Universal Design (UDL)

group of people working together using various technology

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based in brain science that supports all learners, including learners with disabilities. It leverages what we know about the brain networks involved in learning, to design inclusive and supportive learning environments and lessen common barriers to learning. 

UDL at a glance

In UDL, each learner has a unique learning profile, shaped by their learning environment, life experience, physical, mental, and emotional abilities, background knowledge, social support, study skills, and more .  This diversity of learner profiles is often described as learner variability.  (Fornauf et al., 2020; Meyer et al. 2014; Meyer et al., 2002)

As an instructor, learner variability can be confusing or overwhelming! UDL strategies can help you proactively design for the widest number of learners as possible. Think of it like a dinner party: a traditional dinner might involve everyone partaking in the same dish - say, spaghetti bolognese. Delicious, but maybe not fulfilling for the palates, needs, or diets of every guest. On the other hand, a pasta bar allowing guests to build their own dish from a selection of pasta types, toppings, sauces, and flavors, is more likely to successfully meet the needs and preferences of everyone. Much like a pasta bar, UDL strategies allow instructors to design learning environments in which most students are supported to grow into more expert learners, regardless of their diversity of profiles.
 

multicolor illustration of people with different dynamic colors

If we design a classroom activity for one mind (maybe a mind much like our own) then only a few students will be able to do this thinking (students most like us); if we design a classroom activity for a broad range of minds, then all students will have a genuine opportunity to learn and to create new knowledge.

Jay T. Dolmage
(Dolmage, 2017, 124)

Learner choice is an important ingredient in this framework, which hinges on the following principles:

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discussion is key

Provide multiple ways for learners to engage with the content and the learning community

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multimedia

Provide multiple means to access (sensorily) and make sense of the content and the environment

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multitude of ways

Provide multiple options to demonstrate and express learning

UDL Benefits

UDL supports learners in becoming more autonomous. 

Online learning environments assume learners to be autonomous than in-person ones, due to the absence of the immediate feedback afforded by face-to-face environments. This can be especially challenging for students with disabilities impacting their executive functioning skills (e.g. ADHD, autism, anxiety,...). (Agaloos & Gutierrez, n.d.).

UDL helps everyone learn. 

UDL strategies are helpful for learners with disabilities, but they also significantly lessen barriers to learning for many others as well.

examples
  • Minimizing threats and distractions (checkpoint 7.3) with clear instructions, consistent  course design, and predictable due dates is very useful for neurodivergent students. Learners struggling with time-management, professional students with packed schedules and reduced mental bandwidth, students new to online learning,etc can all benefit.
  • Offering alternatives for auditory  information (checkpoint 1.2), such as closed-captions for videos, is crucial for learners with auditory disabilities. It is also beneficial for non-natives, less proficient speakers of English or perhaps learners with certain types of dyslexia.

UDL can reduce unplanned adjustments.

Incorporating UDL into your course can be a time investment for you, the instructor. By intentionally designing for learner variability upfront, you can reduce the need for individual accommodations or on-the-fly adjustments throughout the semester, reducing some of your own stressors.

APPLYING UDL

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References

Agaloos, J., & Gutierrez, R. (n.d.). UDL On Campus: Executive Functioning in Online Environments. UDL On Campus. Retrieved November 20, 2023, from http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/teach_executive

Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, M. J., Donnell, K. A., & Hall, D. D. (n.d.). Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the College Classroom. The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship7(3), 1-13.

Boysen, G. A. (2021, June 24). Lessons (Not) Learned: The Troubling Similarities Between Learning Styles and Universal Design for Learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000280

Dolmage, J. (2017). Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press.

Fornauf, B. S., & Erickson, J. D. (2020). Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy Through Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability33(2), 183-199. https://eric.ed.gov/?q=UDL&pr=on&ft=on&id=EJ1273677

Furey, W. (2020, April 7). The Stubborn Myth of “Learning Styles”. Education Next20(3), 8-12. https://www.educationnext.org/stubborn-myth-learning-styles-state-teach…

Illustrative Example of a UDL Instructional Planning Process for a 4th Grade Integrated CS and Math Project. (n.d.). Creative Technology Research Lab. Retrieved November 14, 2023, from https://ctrl.education.illinois.edu/TACTICal/udl/planning-process-examp…