2. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

This second principle is based on how we act within our physical environments, express and communicate what we are learning, and then plan, monitor, organize, and manage our learning. As with the representation principle, learners do not all do these activities in the same way. In thinking about expression and communication, some learners will be great writers while others might be better speakers. Some learners will need assistive technology while others might not. Educators know that these types of differences will be present in any classroom, and if they only allow students to do things in one way, not all students will learn. The idea in UDL is that educators account for these differences ahead of time.

3. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

The final principle is based on how we pay attention, persist and overcome difficult obstacles, and regulate our emotions and motivation to learn effectively. Emotion and engagement are vital, but often unrecognized, aspects of learning. Educators can help students engage and develop self-regulation. Of course, not all learners will engage in learning in the same way. For instance, some learners will find math engaging and others will have a math phobia. Some learners will persist no matter what the obstacle, while others might want to quit when learning is tough. Educators need to think about ways that they can build in flexibility in the curriculum and eliminate as many barriers to engagement as possible. Providing multiple means of engagement can help all learners persist and stay motivated.

How Can Parents Help?

Education is most effective when a partnership is developed between educators and parents. Parents can work with schools to ensure that their child’s unique needs are being met within the classroom and other school environments. UDL helps create environments where all students can be included by creating curricula that are flexible and account for multiple learner needs. With UDL, parents and schools can collaborate to ensure education meets the needs of all children from the start.

i Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
ii UDL-IRN. (2011). Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author.
iii CAST. (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0.