Everything you need to know about UDL (Universal Design for Learning)

“There are no bad students, only bad teaching techniques.” If we modify a line from the 1984 movie Karate Kid, we will get this quote. The quote indicates the need of changing the instruction methods to accommodate students with all kinds of learning abilities. The American Disabilities Act also demands that learning difficulties, ease with different languages, etc. should be deemed the viable reason for providing accommodations to ensure easy grasping of basic concepts. Deriving inspiration from the idea of making spaces accessible for all, Universal Design for Learning was conceptualized. Let’s explore some of the interesting facts about UDL in this post.


Universal Design for Learning was a revolutionary concept introduced in 1984. It was introduced by Dr. David Rose and Dr. Ann Meyer, the Harvard School of Graduate Education researchers. The concept emphasized making changes in architecture to enhance the inclusivity quotient of the learning environments. Though the previous advocates did suggest changes in architecture as standalone ideas, their inability to accommodate the curriculum requirements needed a more practically feasible approach toward designing classrooms to be ‘universally available’. 

The Center for Applied Special Technology in 1984 embraced the idea of UDL and made it the basis for designing technologies, learning accommodations, and the architecture of classrooms. The idea moved from emphasizing on students adjusting to the curriculum and space to modifying the design of the learning environment as per the students’ requirements.

UDL Principles

Applying Universal Design in Learning is governed by three main principles[1]. These principles collectively contribute to making the classrooms truly inclusive and disruption-free for one and all. 

1. First principle – Multiple engagement methodologies

UDL is to be implemented so as to offer multiple engagement avenues that complement the students’ learning abilities or ways of learning. The classroom must-have solutions for students who learn by listening, or are visual learners. Such a varied pool of instructional supports helps manage the diversified classroom environment comprising students that need to combat various challenges. 

2. Second principle – Multiple means of expression

It is certainly not fair to brand someone incompetent due to an inability to express themself through conventional means. The UDL’s second principle addresses this issue and aims at providing suitable ways using which students can express ideas, ask questions and deliver all that they have learned. Education becomes more meaningful with an unrestricted flow of ideas and that is what, UDL’s 2nd principle aims at achieving.

3. Third principle – Multiple means of motivation

A student should feel driven to come to class, stay attentive and participate in classroom activities. Such a comfort level becomes easier to achieve when the classroom session has active learning at its core. The use of gamified manipulatives, group activities, and rewards are some of the UDL measures that focus on enhancing motivation to learn and explore. The third principle of UDL aims at simplifying learning by the use of attractive means and incentives.

The logic behind UDL implementation

Normalizing the environment as much as possible for special students and creating nil disruptions in class to accommodate their additional needs are the ways Assistive Technology should be introduced in schools and colleges. 

A smooth and seamless learning process becomes possible when the brain networks that participate in teaching and learning processes are stimulated amply. The UDL aims at tapping the potential of these brain networks[2].

It is the logic behind developing and applying the Universal Design in Learning. The emphasis is on the need to think and apply broader design strategies so that students with different functional competencies can learn and participate with nil to minimal assistance.

The UDL solutions can stimulate the information exchange centers of the brain that comprise:

  • Affective network: Absorb and process the information from various sources. The students tend to take the information in different ways. Reading, listening, and watching are some of the inlets through which information reaches us. UDL aims at providing all forms of input methods so that all students understand the instructions and concepts taught to them, as per their learning methods.
  • Recognition network: The ability to categorize information and make some sense out of it is due to the recognition network[3] of the brain. While affective network’s differences call for the need to have a variety in input methods, the stimulation of recognition network requires being experimental in presentation. Hence, UDL is exemplified through infographics, video presentations, highlighters, lexicons, etc. 
  • Strategic network: Strategic network of the brain deals with planning and execution. UDL proposes that the learning environments should be enriched with tools and accommodations like writing tools that enable students to express themselves freely. It should allow them to share the knowledge gained as per their comfort with the modes of communication. 

In essence, the UDL recognizes the diversity in learning methods and proposes design elements that complement the status of the brain networks that may differ from person to person. 

How UDL benefits both teachers and students

Universal design for learning has started showing its positive impact on the classroom environment. The classroom structure and design are undergoing transformation to ensure unhindered information exchange between the teachers and students. Thus, the need to arrange for the special instruction methods and apply them before the start of the session is eliminated. It clearly means more time in hand for core learning activities. 

The stakeholders of the educational environment experience positive outcomes[4] such as:

  • Students grasp the concepts at the somewhat same pace with the help of accessibility-centric instructional procedures
  • The accessibility embedded in the design offers better space for movements and physical activities in the class
  • Better student turn-up rate in classes as a result of improved inclusivity
  • Easy and timely completion of a curriculum that helps students have age-relevant skills developed
  • Effective implementation of IEPs while ensuring a normal learning environment.

Challenges of implementing UDL

UDL is certainly an innovative solution, but the implementation requires going the extra mile. All stakeholders may have their specific reasons to be not supportive of the program. A few common challenges that are faced usually are:

  1. Lack of trained staff to use UDL tools as prescribed
  2. Limitation of budget needed to transform the classrooms as per the principles of UDL
  3. Inability to receive proper responses or feedback from students having compromised executive function
  4. Less time available to transform the learning methods and keep up with the curriculum simultaneously
  5. Need to have a low to nil tech-congested environment in the classroom for ensuring easier adjustment

Take Away

Universal Design manifests in the ways technology around us changes over time. Its use in education is to make learning feasible and seamless for all. To make it a success, a collective collaboration between students, educators, and parents is essential. If implemented correctly, UDL can help us improve the education quality and make it accessible to all.

Reference links:

  1. Moore, S. L. (2007). David H. Rose, Anne Meyer, Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(5), 521–525. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-007-9056-3
  2. Three brain networks of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). (2021, June 17). USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. https://cet.usc.edu/teaching-resources/three-brain-networks-of-universal-design-for-learning-udl/
  3. Davis, G. (2020, January 31). Universal Design for Learning: The Recognition Network. Center for Teaching and Learning | Wiley Education Services. https://ctl.wiley.com/universal-design-for-learning-the-recognition-network/
  1. Al-Azawei, A., Serenelli, F., & Lundqvist, K. (2016). Universal Design for Learning (UDL): A Content Analysis of Peer-Reviewed Journals from 2012 to 2015. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(3), 39–56. 

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