What is Universal Design for Learning?

Defined by CAST, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.

The UDL approach to teaching minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students. 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).

UDL aims to change the design of the environment and curriculum rather than to change the learner. By anticipating learner variability and proactively reducing the barriers to learning, UDL empowers all learners to engage in rigorous, meaningful learning experiences.

UDL at a glance

The UDL guiding principles

The UDL Guidelines were created by CAST to help further define and align practices to each of the UDL principles. The guidelines provide recommendations to ensure all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities across the curriculum. 

The UDL Principles and Guidelines were conceived with the three major brain networks in mind:

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Affective Network
The "Why" of Learning

The affective network is in charge of emotions, engagement, challenge and interest.

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Recognition Network
The "What" of Learning

The recognition network’s job is to take in and categorize information; make sense of letters, symbols, colors & shapes; to connect new learning to prior knowledge.

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The Strategic Network
The "How" of Learning

The strategic network is in charge of tasks that require planning, performing, organizing, strategizing, and expressing ideas.

Each brain network is directly supported by a UDL principle and its guidelines.

You can take a look at the UDL guidelines in full on CAST’s website.

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Learn more about the UDL basics

In this short video CAST’s Curriculum and Design Specialist, Allison Posey defines UDL and demonstrates how the framework can be applied to optimize teaching and learning. She’ll also help you discover how implementing UDL will ensure that your students can access and participate in meaningful and challenging learning opportunities, whilst celebrating learner diversity.

A Teacher’s Role in UDL

Goals for learners must be clear and flexible. In other words, learners need to be able to access learning in multiple ways and to show what they know in ways that make it truly possible for them to reach their full potential.

Teachers must articulate goals in ways that are clear, flexible, and student friendly and share them with learners frequently. Goals must be introduced in the learning experience and revisited throughout the lesson to help learners remain goal-directed and purposeful in their work.


Identifying barriers and developing solutions for every learner

Once teachers articulate a goal for learning, they must be proactive in anticipating the barriers that may present themselves in that learning experience.

Barriers can show up in a multitude of ways including, but not limited to:  

  • Learning environment itself
  • Inaccessible materials and tools we use in classrooms
  • Ways we ask students to express themselves
  • A student’s disposition or academic esteem (ex. I’m not a good reader OR I’ve never been very good at math)
  • Lack of prior knowledge
  • Language and academic language
  • Internal barriers to the affective network (ex. being bullied at school; being hungry, tired, cold/hot; feeling depressed or disconnected; feeling upset by something that may have happened either in or outside of the learning environment)

The UDL framework provides teachers with a proactive way to design solutions to these barriers through both choice and scaffolding. Download the practical classroom example of the thinking and design process teachers must go through in order to universally design for their learners.

Download the guide

Putting UDL into practice at Hobsonville Point Secondary School

Check out this short video to find out how one school in New Zealand is embracing Universal Design for learning across all areas of the curriculum. 

Edtech and UDL

Whilst Universal Design for Learning does not rely on technology use, and UDL can be implemented in a low or no tech way, technology does make for a  richer and more engaging experience. And, when you think about removing learning barriers, there's phenomenal uses of technology to help remove barriers to make the curriculum, and the learning experience more accessible to every learner. So, although it's not required, technology is a huge asset to make sure that the learning opportunities are more equalized and enabled for every learner, regardless of age or ability. 

Technology can also help to design the learner experience, and with that said we’ve designed our products, Read&Write and EquatIO with the principles of UDL in mind, to help you to design for learner variability. To help you recognize which tools in both products are aligned to CAST’s UDL guidelines, we’ve created these handy guides.  

The Read&Write logo

Learn how Read&Write's features match up to the UDL framework. 

The EquatIO logo

Discover how EquatIO and its features has been created with UDL in mind. 

Where is UDL going next? 

When we speak to our UDL colleagues, we often ask them what the next big thing is for the UDL and the community it serves, and there’s always some pretty exciting responses. 

UDL is a phenomenal framework that can help transform learning opportunities but right now it's not well enough known, not well enough understood. So, we need to both spread the love, get the message out there.
Steve Nordmark, Director of Business Development
I think it's time for UDL to really start to be influencencial in a larger setting of education. I think UDL will do that in the next three to five years.
Bryan Dean, Innovation Specialist, CAST
As more and more people find one another with the UDL community and can create solid connections, I just see and the breadth and depth of this framework really impacting more and more students around the world.
Loui Lord Nelson PHD, UDL Consultant and Author
UDL is not going away but as we move forward, I think that, the field's going to have to move towards more social-emotional development, the soft skills of learning. And I think it's what you do with it in the most human of ways, how do you connect with other people, that's going to be what we see in the next five years.
Katie Novak, Education Consultant
I think that we're going to actually see more schools adopt UDL as the framework and the lens going forward because it’s a very effective way to teach all learners in the classroom. So what I hope to see is that it's actually going to be introduced as a pedagogy and a philosophy around curriculum design with the general population.
Kathleen McClaskey, Founder, Make learning personal