Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to Remove Barriers to Learning

Inclusive Teaching Tip | Winter 2021 WK5

Universal design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that accommodates individual learning differences by intentionally seeking and removing barriers experienced by diverse students. UDL draws from the architectural concept of universal design—a design philosophy that seeks to make the physical environment accessible to the widest number of users. The idea is to move from “retrofitting” an existing design toward considering the whole range of human diversity during the design process. Consider, for example, a public building designed with ramps and automatic doors at its entrance. These features improve access for a broader set of the population by offering multiple ways to enter. Not only are those who use wheelchairs and assistive mobile devices able to gain access to the building, but others such as the family with a small child in a stroller or the visitor bringing a case of files to a meeting also experience improved access.

Similarly, the UDL framework reduces barriers for students by considering the cognitive diversity (neurodiversity), physical abilities, and cultural diversity of learners in the classroom. For example, consider captions on videos available in multiple languages. The captions make the video accessible to those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing while also improving understanding for learners who find that reading the dialogue while it is spoken helps their understanding, for those whose primary language is not English, or for those who are watching the video in a noisy environment.

The Center for Applied Special Technology has developed guidelines (CAST; 2018) meant to support cognitively diverse learners to become “expert learners” by changing the learning environment rather than attempting to change the learner. The guidelines are organized into three broadly defined principles that provide flexibility in the ways (1) students are engaged in learning, (2) information is acquired, and (3) students reach and demonstrate mastery. (

The UDL Guidelines graphic organizer provides a quick glance overview if the framework.

Principle 1: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

When encountering new learning, interest in a subject or particular skill will vary among students. Some students will arrive in class activated and excited to study a particular topic; others will need to build interest. Engagement can fade over time, which necessitates tools to support persistence. Ultimately, students will develop a toolbox of strategies they can use to build and sustain their own engagement. Students can be supported along the way by encountering opportunities for choice and autonomy in learning, guided in drawing connections to what is relevant for them in their lives and desired futures, and developing skills in self-reflection and self-motivation.

Principle 2: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Representation refers to the forms through which students acquire the information and knowledge that leads to comprehension—from reading, watching, or listening. Learners differ in their ability to acquire and comprehend information. Choosing and preparing course materials in multiple modalities can reduce barriers experienced by students with sensory disabilities, learning disabilities, language and cultural differences, or other diverse attributes that impact learning.

It can be challenging to imagine how to implement this type of flexibility. Luckily, there are some simple approaches you can start with. For example, simply guiding students to compare responses when given a challenging problem provides the opportunity to explain their own thinking and hear an explanation from a different perspective. Ask yourself if the projects or activities for your course could take a variety of forms. Could students equivalently demonstrate learning through writing or an oral presentation? What about a video, poster presentation, or infographic?

Principle 3: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Learner diversity includes how students navigate their learning environment and express what they know. Providing students flexibility allows students the opportunity to approach learning tasks and demonstrate what they know in different ways and sometimes at different rates. Providing opportunities for students to compare responses when given a challenging problem provides an opportunity for students to explain their own thinking and hear an explanation from someone new.

Imagine that you are teaching a class and after the first exam or major project it becomes clear to you that about a third of the class didn’t sufficiently demonstrate comprehension of the material. The next unit builds on this knowledge, so what should you do? You could stop and review the material for the entire class, but then you’d be requiring two thirds of the class to spend time reviewing something they’ve already mastered. You could move on, but that would mean you’d be leaving a third of the class behind and at a disadvantage moving forward.
Now imagine you have the opportunity to travel back in time and redesign the course. How might you build in flexible pathways for learners who needed more time to gain comprehension?

When faced with an access teaching puzzle, use the UDL guidelines as a lens to devise a solution. These questions can help kickstart your thinking.

Engagement: Are students able to articulate how course content is relevant to their lives or future goals? do students understand the skills and knowledge they will gain from course activities?

Representation: is the material accessible? do documents support screen readers and do all videos have closed captions and transcripts? Have you provided stu- dents with what they need to decode complex language or symbols? is content presented in multiple formats such as text, diagrams, and videos?

Action and Expression: Have you provided flexibility in how students will demonstrate their learning? Are there multiple ways for students to interact with each other, for example, in-class discussions and online forums? Have you demonstrated ways to solve problems using a variety of strategies?

A piece of advice: START SMALL! Choose one strategy that appeals to you and try it out. Ask students to weigh in on the strategies that are working for them.

The UDL On Campus website (, developed by CAST, hosts an extensive collection of resources for higher education.

The Inclusive Teaching Tips are a series of simple, equitable teaching practices published in the Learning and Teaching Commons Newsletter. The tips are archived here.

For many, many more inclusive teaching resources and to add your own, visit ALL LEARNERS WELCOME: Resources for Designing Inclusive Learning Experiences.

This inclusive teaching tip was adapted from Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning That Matters: A Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education. Gorham, ME: Myers Education Press.

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