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Universal Design for Learning: An Introduction

UDL is a method for developing curricula to support all students, including students with disabilities.
Published: April 6, 2023

Key Takeaways

Universal Design for Learning is about building curricula, not retrofitting.
UDL is based in brain-research.
UDL addresses instruction for a diverse student population.

Influenced by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the concept of Universal Design (UD) originated in the field of architecture, recognizing buildings with built-in accessibility for everyone was a superior approach to retrofitting buildings to accommodate diverse individual needs. The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) emerged in the late 1990s, focusing on principles of UD but instead applied to schools, classrooms, and curricula. 

Like UD, UDL is about front-loading, not retrofitting. It’s about designing curriculum and instruction to meet the diverse needs of all students in the classroom—a microcosm of our diverse society, for which architectural UD was first envisioned. As educators, we must anticipate diversity in the classroom, which is today’s norm, instead of searching for and adding instructional elements and options after the lesson or unit of study has been developed. 

Both frameworks address physical accessibility in education by offering options for perception. However, UDL also emphasizes additional aspects of learning, such as processing information and building deeper comprehension of content; utilizing executive functioning, organizational skills, and progress monitoring abilities; engaging in the learning environment; and defining self-assessment and self-reflection strategies. Applying the UDL principles to lesson and curriculum design, you can make decisions about a range of methods, materials, and media needed to scaffold and support learning for all learners. In addition, UDL can help build student independence and self-regulation through a gradual release of scaffolds and supports.  

Current challenges in our public schools include increased diversity in classrooms, high expectations for all students, high-stakes testing, and accountability for all students. As educators, we now need to be successful with a much more diverse group of students, including English learners, students from other cultures, and students with diverse abilities.

All students commonly attend the same schools, learn in the same classrooms, and access the same curriculum. Schools, teachers, and students are accountable for progress and demonstrable learning outcomes in the regular education curriculum. Neither an exclusive print-based nor exclusive digital-based curriculum is designed for flexibility to adjust to different learner needs. In a UDL-designed classroom, all students are offered increased opportunities to access, participate, and progress in the general education curriculum.  

UDL is based in neuroscience, which indicates the learning brain is organized into three neuro-networks—affective, recognition, and strategic. Each brain network is associated with a UDL principle of learning:  

  1. Engagement, the “why” of learning; 

  1. Representation, the “what” of learning; and  

  1. Action and expression, the “how” of learning. 

As you design your curriculum, you should use the UDL framework to structure and organize strategies for learner access, interpretation and processing, and internalization of content knowledge and skills. Access is the first step in the learning process. Interpretation and processing are how the student makes meaning of bits and bytes of information, connects to previous learning, and creates new learning. Internalization is when the student engages with automaticity; the knowledge and skills have now become a part of who they are. By linking to the principles above, you can explore more about these strategies to provide for student access, interpretation and processing, and internalization. 

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