What is Universal Design for Learning?
Ed Trends

A guide to Universal Design for Learning

It is a blatant truism to say ‘everyone is different’, or the more educator specific ‘everyone learns differently’. So why do we insist on setting standardized teaching methods? 

The reason lies in pragmatism. We can’t possibly cater to everyone’s learning style, so we aim for the broadest possible format and hope everyone can get at least something out of it. 

But what if there was another way?

Universal Design for Learning, with its rooting in cognitive neuroscience and development in Learning Sciences, provides a methodology that can comfortably accommodate individual learning differences. Sound too good to be true? Let’s dive into what exactly Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is, its benefits and how you can incorporate it into your classroom.



What is Universal Design for Learning?

Don’t be misled by the ‘universal’ in Universal Design for Learning. Far from detailing a universal methodology to teach everyone, UDL offers an adaptable framework to connect every individual student to the learning experience. 

So what does this mean in reality? A great example is actually borrowed from the broader but related concept of Universal Design. Take an access ramp. Yes, it can be used by people with wheelchairs or mobility supports, but it can also be easily used by parents with pushchairs, delivery people with large wheeled packages, children with scooters as well as those comfortable with stairs. If you replace the ramp with stairs, you limit access to everyone but the latter group (or if the stairs don’t totally stop them, they certainly make life much more difficult). In this example, flexibility is built into the system. Everyone, regardless of their situation or physical ability, can get to the entrance because the barriers to their success have been removed. 




In a similar fashion, UDL aims to build in varied and flexible methods of learning, i.e. the way learners can access information and express their knowledge, while also removing any barriers to their success. These barriers may be physical ones (such as difficulty seeing a smartboard), cognitive (e.g. a preference for reading instructions rather than hearing them), or organizational (e.g. a dislike of working in noisy, crowded spaces). 

UDL provides a blueprint for designing materials, goals, methods, and assessments that reach all students regardless of ability, disability, age, gender, or cultural and linguistic background.

It’s important to bear in mind that UDL is not just a tool to help students with disabilities. The barriers that exist in a one-size-fits-all curriculum do most often impact students with extra needs. Therefore UDL’s removal of obstructions is often very liberating for these learners, however increasing the flexibility of the learning structure also allows other students to thrive whose strengths and weaknesses are otherwise not catered for. 


The three principles of Universal Design for Learning

This may all sound a little daunting, and certainly, the theory of UDL is ambitious. Fortunately, it has packaged its requirements into three straightforward categories for educators to work from. These are:


  1. Representation (the what of learning): To engage in the learning process, students first have to be able to access the materials. UDL recommends presenting information in more than one format so that everyone has the opportunity to engage in the way, or mix of ways, that work best for them. For example, reading the theory behind a science experiment, listening to someone explaining why the experiment works, watching the experiment being performed or doing the experiment yourself, are all valid ways of learning. Everyone will have a preference as to which format they learn from best and some will want a mixture of several formats to really hammer home the concept. Within a UDL system, you can provide all of these formats, rather than picking one for everyone.
  2. Action and expression (the how of learning): Demonstrating knowledge is an important part of the learning process, but our preferred modes of expression vary. UDL suggests giving students more than one way to interact with the material and to show what they’ve learned. For example, you could give your class the option to write a subject essay, make something creative like a related infographic or video, or answer questions orally.
  3. Engagement (the why of learning): Students who find their work interesting and exciting are far more motivated to learn. UDL encourages educators to find multiple ways to stimulate and challenge students so that each child has a vested interest in their own learning. This is primarily done through relating topics and activities to students’ own interests and allowing them to incorporate their enthusiasm into projects. Gamification and clear levels of progress and challenges are also a good way to get students excited about their learning journey.



What are the benefits of Universal Design for Learning?

So what are the key benefits to bringing UDL to your classroom, school or district?

  • Accessible: The most significant benefit of UDL is its flexibility and variety. Activities and materials can be adapted to take into account everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. This makes learning more accessible and enjoyable for all. 
  • Empowers teachers and students: UDL provides teachers with a framework in which information can be adapted to the learner, rather than forcing the learner to adapt to the information. This is a powerful outcome and enables the whole classroom to take charge of the educational format and ultimately be more successful.
  • Makes learning relevant: UDL actively targets students’ desire and motivation to learn. To do this it endeavors to make knowledge more relevant to student’s interests and their daily activities. This can help learners to be more engaged with the learning process while reinforcing their knowledge and inspiring them to become lifelong learners. 
  • Low cost: A UDL curriculum is shaped from the outset to meet the needs of the whole class, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact alterations to the curriculum unnecessary.
  • Taking charge of learning: UDL provides students with the tools and knowledge they need to find the best learning solutions for themselves. There is minimal spoonfeeding and emphasis on students taking charge of their own learning process. This also teaches them to recognize their own learning needs and work out how they best absorb information. This is hugely important for success at college and later in careers. 
  • Supports many other research-based learning techniques: UDL is not in conflict with other methods and practices. It actually incorporates and supports many current research-based approaches to teaching and learning, such as collaborative learning, blended learning, multisensory teaching, and student-centered learning, to name just a few. 



How can you incorporate Universal Design for Learning into your classroom?

There are a number of ways that you can start to incorporate UDL into the classroom. Here are our favorite tips:

1.Create a flexible workspace

UDL encourages flexibility in how students choose to process and engage with learning materials. It naturally follows that they will need a variety of spaces to cater to these diverse learning processes. This could include space for quiet individual work, small group work, and large group instruction. Providing students with headphones or earbuds can also help them to tune out noise during independent work.


2. Offer different assessment options

Giving students different options for assessment allows them to express their knowledge in a way that suits them. Classic examples could be writing an essay or completing a standard test. But these could be mixed with more creative options such as creating an infographic, writing and shooting a short film or giving a presentation to the class. A great way to really bring this to life is to ask students for ideas on how they would like to show off what they know. 


3. Make learning material available in several forms

Accessing learning materials is one of the most important parts of the learning process. Try to provide students with many options for reading, including print, digital, text-to-speech and audiobooks. Utilizing videos, image-based resources or interactive activities can also help make information more understandable. 


4. Find the right tools to support you

UDL can be made possible with the right tools to support varied learning and expression. For example, 1:1 devices and ebooks make text more accessible by providing options for text enlargement, along with choices for screen color and contrast alongside text-to-speech. 

There are also plenty of amazing EdTech apps out there to help students express themselves and find fun in what they are learning. Apps like FlipGrid, Mindmup or Storybird are great examples. At Kami we endeavor to allow students to express themselves as much as possible through detailed annotation and interaction with digital document resources. Tools such as speech-to-text, video and audio comments alongside colorful drawing functions and highlighting, make any file come to life. 




5. Post your lesson goals

Clearly stating the ultimate goals of your lesson or even semester are a great way to give your students an aim and learning direction. It means that everyone in your classroom knows what they are working to achieve and can engage with the learning materials accordingly. It can also help students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses so they know what areas to spend more time on. 


6. Give regular feedback

Hand in hand with lesson goals is regular feedback and progression updates. Try to take time every day to chat with students one-on-one about how well they met their goals, what they achieved and what they could do better next time. Try to ensure that this is a two-way conversation where the students themselves are reflecting on the choices they made in class and their own progress. This really helps to engage everyone in the process of their own learning and think critically about what activities and learning strategies work best for them. 


At Kami we believe that research-based learning solutions and a healthy dose of EdTech is the best way to nurture a well-rounded future generation. Learn more about how Kami could help your UDL goals today.

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