This article is the first in a series discussing best practices in creating an online classroom that gives each student an equal opportunity to learn.

Definitions of Universal Design for Learning

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

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

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.”

From the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.”

Universal Design for Learning – Wikipedia

In Universal Design for Learning

  • Teachers deliver content in multiple ways.
  • Students are active learners who engage and analyze the content to gain understanding.
  • The learning environment encourages students to explore the content based on personal interests, preferences, or abilities.
  • Students are allowed to demonstrate their skills and knowledge of content using one of several methods.

(The above is adapted from the Iris Center)

What are the Principals behind the UDL model?

There are three basic principals behind the UDL design model.

1. Provide Multiple Representations of an Idea

Put very simple, this means that the main ideas or learning objectives for a course should be conveyed in more than one way.  For example, rather than providing all of the content for a course as text that the student must read, an instructor could provide videos, PowerPoint with voice-over, podcasts or other types of interactive content.

2. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

In other words, plan for different ways that students can respond to their assignments and overall learning experience.  For example, learners who speak more than one language may feel more comfortable in an asynchronous discussion, where they have time to compose and develop their discussion participation. 

3. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

How do you engage your students? Some students do well with creative assignments, while others may feel intimidated or confused.  Some students work well in groups, while other students may resist a group assignment.  Although to some extent we may want to encourage students to step outside of their comfort zone, providing alternatives or choices for students to a reasonable degree can help to make the learning experience more student-friendly.

What Can UDL Do for You?

Instructors who rely on UDL models to create their content, assignments, and assessment often find a valuable return in student engagement and retention.

Incorporating UDL methods into your teaching can be a gradual process, here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Rather than relying on an all-lecture/exam model, begin to incorporate opportunities for students to process information by discussion, group projects, and project based learning
  • Include low-stakes opportunities for students to test their knowledge of the course content, rather than relying on one or two high stakes testing events
  • Gradually begin to incorporate projects that allow students choices and opportunities to find personal relevance


Differentiate Your Direct Instruction: Make Content Accessible to All Students

Take A Tour: Learn About Universal Design for Learning

The Three Principles of UDL

Top 10 UDL Tips for Engagement

What the heck is Project Based Learning?

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