UDL in assessment

Happy black student raising arm to answer question while attending class with her university colleagues.

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. 

This resource presents strategies to implement UDL principles in assessment.

Refresher: What is assessment?

Assessment is the measurement of students' progress toward learning outcomes. There are two types of assessments:

  • Summative assessments evaluate mastery at a given point in time; for example, a midterm or final exam, or a final paper or presentation.
  • Formative assessments measure progress toward learning outcomes throughout the learning experience. These might consist of homework assignments or discussions. Formative assessments also provide instructors an opportunity to gather information about the effectiveness of the instructional approach and the learning environment.

One analogy that is sometimes used to compare formative and summative assessment: formative assessment is when the chef tastes the dish. Summative assessment is when the customer tastes the dish.


The point of assessment is for students to demonstrate what they have learned. However, barriers within traditional assessment strategies can interfere with this goal. Incorporating UDL into your assessment strategies allows students to demonstrate what they know, not just their ability to meet the requirements of the assessment. For example, the incorporation of “trick questions” into a test assesses the student’s ability to parse the question, not whether the student understands the concepts covered.

UDL strategies emphasize authentic assessment, offering opportunities for students to apply and transfer what they have learned beyond the class.

One common barrier within assessment is student anxiety. Because traditional summative assessments have a higher impact on students’ final grades, they can trigger high levels of stress and anxiety, which can interfere with student performance on the assessment.


Underrepresented students and students with disabilities are especially susceptible to these testing effects due to their lived experience or identity. This can in turn negatively impact their performance. (Steele & Aronson, 1995, Taylor & Walton, 2011, 1064).


Using the UDL framework to design assessments starts with aligning assessments to learning goals, minimizing requirements unrelated to learning outcomes, and offering authentic opportunities for assessments.

OUTCOME MEETS ASSESSMENT Aligning assessment to learning outcomes

The nature and level of the learning outcomes will inform your choice of assessment. If your learning outcome focuses on higher order cognitive skills, such as evaluating or creating, then you want your assessment to capture that. For example, a multiple choice quiz can be helpful to assess students’ ability to identify key aspects of the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but it will be less effective to measure learners’ ability to analyze the role of passion in the novel. Alignment allows you to get more accurate data on student learning, and keeps the assessment relevant and meaningful to the rest of the learning experience, which supports student motivation

You can use Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to check if the assessments you are designing or using are in line with the learning outcomes.


When creating assessments, we often go through a mental checklist of everything that must be included to ensure coverage of content. At the same time, weeding out or minimizing any parts of the assessment that are not directly related to the targeted learning outcomes, or necessary to conduct the assessment, is just as important 

Consider the following examples for asynchronous online courses. Are there any required parts that are not directly related to the learning outcomes or necessary to assess them? 

  • Learning outcome: Describe three practices involved in the celebration of Día de los Muertos in Mexico, in Spanish.
  • Assignment description: Create a poster summarizing what you have learned about Día de Los Muertos in this unit, along with a recording describing three traditional practices associated with this feast day.

A recording is a medium that is directly related to the targeted speaking skills, and necessary to facilitate the assessment asynchronously. By contrast, the poster requires digital and creative skills unrelated to the actual learning outcomes. This can be a barrier for some students.

  • Learning outcome: Explain the difference between diffusion, osmosis and active transport. 
  • Assessment description: An open ended-quiz with the following prompt: What is the difference between diffusion, osmosis and active transport? Write a short paragraph highlighting the differences, with examples.

The ability to differentiate between these three processes is distinct from writing skills. Restricting the submission format to written sets up stronger writers for success, but puts others at a disadvantage who may otherwise meet the learning objective. Instead, providing multiple submission options (a short audio or video recording; drawings; a visual summary/organizer) would allow students to pick what works best for them to demonstrate their learning.

  • Learning Outcome: Maintain appropriate vet drug records.
  • Assessment description: Submit a weekly written log of drugs administered to small animals at your current vet clinic, following AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) formatting.

In this case, the written format is directly relevant to the intended outcomes: it is the established format for record keeping in the profession. As such, this is both an authentic and relevant assessment for this outcome.

For some students, the written format might still constitute a barrier. For them, providing resources for speech-to-text options, such as  instructions for enabling dictation in Word, would be helpful.

As you brainstorm or revise assessments, ask yourself:
  • How can I determine learners’ progress toward meeting our learning goals?
  • Is this assessment aligned with the learning outcomes ? 
  • Are there any skills, knowledge, or behaviors that learners will need to rely on to complete the assessment that are not directly related to the learning outcomes? If so, are they necessary to facilitate the assessment, and can you build in support for students?

Flexible and Meaningful Flexibility through Choice

There is frequently more than one way to assess a set of learning outcomes. Incorporating options in assessment supports self-regulation, self-reflection, and motivation, all crucial components of student success.

Options for communication about assessments
user choice

Allow students to choose whether they prefer to receive audio, video, or written feedback.

video and text

Provide assessment instructions in more than one medium, for example written and video.  

Options for students to express learning and demonstrate mastery:

Providing two options instead of one might just be enough for motivation, especially with the right supports (O'Neill, 2022, 201).

user choice

Choice of context or type: students choose between different assessments targeting the same outcome, for example a reflection journal, a media analysis, or an interview.

freedom of choice

Choice of exercises from a set: students select X numbers of questions to answer or problems to solve, out of a larger pool of similar activities.

user choice

Choice of submission format: Students follow the same assessment instructions, but can select how to submit their work. Examples include a written response, a photo essay, an audio presentation, or an infographic, etc.(“Accommodations and Accessibility in Assessment,” 2022, 137).

Did you know?

Don't forget about technology. Providing practice opportunities that reflect the format of any bigger summative assessment is crucial so students can get acquainted with technology and logistics ahead of time. 

Regular and Scaffolded

For assessments to be truly informative for the learners and the instructor, they need to be regular, scaffolded into graduated steps, and accompanied by meaningful feedback. More frequent, lower stakes assessments help students build mastery and confidence and provide more accurate data about student learning. These assessments can take many forms:

  • Formative assessments, such as Zoom polls, comprehension-check Canvas quizzes, exit tickets, and other Classroom Assessment Techniques
  • Regular practice opportunities throughout the course to build towards more complex learning outcomes.
  • Major projects broken into smaller steps, with opportunities for instructor and/or peer feedback at multiple steps. 
  • Opportunities for students to revise their work so they can learn from your feedback and the process itself. 
  • Practice exams to allow students to get used to the assessment format, practice retrieving information, and identify any gaps in their understanding that must be addressed before the major exam.


Many of Missouri Online’s Quality Course Review (QCR) requirements and recommendations for assessments align with UDL principles:

Applying UDL

Keep the learning going. Learn more about how to implement UDL in your course.

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