What is Universal Design for Learning?
“Universal Design” takes into account the differences in knowledge between individuals and strives to replace a “one-size-fits-all” model with a more flexible and inclusive model which can be applied across many fields. For example, a universal design approach to architecture would consider factors such as wheelchair accessibility when designing buildings. The goal would be to create an environment that is inclusive and where everyone can thrive.
In education, “Universal Design for Learning” is about creating flexible pathways for achieving learning goals. Whatever the goals are for a particular course or program, it is important that all of the students are able to achieve those goals with the right support and resources. However, this does not mean that they must achieve those learning goals the same way.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 provides the following definition of Universal Design for Learning:
“The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:
(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.”
Universal Design for Learning at a Glance
Principles of Universal Design for Learning
Three principles have been outlined for achieving learning goals using universal design:
- Engagement: Utilize a variety of options to motivate students and elevate their interest.
- Representation: Explain information in multiple ways.
- Action and Expression: Offer flexibility in how students demonstrate what they have learned.
Learn more about these principles on the National Center on Universal Design for Learning website.
How are UDL and Accessibility Related?
When designing courses with the diversity of students in mind, this includes consideration for your students who may have disabilities or other unique needs. It may seem like it takes a great amount of planning and effort to consider such a large variety of student needs. However, the reality is that when you use universal design principles and make your courses accessible these considerations result in a better learning experience for all students. For example, you may include transcriptions for hearing impaired students but then realize that your international students that have English as a second language may greatly benefit from them also. In simplifying your Powerpoints or other documents to make them accessible by screen readers, you may find that all of your students find them to be more clearly organized. Simply put, the time, effort, and care put into designing courses with these principles in mind will be make it a better experience for all of your learners and, in turn, a better experience for instructors.
UDL Strategies for Course Design
For each principle of Universal Design for Learning, there are multiple criteria (click here to view the full list of criteria). For example, criteria 6.1 states: “Guide Appropriate Goal Setting”. In practice, this may be implemented in multiple ways such as:
- Clarify verbally for students the purpose behind a given activity or assignment and what the intended learning goals are before starting.
- Use comprehensive rubrics to help students self-assess the alignment of their work with the intended goals.
- Design discussion questions aimed at having students reflect on their goals for the course or a specific project to evaluate if the goals are aligned and realistic for the intended results.
The principles and criteria can serve as a guide and checklist during course design. Some potential strategies to support meeting different criteria include:
- Allow students to choose from different options for the format of an assignment (research paper, presentation, multimedia project)
- For text-based documents add visual and/or audio representation of the material.
- Include background information on why you have selected this specific task.
- Avoid including content unless it is truly relevant and aligned with the learning goals.
- Provide material in multiple formats such as readings, video clips, and audio components.
- Create visual diagrams to represent written information in a new way.
- Design questions to help students activate their prior knowledge on a topic before proceeding with new knowledge.
- Guide students organize information as it is learned by illustrating for them how experts in the field may think about these topics and their relationship to each other in the “big picture” context.
- Foster collaboration amongst students using group projects and team-based approaches.
- Use techniques such as creating a mind-map to help students make connections.
These are just some examples of strategies for implementing the UDL guidelines into the course design process. For more information on UDL for higher education visit http://udloncampus.cast.org/.
How are UDL and Accessibility Related?
When designing courses with the diversity of students in mind, this includes consideration for your students who may have disabilities or other unique needs. It may seem like it takes a great amount of planning and effort to consider such a large variety of student needs. However, when you use universal design principles and make your courses accessible these considerations result in a better learning experience for all students. For example, you may include transcriptions for hearing impaired students but then realize that your international students that have English as a second language (ESP) may also benefit from the transcriptions. When your PowerPoints and other documents are simplified for screen readers, other students may find them more clearly organized. Simply put, the time, effort, and care put into designing courses with these principles in mind will make it a better experience for all of your learners, and in turn, a better experience for instructors.
Support for UDL and Accessibility
Individual colleges vary in the specific types of training and resources available to faculty. Please connect with your college department for students with disabilities as well as any instructional design services offered by your institution for additional help with course design.
- The National Center on Universal Design for Learning website provides greater detail on these principles as well as additional information about Universal Design.
- A guide to universal design for learning in higher education
- SF State Center for Teaching and Faculty Development- Universal Design for Learning Online Training Module
- Universal Course Design Tutorials from website “Equity and Excellence in Education”
- Article: Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising Practices
- Fast Facts for Faculty: Universal Design for Learning