Universal design for learning (UDL)

The challenge of inclusive higher education in the 21st century

The scholarship of teaching and learning at the postsecondary level has enabled a consensus that the conventional methods of college teaching -- characterized at their simplest by full-session lectures, assigned readings and exercises from a textbook, and grading based primarily on two or three exams – simply do not work for a sizable number of students. Moreover, they often do a poor job of fostering some of the more sophisticated types of thinking and skills that our society expects of college graduates. To do justice to the many dimensions of diversity found among Temple students, especially, requires us to attend to two complementary realities: First, creating a learning environment that will be responsive to the interests, abilities, backgrounds, and needs of all students is a daunting challenge; and second, the presence of so many differences among the students in any given classroom creates rich opportunities not only for subject-matter learning, but for meaningful cognitive, social, and moral development as well.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a theoretical paradigm that informs the efforts of faculty to promote educational success for the greatest possible proportion of their students, while pursuing meaningful learning objectives informed by high academic standards. An inclusive learning environment that is universally designed takes into account all relevant dimensions of difference that an instructor expects to encounter among her/his students. By proactively minimizing barriers to the materials, learning activities, and methods of assessment used in the course, the professor maximizes the potential for all students to achieve the course objectives and to successfully demonstrate what they have learned. Inclusive pedagogy understood in this way recognizes that it is not only students with a disability who may be disadvantaged or precluded from learning due to elements of course design, teaching, or assessment.

The model of inclusion that UDL employs takes ability/disability as only one of a large number of ways in which students may differ from one another; the objective is to design learning environments in which all relevant dimensions of difference are taken into account. Inclusion of this sort ensures that the needs of students with a disability are met, but it also minimizes barriers for many other students. Inclusive pedagogy understood in this way, therefore, “includes” students with a disability in a more integrative and less stigmatizing manner, by recognizing that it is not only students with a disability who may be disadvantaged or precluded from learning due to elements of course design, teaching, or assessment. Another benefit of this approach is to minimize the number of students with a disability who will need to initiate formal procedures for seeking reasonable accommodations and disclose that disability to their instructors. This puts those students who do not wish to disclose a disability on more equal footing with their peers who do not have a defined disability.

Dimensions of diversity A to Z

In any classroom at Temple University, faculty may encounter a large number of differences among students that influence what and how they will learn in that particular course:

  •     Abilities ADHD age anxiety Asperger Syndrome assistive technology available time
  •     Beliefs about learning
  •     Chronic illness chronic pain cognitive development comfort level culture
  •     Decoding ability dexterity distractibility
  •     Experience English language proficiency
  •     Familiarity with dominant culture family responsibilities financial resources
  •     Gender
  •     High-speed internet access
  •     Identity immigration status
  •     Job responsibilities
  •     Learning disability level of interest
  •     Medication mental illness military service mobility motivation
  •     Nationality
  •     Organizational skills
  •     Preferences preparation prior knowledge priorities processing speed PTSD
  •     Race religion response to challenges returning to education
  •     Sexuality self-efficacy sleep speech facility social skills strengths
  •     Technology access and proficiency test anxiety time management skills traumatic brain injury
  •     Values
  •     Weaknesses worldview

Introduction to Universal Design for Learning

The concept of universal design emerged and was initially developed within architecture, from which it moved easily into the consumer product area. The fundamental premise behind universal design is that spaces, products, and other items or processes should be designed so that the maximum number of people will be able to use them without modification.

It has only been within the past two decades that the principles of universal design have infiltrated education; during that period, theorists have suggested several different frameworks that deploy universal design as a lens through which educators may evaluate the learning environments, activities, and assessments they create; “Universal Design for Learning” is one of those frameworks.[1] The mantra of UDL is “multiple means.” A universally designed course is one that offers students:

  • Multiple means of representation of the course content – i.e., what the instructor intends for them to learn;
  • Multiple means of engaging with that content – features that ignite and sustain interest, challenge and motivate, and promote learning and retention through activity and practice; and finally,
  • Multiple means of expressing their thinking and demonstrating what they have learned – features that minimize barriers to measurement of their actual achievement of learning objectives.

View a 13-minute video that presents the rationale for UDL and a variety of ways to create universally designed educational experiences in higher education. The accompanying publication provides details and resources. The presentation is open-captioned and audio-described.

Hallmarks of a universally designed educational context

The key characteristics of a universally designed course are:

  • clarity of objectives
  • flexibility and options
  • accessibility

Clarity of objectives

All decisions about the design of your course rest solidly upon the learning objectives (goals) you set for the course. The books and other materials students will use, the learning activities they will engage in, the extent to which you give lectures and how you configure those lectures, how you measure student success -- these and many other factors can only be intelligibly determined with reference to what you expect your students to achieve during the course of the semester, and the standards you hold for those achievements.

The diagram below illustrates the direct connections that should exist among the three main elements of your course[2]: the learning objectives (what students should know or be able to do by the conclusion of the course), the learning activities featured in the course (what students will do in order to learn, apply, and practice the skills and knowledge you want them to gain), and the assessments (the ways in which you measure the degree to which your students have achieved the learning objectives). Configured as the points of a triangle, each of these elements is linked to the other two. If a connection is absent between any two elements, the efficacy of the course and/or the meaningfulness of the assessments – and consequently the students' grades -- could be seriously compromised. The "Situational Factors" beneath the triangle represent concrete conditions that influence decisions you will make regarding each of the course components. We will look more closely at some of these factors below.

To illustrate the importance of the connections among course components, let us suppose that you do not consciously choose teaching and learning activities – lectures, films, demonstrations, discussions, problem-solving, etc. – that will give your students a chance to learn, work with, try out, and use the knowledge and skills targeted by your learning goals. That would make it less likely that your students will actually achieve those goals; the course may not facilitate the outcomes it promises.

Likewise, if you design feedback and assessment tools – exams in a given format, writing assignments, presentations, projects, etc. – that do not actually measure how well the students have learned what the course objectives specify, those assessments will tell you and your students very little. Such assessments will not indicate progress, highlight what students should work on, or demonstrate areas of strength. Their final grades, moreover, will reflect some undisclosed set of criteria, instead of the degree to which they actually achieved the course goals.

The importance of clear learning objectives for universal design

Well-defined learning objectives are also crucial to the process of creating an inclusive learning environment through universal design. Why? Because your informed, realistic learning objectives anchor the course; they set the standards for what students should know or be able to do by the time the course is over. In this respect, the learning objectives are non-negotiable, as are the standards that you set for fulfillment of those objectives. As we have seen, flexibility and choice are among the hallmarks of universal design in education. Clearly defined learning objectives enable us to discern the appropriate limits of that flexibility and choice. Consistent reference to course goals will help us to delineate which options we can offer students without jeopardizing achievement of the goals and/or measurement of that achievement; it will also help us to draw the necessary lines with respect to issues such as time limits, use of computers, formats of exams, attendance, and modes of participation.

For instance, if your course requires students to use mathematical formulae to solve problems, you will have to make a decision about whether to require students to memorize and recall specific formulas when they are taking exams or working on problem sets in class. Whether or not you believe memorization and recall are important will depend in part on the extent to which such skills are required in the career fields for which you are preparing your students. Look at your learning objectives: have you determined that students should know and recall the appropriate formula to use in a given context? If so, you will require your students to memorize formulae for use in activities and assessments. If, however, the relevant objective calls for students to be able to decide on and use the correct formula in a range of situations, this implies that the formulae do not have to come "from their heads." In that case, you could allow students to bring a list of formulae to refer to when working on problems. The advantage of this strategy is that you will more accurately measure the ability targeted by the objectives: namely, a student's ability to choose and apply the correct formula. You also avoid confounding your assessment by measuring how well a student can remember formulae.

Obviously, decisions of this sort can have a dramatic influence on how your students experience your course. In any instance where your learning objectives permit flexibility, your students will benefit from that. In the example above, all students will probably appreciate being able to concentrate on using the formulas rather than memorizing them. Some students will be particularly relieved, among them those who have memory challenges resulting from traumatic brain injury; individuals who have trouble concentrating due to the effects of medication, anxiety, or lack of sleep; those who have trouble recalling what they know in the high-stress context of the exam; and students who simply have heavy demands on their time, whether it be a job, family responsibilities, extracurricular activities, or a heavy course load.

Flexibility and options

Offering a flexible structure and options as to how students can go about accomplishing the learning goals for the course makes the learning opportunities more inclusive for a wide variety of reasons.

  • Increases motivation
    • One of the most common questions faculty ask is how to better motivate their students to complete the tasks that will help them to learn, whether it be reading the textbook and other materials, committing to ongoing study and review, or generating knowledge themselves through research and projects.
    • Giving students choices about how they access the foundational knowledge of the course (e.g., choice of textbook; choice of print, audio or digital format; choice of scholarly reference source) gives them more ownership of their learning process and lets them encounter information through a form and context that they find interesting, appealing, readable, etc. Research has shown that having choices and a corresponding sense of control increases students' motivation.[3]
    • Example: Although attention deficit disorder causes him to lose focus frequently while reading, Ibrahim has no trouble concentrating when reading about his passion – environmental conservation. Therefore, when his economics professor directs her students to learn about a particular concept in economic theory for the next class, he always checks one of the library’s many e-books on the subject of economics and the environment.
    • Giving students options about how to access, process, and organize information can make their study time more productive, because they are generating meaningful connections and robust pathways for recall. This increased level of intelligibility reinforces their consistent and active participation in the learning process.
    • Example: To make sure that her students do the assigned reading between classes, Professor L. has traditionally required them to write a brief summary of the reading, and to turn it in at the beginning of class. This semester, she has decided to modify the assignment to offer students the choice to create a concept map (or other graphic organizer), a PowerPoint or Prezi, or a summary in written or audio (podcast) format. She anticipates that many students will opt for the familiar written summary, but that some will appreciate the alternatives, including those who have more trouble putting things in writing than saying them aloud; those who have well-developed visual-spatial skills and will use a concept map or other diagram to see the big picture; and those who like the built-in organizational features of PowerPoint.
    • Offering students choices about what they can produce to demonstrate what they know/can do allows them to choose a modality and format that capitalizes on their strengths or invites them to stretch beyond their comfort zone to try something new. Individuals tend to be better-motivated when they believe they can succeed in the task before them. They are most highly motivated when the task seems demanding but doable.[4] Because every student brings to the course a different configuration of strengths and skills, offering several choices for assessment makes it more likely that each person will find the level of challenge s/he is looking for.
    • Example: Professor T. designed his investigational project in microbiology to offer students a choice among several end-products involving varying levels of built-in structure: an encyclopedia article about a microorganism of choice; a website designed to educate the public about a pathogenic microbe and how to avoid contamination; or an unspecified product related to a microorganism in the news. Still trying to negotiate his way through the daunting social demands of college, Misha, a first-year student with Asperger Syndrome, is happy to learn that he can choose a relatively comfortable way to complete the assignment, because he is familiar with the structure of encyclopedia articles and the assignment comes with detailed instructions about the format, what information he must include, and in what sections. Adriana, on the other hand, is majoring in public health, and is anxious to evaluate the ways in which hospitals manage antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The unspecified project related to a microorganism in the news gives her a perfect forum to take this investigation in whatever direction it leads.
  • Invites participation
    • Allowing flexibility in the ways students work together on collaborative learning activities takes into account that individuals have different degrees of comfort, confidence, and ability when speaking with others face-to-face, by phone, live chat, or asynchronously through an online discussion board or bulletin board. Those who will not/cannot participate in one forum have a chance to be heard and engage fully in another.
    • Example: Xiaomei, who arrived in Philadelphia several months ago from China, reads and writes English fairly competently, but still struggles with pronunciation and the stress of finding the right words when speaking to someone. She virtually never speaks in class, even during small group discussions, but contributes valuable insights and suggestions during online problem-solving sessions with her team. The difference, she says, is that she is afraid people will not understand what she says when she speaks, and she often can’t think of the words in English fast enough to contribute; when she can take time to formulate what she wants to say, she can express herself clearly in a written post.
  • Maximizes opportunities for success
    • By taking into account the issues and challenges your students are apt to face, you can design the course so that some of these do not get in the way of students’ progress. Each student will have a much better chance of getting full access to all the materials, of being able to fully engage with the learning activities, and of demonstrating the full extent of her/his skills and knowledge.
    • Example: Professor R posts all the lecture materials for her architecture course (e.g., slides, notes, discussion problems, and exemplary solutions by student pairs) on Blackboard following every class. She finds she no longer has to answer emails from absent students asking what they had missed. Anyone who misses class, whether it be for illness, a funeral, an athletic commitment, family issues, or other reasons, can review the core information and questions the class worked on that day.
    • Example: Professor G includes “participation” in her calculation of students’ final grades to reflect certain aspects of their achievement of course goals related to effective oral and written communication and working productively in collaboration with others. Her syllabus clearly lays out a range of activities that constitute “participation”; students choose at least two through which they will earn their participation points. Besides asking or answering questions during class, the activities include posting relevant news articles, blogs, or links to websites on the class wiki and providing appropriate commentary; initiating or participating substantively in a discussion board exchange; suggesting a change in any aspect of the course that Prof. G actually implements or considers implementing; posting their notes from a class session for others to use; and anything else that contributes to the learning of the group.
  • Removes unnecessary obstacles
    • Careful implementation of UDL features will help you to minimize the arbitrary barriers a more rigid or monolithic design presents for a number of students.
    • Example: Marco’s eyesight has deteriorated to the point where he cannot read normal size print, and if he reads for extended periods, his eyes get so tired he can’t read at all. He always tries to get his textbooks in an audio format so that he can listen to them instead of reading. He also needs to have all handouts and other print material in digital form, so that he can use magnifying software. He really appreciates instructors who provide documents that allow the text to wrap from one side of the screen to the other when magnified.


In universally designing a course, an instructor tries to ensure that all students will have access to all parts of the learning experience. This may require supplementary accommodations for a student with a particular disability, but it will most likely decrease the need for accommodations for some students. One major area of accessibility to which instructors should pay close attention is accessible instructional materials (AIM). For detailed information about AIM, please read further under “Multiple means of representation of course content.”

How does universal design relate to accommodations?

For the most part, the work of translating universal design into K-12 and postsecondary educational contexts has been done within forums focused on disabilities. This has encouraged attention to the relationship between universal design and accommodations, the primary mechanism used to give students with a disability equal access to education. Proponents of universal design in education typically articulate the relationship in this way: universal design goes beyond accommodations in many respects, making many common accommodations unnecessary because what students with a disability may require is already built into the course. There will always be a need for some accommodations, however, especially in cases of severe functional limitations or unusual circumstances. The table below lays out several points of contrast between the accommodations and universal design approaches, and suggests why the universal design model makes sense for educators to adopt.

While universal design has advanced in the educational arena primarily as a mechanism for inclusion of students with a disability, its conceptual scope covers the full range of educationally relevant differences that exist among students in today’s college classrooms. The elegance of UDL, of course, lies in the fact that a course feature designed with one dimension of diversity in mind will almost certainly enrich the educational experience of other students who do not share that characteristic.

What UDL is NOT

UDL is not an excuse to lower academic standards or water down the content of the course. In fact, it is the best defense against the temptation to do these things. The instructor who has defined clear and meaningful learning objectives and then chosen or created course materials that are accessible to all students; learning activities in which all students can find opportunities to learn, practice, and improve; and assessments that measure only the skills and knowledge targeted in the objectives can most easily justify preserving the integrity of the course content while holding the line on standards of student achievement.

Despite making some accommodations unnecessary for some students with a disability, UDL is not a replacement for reasonable accommodations in the post-secondary academic setting.

Finally, UDL is not a formula for one-size-fits-all course design. On the contrary, UDL recognizes that the many dimensions of diversity present among students in one class makes a one-size-fits-all solution impossible. Instead, a universally designed course will offer a variety of options and flexible structures that will offer as many students as possible the opportunity to learn to their highest potential.


    ^ [1] The UDL framework discussed here and used to structure and inform the Project EDIT curriculum was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit entity that conducts research and development of educational resources and products, with a particular commitment to persons with a disability. CAST runs the National Center for Universal Design for Learning, whose website offers valuable information and resources about UDL: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl.

    ^ [2] This diagram is adapted from Fink, D. Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2003), p. 107. The discussion in this section is indebted to Fink’s model of "Integrated Course Design."

    ^ [3] Svinicki, Marilla D. Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, pp. 155-6.

    ^ [4] Svinicki, pp. 153-4, 158.

    ^ [5] What appears here is an adaptation of a table created by AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) Universal Design Initiative Team. Access the original table at the website of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Project PACE: http://ualr.edu/pace/index.php/home/hot-topics/ud/.