Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is about creating a learning environment that fully considers and includes all learners. 

I’ve learned that UDL is much more a way of thinking early on in the planning stages and throughout the design process, rather than a to do list.

American educator Lauren Lieberman (2017) describes UDL as a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all, based on  scientific discovery and analysis about how human learning happens. 

Designing learning in a universally accessible way

In creating an accessible environment the aim is to provide the best opportunities for all.  Meyer Rose and Gordon (2014) explain that if we begin to look more closely at terms in  Universal Design for Learning individually, we can see that Universal refers to all learners,  Design applies to purpose and planning, and Learning refers to activity that fully supports and  creates optimal growth opportunity for learners.

A few global examples of Universal Design for Learning 

This section touches briefly on ways that UDL has been  implemented using examples from two different locations in Western  Europe and one in the United States.


In Ireland, UDL has been explored in a clinical learning environment. Heelan, Halligan and Quirke (2013) wanted to see what UDL would look like within a clinical learning environment which presented a significant challenge – to explore the clinical learning environment through a UDL lens and consider how to balance flexibility in learning while also preserving technical standards in practice. This particular example was very interesting to me because it’s UDL in a situation where specific knowledge must be learned and demonstrated and specific outcomes are necessary. Heelan, Halligan and  Quirke (2013) emphasize that significant challenges occur in clinical learning practice standards  that require that a student must demonstrate that they have reached the standard when working  with a patient. When a student is practicing skills such as inserting a needle into the patient’s  body to take blood, the student must be confident in managing the transition of academic  knowledge to a clinical workplace.  

In this clinical practice situation, several important considerations emerged, the first  being equitable access to learning. This provides that all the students can access the learning  experience equally in real time. In a clinical placement setting this means ensuring that students  would be able to make their impairment known in a safe environment so that they are supported appropriately. Heelan, Halligan and Quirke (2013) state that the learning objectives and job  specification of the placement must be clearly identified to the student prior to the clinical placement and ensure that the student is involved in the discussion about how learning objectives  and job specifications interact. 

It’s significant that within a clinical environment, patient safety and care are the highest  priority. Heelan, Halligan and Quirke (2013) describe the need for close mentoring and support  for the student and the role of consistent, constructive feedback for the acquisition of skills and  competencies. This led to raising staff training in priority for all supervisors and mentors. 

The United States

The Center for Teaching Excellence at Boston College in the United States developed a UDL Explainer site. The Explainer site was produced by and serves as a guide for faculty in developing teaching. Focus remains on the importance of multiple means of representation, expression and engagement as the  foundation of designing for universal learning.  

What this site does particularly well is provide very specific inclusive strategies in each  area. For example, Representation is clearly identifying what you want students to learn and providing multiple means for students to access associated learning content.  

The UDL Explainer site describes Expression as considering ways that students are asked  to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Faculty are encouraged to view differences in student  strengths, abilities and preferences as resources rather than challenges. 

Engagement, according to the UDL Explainer site, refers to allowing as many ways as  possible for students to engage in showing varying strengths and interests. Faculty are advised to  consider using instructional strategies that capitalize on what motivates students and draw on  students very motivations and interest, using voice and choice which means drawing from  student interest opinions and ideas to inform classroom learning activities and assessments 


The example is older and relates to the origin of Universal Design (in architecture). The particular design is called “The House for  Everyone” at the University of Trondheim (Kenning, Ryhl, 2002).  

The metaphor as a house for learning environment is meaningful to me.

The meaning lies in that as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher I routinely have the joy and pleasure of  working with students from not only culturally diverse backgrounds but also different  socioeconomic backgrounds. I have taught a number of SLIFE students (students with limited or interrupted formal education) who may or may not have first language literacy.

Interruption to  education most often is the result of inconsistent or non-mandatory school attendance and/or refugee status that may mean (often undeterminable) periods of time out of a structured learning  environment or formal school. In my classroom, I attempt to create a space that contains elements that might be found in a home; if there are windows then we have some type of  curtain or window decoration. We have at least one lamp with a soft yellow light. If the  classroom doesn’t have an existing window, we make one from paper and place drawings of  what we might see outside the window on any given day.

A “House for Everyone” was created at the University Center at Dragvoll in Trondheim  Norway University Center as a separate part of the Norwegian University of Technology and Science known as NTNU. Kenning and Rhyl report that this house received significant attention and various architecture awards. Kenning and Rhyl describe the respected design of the  University Center as well done and immediately noticeable when at the entrance doors where a  light push on an automatic door gives the opener easy entrance without the need for detours to  reach the destination. An example of the principle of Tolerance of errors in the design is to  alleviate risk of accidents and injuries. 


In the United States at Boston College the UDL Explainer site provides a less than five minute concise overview to guide faculty in preparing student learning with UDL principles not  only in mind but with clear specific examples of how to use each area of Representation, Expression and Engagement.  

The Norwegian “House for Everyone” helps us envision what a learning experience for everyone might look and feel like. In the description of a light push on an automatic door that gives the opener easy entrance without the need for long detours to reach the destination,  I immediately envisioned open access to learning and diminished (or alleviated!) detours to the destination (learning outcome), with simple and intuitive use and comprehensible information. In order to create this House, designers had to put themselves in the shoes of the users. In UDL creators of learning experiences and programs must be able to put themselves in the shoes of  vastly varied individuals and design for them intentionally and inclusively.  

UDL is far reaching. I imagine that one day,  perhaps in the very near future, UDL principles will be considered automatically and consistently  in improving increased access to learning for all.


Boothe, K.A., Lohmann, M.J., Donnell, K.A., Hall, Dean D. (2018). Applying the  principles of universal design for learning in the college classroom. The Journal of Special  Education Apprenticeship. Pages 2-10.  

Chita-Tegmark, M., Gravel, J.W., Serpa, M.D., Domings, Y., and Rose, D.H. (2011). Using the Universal Design for Learning to Support Culturally Diverse Learners. Journal of  Education. Vol. 192 (1). 

Cook, S. C., Rao, K. (2018). Systematically Applying UDL to Effective Practices for  Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly. Vol. 41(3), pages 179-191. 

Heelan, A., Halligan, P., and Quirke, M. (2013). Universal Design for Learning and Its  Application to Clinical Placements in Health Science Courses (Practice Brief). Journal of  Postsecondary Education and Disability. Vol. 28(4), pages 469-479. 

Kenning, B., Ryhl, C. Global Examples of Projects and Models for Teaching in Universal  Design at Schools of Design and Architecture. Retrieved from:  


Lieberman, Lauren. (2017). The Need for Universal Design in Learning. The Journal of  Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, pages 5-7. 

Martin, N., Wray, M., James, A., Draffan, E. and Turner, P. (2015). Utilising Universal  Design for Learning (UDL) as a Route to Excellence. Report: Implementing Inclusive Teaching  and Learning in UK Education. 

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H. & Gordon, D (2014). Universal Design for Learning. Wakefield:  CAST Professional Publishing.  

Palmer, W. & Crawford, J. (2013). Leadership Embodiment: How the way we sit and  stand can change the way we think and speak. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent  Publishing Platform. 

Smith, S.J., Rao, K., Lowrey, A.K., Gardner, J.E., Moore, E., Coy, K., Marino, M., and  Wojcik, B. (2019). Recommendations for a national research agenda in UDL: Outcomes from  the UDL-IRN Preconference. Research Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 

7 Things You Should Know About Universal Design for Learning. (2015). Retrieved  from: https://library.educause.edu/resources/2015/4/7-things-you-should-know-about-universal design-for-learning