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What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework developed by CAST to support educators and designers to meet the needs of all learners.

On this page, discover:

Minimising barriers and maximising outcomes for all learners

The UDL approach to teaching minimises barriers and maximises outcomes for all learners. It begins with the foundational understanding that every learner is highly variable. No learner is just one thing; we all have strengths and weaknesses. Those strengths and weaknesses become apparent based on the task, the environment, the resources and tools available, and even a learner’s affect (what sort of day he’s having).

In any classroom or learning environment, you can expect that there will be a wide range of interests, background experiences, and skills. When we plan for this range from the start, then more learners are able to access, participate, and engage.

Not sure what Universal Design for Learning is all about?

Listent to this great description from Julie Bassett, Technology Intervention Specialist at Cincinnati Public Schools

When UDL is applied, the barriers to learning are addressed through the design of the environment. Instead of noting what the learner may not be able to do or understand (i.e., “this student is not comprehending the text”), UDL reframes the barrier to be in how the design of the lesson (i.e., “there is an option available to support comprehension”). With UDL, there is intentional design to provide options that support the learner to gain the necessary skills or background in a lesson.

Learn more about the UDL basics

We've partnered with The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE) to bring you this series centered around UDL.

To help illustrate the connections between UDL and key topics, and to support you to communicate those connections to others, we’ve created a series of informational videos and curated resources along the various “on-ramps” to Universal Design for Learning.

Learner variability and the UDL Guidelines

UDL aims to change the design of the environment and curriculum rather than to change the learner.

Brain science shows just how unique each brain is. Educators know learners will vary- we can anticipate this variability and plan for it from the start. CAST’s UDL Guidelines support educators to anticipate variability in how learners engage (UDL Engagement Principle), build background (UDL Representation Principle), and take action in their learning (UDL Action & Expression Principle).

The UDL Guidelines are a tool to support educators in any context (such as K-12, higher education, afterschool programs, adult professional development, curriculum designers, etc.). It is an asset-based approach that recognises that every individual can build those learning networks. We can design to support the learning. 

By anticipating learner variability and proactively reducing the barriers to learning, UDL empowers all learners to engage in rigorous, meaningful learning experiences. 

The benefits of UDL

There are many benefits to using UDL in the classroom. Some of these include:

  1. improved academic achievement for all learners, including those with disabilities;
  2. increased engagement and motivation;
  3. greater equity and inclusion;
  4. reduced barriers to learning; and
  5. improved digital literacy skills

It’s a powerful approach because the full range of learners or users have been considered from the very start of a lesson. It can take time to plan and develop flexible lessons, but the effort is worth it.

Here are some examples of how school districts in the U.S. implemented UDL and have found the design impacted learning:

Flexibility and UDL

UDL provides greater flexibility in educational materials and instruction, making it easier for educators to meet the needs of all learners.

The application of UDL requires focus on the learning goal. With the goal in the forefront, CAST’s UDL Guidelines can then be used as a tool to support flexible lesson design. The shift to develop flexible, robust learning experiences is different from a traditional “one size fits all” curriculum. But the flexibility has benefits: it supports the anticipated range of learners to achieve the goals from the start of a lesson, including language learners or those who may have been traditionally not included in general education classrooms.

Flexibility is an important part of UDL. It includes flexible goals, flexible methods, and flexible assessment

Flexible goals means that the sameness of goals is not assumed, and that different learners may have different goals. For example, a learner who is struggling with reading may have the goal of improving their reading skills, while a learner who is advanced in reading may have the goal of reading more challenging texts.

Flexible methods means that there is not one “right” way to do things, and that different learners will learn best in different ways. For example, some learners may learn best by listening to audio recordings of text, while others may learn best by reading the text themselves.

Flexible assessment means that there are multiple ways to assess learning, and that learners should be assessed in the way that best meets their needs. For example, a student who is struggling with a written assignment may be given the opportunity to assess their learning through an oral presentation instead.

Fostering expert learners

The ultimate goal of UDL is for all learners to become expert learners. Expert learners are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed about learning - whatever it is they are learning. A UDL environment is learner-centered, they are sharing in the design, participation, and ownership of their learning. You can explore more details and descriptors of expert learners using CAST’s Expert Learner Table below:

Engagement: Purposeful & Motivated Learners

Are eager for new learning and are motivated by the mastery of learning itself

Are goal-directed in their learning

Know how to set challenging learning goals for themselves

Know how to sustain the efoort and resilience that reaching those goals will require

Monitor and regulate emotional reactions that would be impediments or distractions to successful learning

Representation: Resourceful & Knowledgeable Learners

Consider prior knowledge when learning (Make connections to prioir learning experiences)

Activate that prior knowledge to identify, organise, prioritise and assimilate new information

Recognise the tools and resources that would help find structure and remember new information

Know how to transform new information into meaningful and usable knowledge

Action and Expression: Strategic & Goal-Directed Learners

Formulate plans for learning

Devise effective strategies and tactics to optimise learning

Organise resources and tools to facilitate learning

Monitor their progress

Recognise their strengths and weaknesses as learners

Abandon plans and strategies that are ineffective

Keep Reading

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has an enormous potential to positively impact the experience of all learners. Learn more about building the case for applying universal design for learning at your institution.

The UDL guidelines

Take a look at the UDL guidelines, developed by CAST and how they were conceived.

The origins of UDL

Discover more about where UDL came from and learn how inclusivity by design is important for all parts of society.

Implementing UDL

Discover how to start implementing UDL principles today and create inclusive learning environments for all.