Diversity and Democracy

Fostering Inclusion with Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, presents a compelling alternative to a standardized, "one size fits all" model of education. With its simple, yet far-reaching mantra—"teach every student"—UDL encourages instructors to provide all learners with multiple pathways to success. For those new to UDL, staff members who conduct professional development often explain it with an analogy from urban planning: curb cuts. Planners build curb cuts where sidewalks meet crosswalks to provide access for people using wheelchairs, but the benefits of these design elements extend broadly—to people using canes or guide dogs, pushing walkers or baby strollers, pulling wheeled luggage or utility carts, riding skateboards, and more. Similarly, by applying universal design principles to learning environments, instructors can provide flexibility and a degree of customization to all students, regardless of their individual abilities or learning preferences.

At its core, UDL encompasses three principles—that instructors should provide students with multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. In lay terms, this means that, to the extent possible, instructors should (a) provide content or materials in multiple formats, (b) give learners multiple ways to show what they know, and (c) use multiple methods of motivating learners. The concept of UDL originated in 1984, when the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) first focused on how computer technology could enhance learning for students with learning disabilities.

Since CAST published Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning (Rose and Meyer 2002), UDL concepts have become more common in higher education. For example, while he does not reference UDL directly in his popular book, Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen (2012) describes applying principles very similar to those from UDL as he advocates using technology—for information delivery, engagement, and assessment—to make way for deep and active learning. Efforts such as UDL-Universe, created by Sonoma State University's EnACT Project, offer comprehensive resources on course redesign using UDL principles for instructors and learning communities (Ayala and Christie, n.d.).

Creating Inclusive Learning Environments

By incorporating Universal Design for Learning into their teaching, higher education instructors can create classrooms and online learning environments that are more inclusive of all students. UDL strategies often include but also go well beyond accommodations for students with disabilities, which become part of a larger strategy to meet all students' learning needs by providing materials in multiple formats. For example, captioned videos support not only learners who are deaf and hard of hearing, but also English Language Learners. Many students value having access to multiple formats, as Michelle Pacansky-Brock (2013) demonstrated in a study of her community college students. When gathering information about students' preferences for consuming course content, Pacansky-Brock found that 40 percent chose to read the lecture (transcript), 15 percent listened to the lecture (enhanced podcast), 30 percent did both (often at the same time), and 15 percent toggled between reading and listening throughout the semester.

Illustrating its potential to benefit all students, UDL provides important support to those with invisible disabilities, as well as those who have undiagnosed or unreported learning needs. For example, the UDL practice of limiting the number of quiz questions on a page—whether online or on paper—helps students with attention disorders focus on one question at a time. Putting quizzes online allows students with learning disabilities like dyslexia to use screen readers to ensure they understand the instructions, the questions, and the answer options. Extending or removing time restrictions supports students with conditions like traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, which affect some military veterans. While UDL suggests offering these options to all students, faculty who want to limit accommodations to students who have registered with a centralized unit like the Disability Programs and Resource Center can, for example, use learning management software to offer password-protected versions of quizzes with longer or no time limits.

Applications for Assessment

Many researchers use triangulation to validate their results—for example, conducting a focus group to check responses from an online survey. UDL proposes a similar approach to helping students succeed. Faculty members can start by asking themselves if one assessment provides enough information to show that a student has achieved a particular learning outcome. Undoubtedly, instructors do not want to increase their workload tenfold by adding additional assessments. Fortunately, it is easy to redesign existing assignments to provide students with multiple ways of showing what they know.

First, consider implementing a simple yet effective strategy that involves allowing students to choose among multiple test questions. On each page of an essay test, provide two to four question options that all relate to the same core concept from the class. Make sure every question on each page will allow students to show achievement of the appropriate learning outcome, and instruct students to answer one question from each page of the test.

Next, consider allowing students to use multiple submission formats. Let students choose whether to turn in an essay, an infographic, an audio presentation or podcast episode, a screencast or online presentation, a video, or a project of another media type that might be appropriate to the course. Instructors can require students who submit a media project to also submit a written component, such as a script they used to prepare or a transcript used to verify that they completed the assignment correctly. With well-crafted rubrics using criteria tied to one or more learning outcomes, the instructor should be able to evaluate each student's demonstration of competency regardless of format. In addition to increasing choice, for some students this strategy will increase motivation.

Last, create multiple activities that engage students at different levels. Use a learning management system to give students low-stakes quizzes so they can check their understanding of concepts presented in the readings, lectures, etc. Next, hold a discussion or a debate for students to practice using or thinking critically about the concepts covered in the quizzes. Finally, assign a project that requires students to show higher levels of thinking—e.g., by applying concepts to real-world scenarios. Instructors who grade using a point accrual system, where students earn points by completing a percentage of all possible activities, can allow students to choose the level(s) of challenge they want to attempt. Instructors who use a more traditional grading system can scaffold the learning process by asking students to complete multiple types of activities in a prescribed order. Either way, offering multiple assessment opportunities leads to better outcomes.

This last assessment strategy gives both instructors and students a chance to evaluate and adjust their progress, making the assessment process itself an opportunity to learn. Through low-stakes quizzes that can be taken multiple times, instructors can provide asynchronous guidance regarding what concepts students should review. Subsequent forum or project activities allow students to demonstrate achievement related to those concepts.

Improving Students' Access to the Degree

Through Universal Design for Learning, instructors not only can create opportunities for accurate assessment of student learning, but also can improve students' access to a degree. Just as standardized entrance exams can block some students' access to college, so too can similar assessment strategies limit their likelihood of persisting in and completing college. By giving students multiple ways to demonstrate skills or knowledge, instructors can remove some of these obstacles. Involving students throughout the assessment process—in effect, helping them learn how they learn best—can lead to even greater success. Showing students the benefits of demonstrating their learning in multiple ways may be just as impactful as providing the opportunities for them to do so.


Ayala, Emiliano, and Brett Christie. n.d. UDL Universe: A Comprehensive Universal Design for Learning Faculty Development Guide. http://enact.sonoma.edu/udl.

Bowen, José A. 2012. Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pacansky-Brock, Michelle. 2013. "Mainstreaming Academic Innovation with Emerging Technologies." Teaching without Walls, October 4. http://www.teachingwithout walls.com/2013_10_01_archive.html.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. 2002. Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Wakefield, MA: Center for Applied Special Technology. http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes/

Kevin Kelly is an instructor at San Francisco State University.

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