Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning

What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn” (CAST Institute). The goal of UDL is to design instruction in such a way as to reach the widest possible audience.

UDL provides a framework for designing and teaching all aspects of your course – including the materials you present (representation), the opportunities you offer students to demonstrate their knowledge (expression), and the classroom learning environment that you foster to encourage motivation (engagement). UDL recognizes that individual variability in learning is the norm rather than the exception and offers strategies to tailor teaching practices and develop flexible learning activities for all students.

Sharing the same goal with Universal Design (UD), UDL considers as many individuals as possible with designs that work from the outset and do not require retrofitting. What makes UDL different is its focus on learning and teaching. Furthermore, UDL takes the principles of UD and expands it to the learning and cognitive domain.  In addition to compliance with accessibility requirements, UDL also requires usability and does not segregate learners.

A triangle diagram depicts the relationship between UD, UDL and Accessibility. UD, as the big framework, encompasses 3 triangles at each angle representing accessibility (equitable access), usability (simple and intuitive use), and inclusion (proactive integration), and the 4th triangle at the center representing UDL.

Relationship between UDL, UD and Accessibility

Adapted from Burgstahler, S. E., & Cory, R. C. (2008). Universal design in higher education. Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice, 3-23.

  • Accessibility refers to the ability to engage with, use, participate in, and belong to the world around us.  
  • Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specific context of use. (International Organization for Standardization, 1998)
  • Inclusion captures the ethos and practice of actively including and supporting students of varying abilities in the mainstream environment, without segregation.  

Why UDL matters

Designed to support the success of all students, UDL embraces diversity and difference as the norm of any learning environment. UDL thus advocates for learning experience design that will help all students achieve their educational goals.

Utilizing UDL principles in curriculum design benefits the instructor and students in the following ways:

  • Integrate Diversity: UDL helps educators appreciate the differences that each student brings to the learning process and provides guidance for proactive curriculum and learning environment design that is accessible, adaptable, and inclusive.
  • Maximize learning: By drawing on insights from the latest learning sciences research, UDL enables instructors to design curriculum and lessons that can fully engage students during learning and optimize the learning experience for individual learners.
  • Minimize barriers: UDL helps educators minimize barriers in instruction and provide appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, while maintaining high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency (Higher Education Opportunity Act; Public Law 110-315, August 14, 2008).

At The Center for Teaching Excellence, we promote the use of Universal Design for Learning as a best practice in teaching. The following pages outline UDL-informed teaching methods, resources, and instructional technologies to guide for developing and teaching courses.

Our thanks to Dr. Richard Jackson and Scott Lapinski of the Lynch School of Education for their assistance with this section of the CTE Resources site.

Recommended Websites

Recommended Research

  • CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA:
  • Hall, T., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2012). Universal Design for Learning in the classroom: Practical applications. New York: Guilford Press.