University of Vermont

The Center on Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI), Universal Design for Learning

About Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Examples of UDL in Practice

Guidelines and Principles of UDL

Image of Students At ComputerThe goal of education in the 21st century is not simply the mastery of knowledge. It is the mastery of learning. Education should help turn novice learners into expert learners-individuals who know how to learn, who want to learn, and who, in their own highly individual ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach that addresses and redresses the primary barrier to making expert learners of all students: inflexible, one-size-fits-all curricula that raise unintentional barriers to learning. Learners with disabilities are most vulnerable to such barriers, but many students without disabilities also find that curricula are poorly designed to meet their learning needs.

Diversity is the norm, not the exception, wherever individuals are gathered, including schools. When curricula are designed to meet the needs of the broad middle at the exclusion of those with different abilities, learning styles, backgrounds, and even preferences, they fail to provide all individuals with fair and equal opportunities to learn. Universal Design for Learning helps meet the challenge of diversity by suggesting flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies that empower educators to meet these varied needs. A universally designed curriculum is designed from the outset to meet the needs of the greatest number of users, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes to curriculum unnecessary.

Three Principles Organize the UDL Guidelines

The UDL Guidelines are organized according to the three main principles of UDL that address representation, expression, and engagement. For each of these areas, specific "Checkpoints" for options are highlighted, followed by examples of practical suggestions. Three brain networksLike UDL itself, these Guidelines are flexible and should be mixed and matched into the curriculum as appropriate. The UDL Guidelines are not meant to be a "prescription" but a set of strategies that can be employed to overcome the barriers inherent in most existing curricula. They may serve as the basis for building in the options and the flexibility that are necessary to maximize learning opportunities for all students.

As a way of utilizing the principle of multiple means of representation we present the graphic left. This chart represents visually the connection that the different principles make in the brain. Thereby helping the educator & student better create pathways of learning at the most basic level in the brains neural networks. (graphic courtesy of CAST)

Principle 1: Multiple Means of Representation
Provide options for perception, language and symbols, and comprehension.

Principle 2: Multiple Means of Expression
Provide options for physical action, expressive skills and fluency, and executive functions.

Principle 3: Multiple Means of Engagement
Provide options for recruiting interest, effort and persistence, and self-regulation.

Download a 1-page graphic of these UDL guidelines, provided courtesy of 2008 CAST.
All rights reserved. APA Citation: CAST (2008). Universal design for learning guidelines version 1.0 Wakefield, MA.

Principle 1: Multiple Means of Representation

This UDL principle has three supporting guidelines that help direct its implementation in the classroom and in the creation of course materials: 1) provide options for perception, 2) provide options for language and symbols, and 3) provide options for comprehension.

Students differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. This principle tells us that by showing the same material in different ways, learning opportunities are increased for all. What is important to keep in mind is: if these "multiple" options are not there, there is an increased chance to inhibit student learning. The CAST website has a full definition.

Guideline 1: Provide Options for Perception

The same information can be expressed through visual, auditory, or other sensory inputs. Using digital text and materials helps to increase the accessibility of information for learners who can then manipulate the material to suit their learning needs.

Examples of Options for Perception in the Classroom:

  1. Give learners a chance with Youtube captioning.

  2. Alternatives to Visual Information.
    This is a written transcript of the above video: Youtube now provides automatic transcriptions of videos posted below ten minutes. This transcript can be used by students to search for information covered in the video. They now have a text based and audio/video version of the same information all because the video was posted through your Youtube account TIP: Make sure that the "Closed Captioning" button is turned on.
Guideline 2: Provide Options for Language and Symbols

Graphs, charts, pictures, and vocabulary can all be interpreted differently. It is an important strategy to ensure alternative representations are provided, allowing for accessibility and comprehension for all types of learners. CAST website has a full description of Guideline 2.

Examples of Providing Options of Language and Symbols

Image of a pie chart Image of a pie chart
  1. Graph Text: These images display the learning diversity that could be present in a classroom. These figures are an example, they are meant to show how the same information can be represented in different ways.
  2. Audio Description: An audio narration of a graph allows students with visual impairments to listen to information being provided. Alternatively, people with visual impairments are probably familiar with text-to-speech programs. Some popular choices are JAWS, Kurweil 3000, or Dragon Naturally Speaking.
Guideline 3: Provide Options for Comprehension

Giving students a wealth of resources to learn can be done by a website or a library. Constructing useable knowledge, i.e". knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making depends not just on perceiving information but on active "information-processing" skills like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization." CAST websitehas a full description of Guideline 3.

An Example for representing comprehension:

  1. Mind Mapping: Image of a Mind Map Mind maps are effective ways to guide information processing through a visual and an interface that can be manipulated. This mind map came from the website Webspiration where you can sign in for free and create your own graphic organizer. These are good for creating a word or phrase linked to supporting concepts, labels and ideas.

Principle 2: Multiple Means of Expression

This second UDL principle has three supporting guidelines that help direct its implementation in the classroom and in the creation of course materials: 4) provide options for physical action, 5) provide options for expressive skills and fluency, and 6) provide options for executive functions.

Expressing yourself can sometimes be a challenge in a structured environment such as a college. For instance, in a Literature class it might seem impractical to draw. But, what if a student can best show you what they learned through art form? Does it make sense to eliminate this option all together? As educators, it is essential to be attuned to the fact that there is not one form of expression that is optimal for all students. Catering to the natural diversity of expression when designing a course can serve to broaden the impact of your teaching: some ways to do this are through text, verbal presentations, design, film video, multimedia, 3D Models, music/art, recordings, or graphic organizers. Technology plays a big role in facilitating these implementations. The CAST website has a full definition.

Who might benefit from this approach?

  • People with motor disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy)
  • People with organizational challenges (e.g. executive function disorders, ADHD)
  • Students with language barriers (e.g. ELL, or speech impaired)
Guideline 4: Provide Options for Physical Action

Example of Physical Action Options:

  1. UDL in Higher Education Biology Class - A video of Dr. Tamarkin of a Springfield Technical Community College professor in MA shows how she creates tactile cells in order to make examining cells through a microscope more accessible to all of her students. Students with motor weaknesses may have difficulty manipulating a microscope, and these "tactile cells" are excellent examples of "providing options in the mode of physical response."
Guideline 5: Provide Options for Expressive Skills and Fluency

This guideline tells us that alternative modalities for expression should be provided both to level the playing field among students and to introduce all students to the full range of media that are important for communication and literacy in our multimedia culture. The CAST website has a full description of Guideline 5 and the learning checkpoints. The CAST website has a full description of Guideline 5.

Examples of Options for Providing Expressive Skills and Fluency:

  1. Google Voice Transcripts

  2. Pulse Smart Pen, Livescribe

    This is an example of a digital voice and note recorder. The pen allows the user to have an audio/digital file of any class lecture, a meeting, etc. All they need is the pen and the special digital paper to record notes, diagrams and anything else.

Guideline 6: Provide Options for Executive Functioning

What some professors think to be a simple task such as gathering data, summarizing information, or budgeting time on a project, certain students might have a very difficult time. Therefore it is a much larger challenge for them to accomplish the task. These executive functioning skills are associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and there are ways to help break down information to assist these students and others. For more information on Guideline 6 go to the CAST website.

Examples of Executive Functioning Options:

  1. Example: This website has a collection of study tips to help students who might come across as "disorganized."
  2. Example: Why the iPad Absolutely Matters In this post, Christopher Dawson shares his perspective on the iPad's usefulness in the classroom. Dawson sees the iPad's ability to support teachers in collecting data and monitoring students' progress as a huge benefit.

Principle 3: Multiple Means of Engagement

This third UDL principle has three supporting guidelines that help direct its implementation in the classroom and in the creation of course materials: 7) Provide Options for Recruiting Interest, 8) Provide Options for Sustaining Effort and Persistence, and 9) Provide Options for Self Regulation.

This principle stresses the importance of holding student attention to maximize their engagement in the task at hand. When a student is actively participating in the task at hand, they are said to be engaged. Principle III places a large emphasis on engaging the individual interests of students into the components of lessons and assignments. The cast website has a full definition of Principle III, Multiple Means of Engagement.

Guideline 7: Provide Options for Recruiting Interest
This guideline makes it clear that if students are not engaged in the content, then the information being presented is inaccessible. What makes engaging students especially difficult is that everyone has their own learning goals, interests, backgrounds and are most likely motivated by different things. Go to the CAST website for more details on Guideline 7.

Examples and Options for Recruiting Interest:

  1. Engagement Activities from an ELL Classroom Blog This all English Language Learners [ELL] Classroom Blog has ideas for activities that will activate students background knowledge.
  2. Resources and Tools from CAST Here you will find a collection of resources from the CAST website that help educators design ways for more students to stay engaged in classroom lectures/activities.
  3. Video Resources for Teaching Development. Watch the video on the right hand side of the screen. A history professor is lecturing in a particularly monotonous way. Student attention is obviously lagging. The scene prompts discussion of ways to enliven presentations and maintain student attention.

    Merlot Elixr Videos: Faculty on Engagement and Faculty Development. A collection of videos from diverse disciplines that demonstrate how to design engaging activities related to course goals and student interest.
Guideline 8: Provide Options for Sustaining Effort and Persistence

In students; motivation for learning, the capacity to learn, the capacity to handle disparities in their lives and irregularities in learning environments often differs from student to student. Building into a class the opportunity for students to self-regulate and determine their own goals and skills to sustain their attention and effort defines this guideline. Go to the CAST website for more details

Examples, Tools, and Strategies for Sustaining Effort and Persistence

  1. CAST Example and Resources CAST has many different methods and strategies for maximizing student engagement, some help educators to heighten the salience of goals and provide support structures so students can overcome distractions and obstacles and stay focused at the task at hand. Many of these suggestions are for K-12 educators but when adapted appropriately these strategies are also suitable for higher education settings.
  2. Software Example

    Rubistar is an online tool that lets users create rubrics, search for existing rubrics by topic, and share created rubrics. Creating rubrics for students to make the criteria and expectations of the assignment explicit is an effective way to heighten the salience of goals and objectives.
    Rubistar Tutorial Part 1/3
    Rubistar Tutorial Part 2/3
    Rubistar Tutorial Part 3/3

Guideline 9: Provide Options for Self Regulation

"While it is important to design the extrinsic environment so that it can support motivation and engagement, it is also important to develop students intrinsic abilities to regulate their own emotions and motivations. A successful approach therefore requires providing sufficient alternatives to support learners with very different aptitudes and prior experience in learning to effectively manage their own engagement and affect."
National Center on UDL web page (n.d.). Retrieved August 19th, 2010.

Research Evidence

  1. CAST Checkpoint 9.1 Options that guide personal goal-setting and expectations
  2. CAST Checkpoint 9.2 Options that scaffold coping skills and strategies
  3. CAST Checkpoint 9.3 Options that develop self-assessment and reflection
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