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Universal Design for Learning: Principles and Examples for 2023

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  • School Leaders
  • School Leadership

When something is universal, it applies to everyone. So, when hearing the term universal design for learning(or UDL), it makes sense to imagine it as a blanket format that covers all students.

But is that really what UDL is all about?

In this guide, you’re going to learn that universal design for learning is focused on flexibility and adaptability to different types of students.

But that’s not all.

By the end of this article, you’ll be completely equipped to use UDL in your school, for the benefit of teachers and students' learning outcomes.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

To start, let’s define universal design for learning.

While the word ‘universal’ may make this seem like a one-size-fits-all program, that is actually the opposite of what UDL stands for.

In everyday life, we constantly run into examples of universal design. This includes things like closed-captions, text-to-speech features on your smartphone, or other things that we normally label ‘accessibility features’.

In principle, universal design for learning is the same: it is an adaptive learning program that allows equal opportunity for all students.

But, this raises a question:

Is Universal Design for Learning only applicable to students with learning and attention issues?

First, let me ask you this: have you ever used an automatic door?

Let’s face it: if you have two legs and two arms that work, you’re not the person that door was designed for. However, if your hands are full of groceries, or you’re at the end of an exhausting day of work, an automatic door is quite useful.

The same idea applies in the classroom.

While universal design for learning (UDL) does greatly benefit students with learning and attention issues, it is also beneficial for the average student.

Each student has their own specific strengths and weaknesses. This can have absolutely nothing to do with attention disorders or learning disabilities: it is simply how their unique brain takes in and processes information most easily.

By applying universal design for learning in the classroom, all students are allowed to take in, digest, and express information in the way that is easiest for them. This improves the learning experience for everyone, and helps each individual student to expand his or her knowledge of the subject without the constraints of the traditional classroom.

Ultimately, UDL can be defined as a teaching method that aims to make learning accessible to every student's individual needs, regardless of the challenges and barriers they may face.

Basic principles of UDL

According to CAST, there are 3 key principles of UDL:

1. Engagement: The why of learning

Everything starts with how students engage with the class and the subject.

This principle encompasses the ideas of motivation, building on the interests of the students. The area of engagement also helps students to see the reasons why they should learn what they’re learning, and makes it relevant to their life.

This also includes helping students become self-motivated by guiding them through rubrics that allow for self-reflection and personal goals.

The goal of engagement in UDL: To give students purpose and motivation to learn.

2. Representation: The what of learning

Allowing students to choose the methods by which they take in information allows for all types of students to thrive as they interact with subject materials.

Customization is key here. This involves providing multiple ways to assimilate subject material, such as textbooks, audio files, digital books, or images and graphs. It also implies customization and flexibility within those formats.

With this kind of flexibility, students have access to the material that best suits their needs. This is useful for children with disabilities such as dyslexia, as well as for average students who simply perform better when listening to instruction than when reading, for example.

The goal of representation in UDL: To allow students to be more resourceful and knowledgeable.

3. Action and expression: The How of learning

Once students have taken in the information, it’s time for them to express and show what they’ve learned.

This principle of universal design for learning takes into account the differences of students’ manner of expression. Flexibility is provided in the way that students show their knowledge of the subject, meaning they can choose not to perform a test and instead opt for a more adaptive expression that fits their strengths.

Action and expression also touches on the idea of goal-setting for students. Here, teachers help students set goals for learning, and guide students through monitoring their own progress.

The goal of action and expression in UDL: To help students to become more strategic and goal-directed.

Universal Design for Learning examples and guidelines

Are you ready to see what universal design for learning looks like in the classroom?

Here are 13 different guidelines for how to use universal design for learning, along with examples that show what it looks like in practice. Follow these guidelines to make universal design for learning a part of your school.

Examples of engagement in UDL

Let's first look at examples of UDL through the principle of engagement:

1. Know the strengths and weaknesses of students

In order to correctly apply universal design for learning in the classroom, it’s important for teachers to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each student.

This can be as easy as asking each student how they want to learn that day’s lesson, and offering different choices for the content used, the reward applied, the tools used for gathering information or producing results, or the order of tasks to be completed.

It also may be helpful for teachers to take note of which students excel when using certain formats, or even to involve parents in helping find their children’s strengths and weaknesses in learning.

2. Give students specific learning goals

Teachers have one very obvious goal: to help students to learn. In fact, within the lesson plan they may already have goals in mind for specific information that children should know by a certain point in the school year.

To help motivate and engage students, why not include them in the goal process?

A great example of this is posting lesson goals for all the students to see in the classroom. To do this, teachers must have one clear goal for each lesson. Then, they can discuss this goal with the class at the beginning of the lesson and write it out in a visible place for the whole class to see.

That way, students know exactly what to expect from the lesson, and will feel more motivated to pay attention to complete the lesson goal.

3. Create and follow classroom routines

Helping students to feel safe in their learning environment is essential to a productive and motivated classroom. One great example of universal design for learning is creating classroom routines that help students feel secure.

While this helps adapt to students with disabilities such as autism, it’s good for all students to get used to classroom routines. This means structuring class time so that each student knows what they should be doing and when.

This can still allow for flexibility in the order or time spent on subtasks, but helps students to know exactly where they are in the lesson.

4. Provide prompts that let students know it’s time to ask for help

It’s true that some students will have more trouble with certain aspects of a lesson than others. But, instead of simply getting frustrated and giving up, students need to know when to ask for help.

Unfortunately, not all students will recognize when it’s time to ask for help.

That’s where providing prompts comes in. For example, a math teacher could set a specific amount time that each student should spend on a problem. If they can’t solve the problem in 2 minutes, for example, they should ask the teacher or a peer for help in understanding the problem.

This helps students to avoid unnecessary frustration and continue learning effectively.

5. Group learners with common interests or learning strengths and weaknesses

By now, teachers should be aware of which students learn better through audio descriptions, which students have specific interests or which students require a particular learning process.

When there are several students who share the same learning style or who have common interests, these can be grouped together for specific activities in the classroom.

For example, students who prefer to create a video instead of completing a written essay can be grouped together to create a video project together.

Group work can help students to reinforce skills by teaching others, it can also improve their collaborative and social-emotional learning skills too.

6. Provide flexible classrooms

Flexibility in the classroom also involves the physical space where students are learning. Try flexible seating by switching up the furniture arrangements to make students feel more comfortable (which, in turn, makes them more productive).

This could mean getting some bean-bag chairs or exercise balls, or even standing desks, mats for the floor, or stools with high-top tables. Flexible seating helps students who have trouble sitting in one place, and gives all students the ability to choose their best workspace.

Examples of representation in UDL

7. Display Information in a Flexible Format

Following the information above, teachers should now be aware of how their students learn best.

So, it’s time to provide flexible ways of learning.

This could involve a number of different formats, including:

  • Traditional paper books
  • Digital books
  • Text-to-speech
  • Images or charts
  • Learning games
  • Videos
  • Music

Ideally, students should also have some flexibility within these different formats. For example, using a digital textbook allows students to adjust the size of the font or the color of the background. With a video, students should be able to adjust the speed and volume.

You ultimately want to foster an inclusive learning environment where the content can be delivered to suit every student's learning needs.

8. Adapt information for multilingual students

Schools nowadays are becoming more and more international. When viewed in a positive light, this international flair can boost the atmosphere of a classroom and make it more inclusive.

However, adaptive representation of information is essential in this aspect of universal design for learning.

How can teachers apply this principle in a multilingual classroom?

Whenever possible, students should be able to access information in both the dominant language of the school and in their own native language.

Teachers can also provide visual aids to help clarify vocabulary that is unfamiliar to students, or provide multilingual students with dictionaries either in paper or digital format. ESL students can be disadvantaged in assessments due to language barriers, even if they have a strong command of the topic.

Adaptability in this area also applies to deaf and hearing-impaired students. Teachers should ensure that there is a visual-only option for these students in all aspects of the classroom, such as assistive captions under videos, automated speech-to-text software, or at best a sign language version of the information.

9. Prompt students to identify key ideas and relationships

In all aspects of life, students must learn to separate critical information from information that isn’t as important.

This aspect of universal design for learning can be used in the classroom when teachers prompt students to highlight important phrases from their textbooks, or summarize the important aspects of a video lesson in one sentence.

Teachers should also guide students to build relationships between information they’ve already learned and what they’re currently learning.

For example, a math teacher could help students see the relationship between addition and multiplication, prompting them to draw on past experience to help them learn new concepts.

Examples of action and expression in UDL

10. Create multiple options for expression and assignment completion

Once students have taken in the information, it’s time for them to demonstrate their understanding. While a test is the traditional choice for expression, giving students a choice of how they’ll complete assignments allows each student to demonstrate his knowledge in a way that is relevant to him or her.

Some options could include:

  • Creating a video essay
  • Drawing a comic strip
  • Completing a test in digital format, or with audio questions
  • Putting on a group demonstration
  • Building a physical model

For example, a history teacher may want students to show an understanding of the events that led to World War 2. He could give his students the option to complete a written test, to create a video ‘reporting’ on the events, or to draw a comic strip that shows which main events led to the start of the war.

That way, each student gets to complete the assignment in the way that is best for them, while all students demonstrate a reasonable understanding of the topic.

See how one teacher utilizes this concept in their learning below:

11. Give access to learning software

Software in the classroom is a great way to be adaptable to different students. For example, language teachers can use language-learning apps and games to help students learn while tracking their progress step-by-step.

Math teachers also love learning software, like Prodigy, because it helps students get involved in the problems and work through the information in a way that is engaging and productive.

12. Provide multiple means for navigation and control

Being adaptable means allowing for adaptive software and hardware for students that have limitations.

For example, with digital content on the computer, students can be allowed to control with voice, joystick, or an adaptive keyboard when necessary.

Alternatives should also be available for students when it comes to the range of motor action required to interact with the materials used in the classroom.

13. Give regular feedback that helps students develop goals and strategies to reach them

Learners need to have a clear picture in their mind of the progress that they are making in class. With regular, personal feedback for students, they’re able to see where they are, what progress they’ve made, and what they still need to accomplish.

While grades are important in this discussion, they are not the only aspect of the student’s feedback. Teachers should also include goal planning and achievement when giving feedback.

Teachers should also help students through their own self-evaluation. For example, during feedback sessions they can ask questions as:

  • Do you feel like you reached the lesson goal for today?
  • How close do you think you got to reaching your goal?
  • What do you think you could’ve done differently to reach that goal?
  • What skills have you learned this week that you didn’t know last week?
  • How do you plan on reaching our lesson goal for tomorrow?

This helps students to learn how to reflect on their own activities and make plans that help them reach their own learning goals.

Put Universal Design for Learning into Practice!

Universal design for learning is an incredible tool in the classroom. As we’ve seen, using this method in your school will help all students to learn in the way that works best for them, improving their knowledge of the subjects they’re learning.

UDL also helps teachers focus their efforts on the students that need it most, while allowing all students to thrive in an equalized classroom. In a classroom using universal design for learning, there are no students with limitations, only students who accomplish the same tasks and learn the same information with different methods.

Put universal design for learning into practice in your school this year, and your students will grow beyond your expectations.

Are you a math teacher? Prodigy Math is a game-based learning platform that makes it easy to tailor learning to every students in just a few clicks.