Understanding the Basics of Universal Design for Learning

Cathy A. Buyrn, M.Ed., and Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.

The practicality of differentiated instruction is debated in the hallways and teachers' lounges of schools across the country. While teachers recognize the benefits of differentiation, many struggle with the logistical details of putting it all together. In particular, the misconception that differentiated instruction means individualized instruction for each student has led to much confusion and frustration. Tomlinson (n.d.) makes clear distinctions between differentiation and individualization and assures teachers that "It is not a mandate for teachers to make individual lesson plans for each student". While differentiation does not necessarily mean individualization, it does call for built-in flexibility that supports a variety of individual learning styles.

 Many educators are familiar with the structure for differentiation, which focuses on content, process, and product. A promising strategy for addressing all three components of differentiation is universal design for learning (UDL). UDL provides explicit guidelines that focus on the three basic principles of multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. "A UDL curriculum takes on the burden of adaptation so that the student does not have to, minimizing barriers and maximizing access to both information and learning" (Strangman, Hall, & Meyer, 2004).  Universal design is based on the premise that proactive planning to reduce barriers decreases the need for retroactive accommodations, thereby increasing opportunities for positive outcomes (Orr & Hammig, 2009).


(Center for Applied Special Technology, 2009)

 Today's technology resources make it easier to build units of instruction that are flexible and accessible to all learners. The way most websites are built illustrates the basic principles of UDL. That is, key words are often hyperlinked to definitions or other relevant resources; a variety of visual images and graphics support the presented concepts; related videos, audio files, and documents are posted to help clarify or extend important points; and interactive tutorials can be completed to help learners develop skills or apply concepts. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has developed a bank of resources that teachers can use to develop the concept of UDL, assess their own curriculum and lesson plans for potential barriers, and design instruction that has built-in flexibility (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

Students today are entering a world where their ability to independently access, process, and apply information is more important than their ability to memorize isolated facts. Instructional opportunities that are built to satisfy the principles of UDL will help all students develop an awareness of their learning needs and prepare them to navigate the complex landscape of information resources available to them.  Teachers who use the UDL framework to design instruction will not have to re-teach or re-design frequently because a variety of lesson resources and activities are embedded and available on demand (Rose & Meyer, 2002). "UDL relegates the medical or deficit model of disability in favor of a more inclusive paradigm in which persons with disabilities are seen as part of continuum of learners with various strengths and weaknesses" (Orr & Hammig, 2009, p. 183). A UDL approach to delivering instruction moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards a model that anticipates the varying needs of students with and without disabilities.

The greatest benefit of UDL may be that it helps educators align their efforts to differentiate instruction, integrate technology, and ultimately meet the demands of adequate yearly progress for all subgroups of students. While UDL was originally inspired by a goal of meeting the needs of students with disabilities, all students will enjoy greater opportunties for meaningful access and improved outcomes as a result of its use. UDL is not another strategy to put in a teacher's bag of tricks. It is a comprehensive framework for organizing all of the strategies that have been proven successful and a method for implementing them in both an effective and an efficient manner. As Scott and McGuire (2005) stated, universal design "provides a powerful ... message - student diversity is now the norm, not the exception ..." (cited in Orr & Hammig, 2009, p. 192)


Center for Applied Special Technology. (2009). What is universal design for learning? Retrieved November 20, 2009, from http://www.cast.org/research/udl/index.html

Orr, A. S., & Hammig, S. B. (2009). Inclusive postsecondary strategies for students with learning disabilities: A review of literature. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32, 181-196.

Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Education in the digital age. In D. Rose & A. Meyer, Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/101042/chapters/Education_in_the_Digital_Age.aspx

Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2004). National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved from Center for Applied Special Technology: http://www.cast.org/publications/ncac/ncac_backknowledgeudl.html  

Tomlinson, C. A. (n.d.). C. A. Tomlinson - ASCD Author. ASCD Home. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Authors/Carol_Tomlinson.aspx?id=29764641001&nvid=a6b1