Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning is a way of making your course and curriculum more inclusive by removing barriers that inhibit learning.

1. Universal Design removes barriers to increase accessibility for students. 

Universal design is an approach that seeks to make a design accessible to the greatest number of people possible, without requiring assistive technology or other accommodations. A prototypical example is a curb ramp, which provides access for people in wheelchairs as well as for bikers, people pushing strollers, and walking pedestrians, whereas a curb without a ramp presents an obstacle for some sidewalk users.

2. Universal Design can be applied to curriculum development.

When applied to curricula or teaching, Universal Design is often referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) or Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). The fundamental goal of UDL, as defined by the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, is to “eliminate unnecessary barriers [to learning] without eliminating the necessary challenges.”

3. There is no ‘average’ student.

Designing an activity for a purported ‘average’ group of students tends to leave some students on the periphery. Students left out often include individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities, but also potentially other students such as English language learners, students with gaps in their prior knowledge, and students of non-dominant cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. Who among us has never been “non-average” at one point or another? A universal design approach takes these variances into account so that designers of curricula and instructional activities intentionally remove potential barriers to students outside the average and increase learning access to the widest variety of learners.

4. Learn the key principles of Universal Design.

The Center for Universal Design identifies 7 Principles of Universal Design:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple and Intuitive
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

CAST specifies 3 related Principles of Universal Design for Learning:

  • Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the “what” of learning)
  • Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the “how” of learning)
  • Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the “why” of learning)

These related sets of principles are two ways of organizing the main tenets of a universal design approach. Broadly, they identify key areas of potential concern for equitable use and are a good way in to thinking about the key questions of Universal Design.

5. Consider how each part of your curriculum might affect students of varying backgrounds and needs.

Universal Design should be thought of as a way of approaching your curriculum design. Each of the principles outlined above offers a way to start thinking about some common instructional “choke points.” For example, the Center for Universal Design’s fifth principle, Tolerance for Error, specifies that a given context should allow students to make mistakes without severe penalty. This might mean there are low/no-stakes checkpoints for a larger assignment, such as draft review periods for final essays or no-penalty practice problem sets in advance of an exam. This approach allows you to help your students identify particular strengths and weaknesses before earning grades, but it also allows anxious students to practice in low-stakes situations.

6. Universal Design for Learning can also help students without specific disabilities.

While it is often thought of as primarily for people with physical or cognitive disabilities, Universal Design can help instruction be more accessible to everyone. For example, although closed captions might be necessary for students with hearing loss, they also make a video more accessible to English language learners, to students who have difficulty focusing on oral communication, and to students who might be watching the video in a noisy environment (such as a dorm room).

7. Universal Design and Learning Styles are not the same.

Like teaching approaches that seek to address various learning styles, Universal Design approaches seek to make learning more accessible to a wider variety of learners. Unlike the concept of Learning Styles, Universal Design approaches needn’t classify individual learners according to a particular learning style. Instead, Universal Design recognizes that learners vary greatly. This approach seeks to add flexibility and appropriate supports to a wide variety of learners in many contexts.

8. Technology can increase accessibility.

For example, digital text can usually be resized to be more accessible for people with visual impairments. It can similarly be processed in text-to-speech applications for people with visual impairments or for people who prefer to read and listen at the same time. Digital text can be integrated with dictionaries so that unfamiliar words are easily glossed.

9. Additional resources are available through the Academic Support and Access Center and through CTRL.

The Academic Support and Access Center is available at 202.885.3360 and the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning can be reached at 202.885.2117.

10. There are many useful online resources about Universal Design for Learning.

Accessibility Toolkit by Amanda Coolidge, Sue Doner, and Tara Robertson

The Center for Universal Design in Education at University of Washington

National Center on Universal Design For Learning

Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice by Anne Meyer, David H. Rose, and David Gordon