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