What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

universal design for learning
(Image credit: Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework designed to make learning efficient and effective for all students. The framework is based on what science reveals about how humans learn and is updated regularly in order to evolve by incorporating the latest research into the cognitive process in humans. 

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is used by teachers in all subjects and at all grade levels, from pre-K to higher education. 

Here is what you need to know about the Universal Design for Learning. 

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework Explained

The Universal Design for Learning framework was developed by David H. Rose, Ed.D of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s. 

The framework encourages teachers to design their lessons and classes with flexibility and to prioritize student choice in how and what they learn while highlighting the real-world relevancy of each lesson. According to CAST, Universal Desing for Learning encourages teachers to: 

  • Provide Multiple Means of Engagement by optimizing student choice and autonomy, and relevance and authenticity of the learning experience  
  • Provide Multiple Means of Representation offering students the opportunity to customize how they learn with multiple audio and visual elements that are accessible for all students 
  • Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression by varying the types of responses and interactions that are required from students and creating clear and appropriate goals for each student  

Schools or teachers who implement universal design for learning advocate for the widespread use of assistive technology and for students to engage with practical, real-world learning experiences that are meaningful to them. Students should have multiple modes to demonstrate what they’ve learned, and lessons should tap into their interests, helping motivate them to learn.  

What Universal Design for Learning Looks Like in Practice? 

One way of thinking about Universal Design for Learning is to picture it as a framework that provides students the opportunity "to work toward firm goals through flexible means.” 

In a math class this might mean more emphasis on real-world problem-solving and more scaffolding to make sure each student is appropriately challenged, while also providing an opportunity for students to learn through multiple means. In a writing class, a reading assignment might be provided via text but also in an audio or visual format, and students could then have the opportunity of writing and recording a podcast or video to demonstrate their knowledge rather than doing so through a traditional research paper. 

Amanda Bastoni, a research scientist at CAST, says that CTE instructors often inherently incorporate many elements of Universal Design for Learning into their classrooms. “We have these teachers coming from industry and teaching in this really unique way that we don't necessarily teach if we've gone from kindergarten to high school to college to be a teacher,” she says. “In UDL, we say, ‘Bring relevance to the learning.’ They bring authenticity, they bring some really key components of engagement. They're giving the students more autonomy. Students are working on the car themselves, not just watching someone else work on the car.”

Misconceptions About Universal Design for Learning 

Many misconceptions about Universal Design for Learning exist, including the following:

False Claim: Universal Design for Learning is for students with specific learning disabilities. 

Reality: While Universal Design for Learning seeks to improve outcomes for these students it is also designed to improve outcomes for every student. 

False Claim: Universal Design for Learning Coddles Students 

Reality: Universal Design for Learning aims to make the delivery of learning materials more effective. For example, jargon is explained and students can digest information in multiple ways, but the overarching material in a class or lesson is not made easier. 

False Claim: Universal Design for Learning Eliminates Direct Instruction 

Reality: Direct instruction is still an important part of many classes that follow universal design for learning principles. However, in these classes, a teacher might provide multiple ways for a student to engage with and build on the learning from that direct instruction including readings, recordings, video, or other visual aids. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.