Universal Design for Learning: What Is It?

Universal Design for Learning: What Is It?

UDL – A Brief Definition

You may know that 2015 federal ESSA legislation identified Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a “best practice” for teaching, learning, and curriculum. You also may have read or heard people describing UDL in very different ways: “UDL is really just about offering student options.” “It’s all about accessibility.” “It’s brain science.” “It’s a pedagogical checklist.” These diverse descriptions might remind you of the sight-impaired men perceiving an elephant for the first time: “It is very like a spear!” “…a rope!” “…a snake!” “…a tree!” “…a wall!”

To get a better handle on UDL, I attended the fifth annual UDL-IRN International Summit this spring. It was wonderful from an instructional design perspective, and it provided a lot of opportunities to talk one on one with leaders in the field, as well as with district and classroom practitioners trying to enhance instructional effectiveness locally. In those conversations, I found that many of us shared big questions:

  1. What is UDL, and how can you describe and promote UDL to a colleague?
  2. How are researchers and educators employing UDL successfully?

This article is an attempt to answer the first question: What is UDL?

CAST, the parent organization behind UDL, offers this short, high-level definition of UDL, supported with a visualization of the neuroscience underlying UDL: 

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.


UDL – The Details

This short definition, though, doesn’t describe the UDL “framework” itself. Once you get into the framework, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest and just see trees. We’ll head into that forest now but with a mental map to keep oriented.

UDL’s birth and growth

In 1984, a small group of educational researchers founded CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) with the goal of making learning more accessible for all students, particularly those with learning disabilities. Using research-based practices to address those populations, early implementers found that the thoughtful application of these practices helped all students, not just special populations. With that understanding, the vision of a Universal Design for Learning was born, expanding into a broadly applicable framework for educational practice and personalized learning.

UDL principles

In analyzing the cognitive activities engaged in learning, researchers found that they can be defined by three major cognitive domains and associated neural networks in the brain. To meet diverse student learning needs, this understanding led to the three UDL guiding principles.

Provide multiple means of:

  • Engagement (WHY should I learn this?)
  • Representation (WHAT is this telling me?)
  • Action and Expression (HOW can I act on and express my understanding?)

These three guiding principles are represented as three horizontally-arranged columns in the UDL Graphic Organizer.

CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2 [graphic organizer]. Wakefield, MA: Author

Learning “levels”

In addition to the horizontally organized guiding principles, the UDL guidelines are organized vertically, in levels. This represents a learning progression from basic access to information, through knowledge building and development, and ultimately, to internalization and generalization of the learning process. We can apply the three UDL principles at all these levels.

  • Access – Anticipate student barriers to accessing knowledge (vision, hearing, prior experience or knowledge, personal interest, culture, etc.)
  • Build – Enable students to develop their own understanding of a concept through effort and persistence, language and symbols, and expression and communication
  • Internalize – Help students think about, apply, generalize, and direct their ongoing learning process

Putting it all together

UDL leverages an extensive set of research-based instructional practices for personalizing learning. These instructional practices (called checkpoints) are organized into the two-dimensional framework described above, with the three UDL principles organized horizontally and the three learning levels arranged vertically. Orienting yourself to these two dimensions can help you avoid getting lost in the forest of checkpoints.

CAST and other UDL collaborators have devised multiple ways of presenting this two-dimensional guidance to address individual preferences or needs (naturally!). Here are some nice views into the UDL Guidelines.


UDL for Personalized Learning

Finally, another way of talking about UDL with colleagues is through the lens of personalized learning. Extensive research shows that there’s no such thing as an “average” student and that “teaching to the middle” learning experiences don’t work very well for any student, let alone most students. This understanding—widely associated with the bestselling book The End of Average—is behind the current educational focus on personalized learning.

Among its other benefits, the UDL framework helps educators intentionally design learning experiences to enable all students to become masters of their own learning—truly personalized learning. In a recent email, Amy McDonald, mathematics specialist in Exceptional Student Services with the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), shared this reflection on UDL and personalized learning:

UDL is a framework under which all research and evidence-based practice fits. The strength of UDL is that if we can focus on the UDL guiding principles and plan for variability, we have the best chance of designing our instruction and environments in ways that reach all kids in each of the major learning networks of the brain.

Even if we don’t remember the individual guidelines and checkpoints, if we provide multiple means to reach each of the learning networks, we have a much better chance of reaching all students.

ESSA legislation considers UDL to be a “best practice” because it organizes a wide range of research-proven instructional practices so that we can thoughtfully apply them to provide a much richer and more personalized learning experience for all students. If greater personalization of learning is our destination, UDL offers us a roadmap—or at least a solid set of proven navigational tips.

At the beginning of this article, I called out two big questions from educators:

  1. What is UDL and how can you describe it to a colleague?
  2. How are researchers and educators employing UDL successfully?

I hope this article sheds some light on question 1. 

(Question 2 is the next assignment!)

Looking for more resources on how to incorporate UDL and technology into your classroom? Check out this blog post from Winnie O’Leary, which explains the value of digital resources when it comes to teaching literacy.

Special thanks to Amy McDonald from the Arizona Department of Education Exceptional Student Services for her inspiration and input on UDL.