UDL provides the same kind of flexibility in the classroom that universal design principles - such as automatic doors - provide to physical structures. This is achieved by building in flexibility to curricula so that students can access, engage with, and demonstrate mastery of information in ways best suited to their individual learning styles. It is due to this flexibility that UDL can benefit all learners, regardless of any individual student’s abilities or deficits.

Key Points
  • Universal Design for Learning is an approach to learning that addresses the primary barrier to making expert learners of all students: inflexible, one-size-fits-all curricula.
  • UDL refers to a process by which a curriculum is intentionally and systematically designed from the beginning to address individual differences.
  • The focus of UDL is to remove barriers to learning, provide supports where they are needed, and engage every student in a successful learning experience.
  • UDL curricula incorporates ways to help keep students engaged and motivated in their work.
  • An assignment built with UDL principles might include options like computerized text-to-speech or contain captioned videos so that information is represented in various ways.
  • A UDL approach might allow the creation of a video, comic strip, group project, or oral presentation in lieu of a traditional exam to give the learner flexibility in showing mastery of a subject.
Benefits of UDL
  • Curricula created using UDL is designed from the outset to meet the needs of all learners, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes unnecessary.
  • UDL can help educators identify the barriers found in existing curricula.
  • Flexible curricula designs that have customizable options allow all learners to progress from where they are and not where we would have imagined them to be.
  • UDL helps address learner variability by suggesting flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that empower educators to meet these varied needs.
  • UDL can benefit all students. Learners with disabilities are the most vulnerable to curricular barriers, but many students without disabilities also find that curricula are poorly designed to meet their learning needs (CAST, 2011).

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) term was inspired by the universal design concept from product development and architecture developed in the 1980s. Universally designed buildings and products include accessibility features proactively, making expensive, after-the-fact, modifications unnecessary. A classic example of universal design is curb cuts. Although curb cuts were designed for people who use wheelchairs, they benefit a range of people - including those with strollers. Another example are automatic doors and ramps at grocery stores that give all people equal physical access to the building. Although inspired in part by these universal design concepts, the UDL principles are actually far broader. Instead of focusing exclusively on physical access to the classroom, UDL focuses on access to all aspects of learning.

The goal of the UDL developers was to create physical environments and tools that were usable by as many people as possible. In order to do this, they drew from universal design concepts, brain research, and the burgeoning advancements in computer technologies. The UDL developers started their work by creating digital books for students with disabilities, but quickly expanded and changed their focus:

"Those with reading challenges needed to have text read aloud to them; those with limited vocabulary needed linked definitions; those with physical challenges needed to be able to turn pages with a single-switch interface; those with low vision needed large buttons that voiced their functions. Soon we realized that we could make a single digital book with all of these options embedded, and with a customizable interface so that each learner could find the supports they needed. This led to a major breakthrough in our overall approach: the realization that the curriculum, rather than the learners, was the problem." (Rose, 2016, p. 5)

The UDL information on this website was obtained or adapted from:

CAST (2011) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
The Center for Applied Special Technology
Rose, D.H. (2016) Universal Design for Learning - Theory and Practice. Cast Professional Publishing.

The goal of UDL is to create environments in which everyone will have the opportunity to become expert learners, and the means to get there, be it tech or non-tech, should be flexible.

Simply using technology in the classroom should not be considered implementation of UDL. However, Technologies applied using UDL principles enable easier and more effective customization of curricula for learners.

For some students, the use of personal assistive technologies – e.g., an electric wheelchair, eyeglasses, or a cochlear implant – is essential for basic physical and sensory access to learning environments. Even in classrooms that are well equipped with UDL materials and methods, their assistive technology neither precludes nor replaces the need for UDL overall (CAST, 2011).

The UDL information on this website was obtained or adapted from:

CAST (2011) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
The Center for Applied Special Technology
Rose, D.H. (2016) Universal Design for Learning - Theory and Practice. Cast Professional Publishing.

The UDL Framework

The UDL framework incorporates both educational, and brain-based research.  Other factors contributing to the framework are developments in digital technologies; universal design principles; and direct observations in school settings.  

The UDL framework can be used to proactively develop inclusive curricula, reducing barriers to academic success.  Three primary principles provide the underlying framework for UDL.

  • Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the “why” of learning). Affect represents a crucial element to learning, and learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. There are a variety of sources that can influence individual variation in affect including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge, along with a variety of other factors presented in these guidelines. Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while other are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.
  • Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the “what” of learning). Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information quicker or more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Also learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because it allows students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential.
  • Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the “how” of learning). Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential (CAST, 2011).

Four interrelated components comprise a UDL curriculum:

      Goals are often described as learning expectations. Whereas traditional curricula focus on content or performance goals, a UDL curriculum focuses on developing “expert learners.”  This sets higher expectations, reachable by every learner.

       Methods are generally defined as the instructional decisions, approaches, procedures, or routines that expert teachers use to accelerate or enhance learning.  UDL curricula facilitate differentiation of methods, based on learner variability in the context of the task, learner’s social/emotional resources, and the classroom climate.

       Materials are usually seen as the media used to present learning content and what the learner uses to demonstrate knowledge. Within the UDL framework, the hallmark of materials is their variability and flexibility. For conveying conceptual knowledge, UDL materials offer multiple media and embedded, just-in-time supports such as hyperlinked glossaries, background information, and on-screen coaching. For strategic learning and expression of knowledge, UDL materials offer tools and supports needed to access, analyze, organize, synthesize, and demonstrate understanding in varied ways. For engaging with learning, UDL materials offer alternative pathways to success including choice of content where appropriate, varied levels of support and challenge, and options for recruiting and sustaining interest and motivation.

       Assessment is described as the process of gathering information about a learner’s performance using a variety of methods and materials to determine learners’ knowledge, skills, and motivation for making informed educational decisions.  By broadening means to accommodate learner variability, and the provision of supports and scaffolds for construct irrelevant items, UDL assessments reduce or remove barriers to accurate measurement of learner knowledge, skills, and engagement (CAST, 2011).



UDL Examples and Resources

UDL Guidelines - Specific, practical examples for how to provide options to meet learner variability
Don Johnston UDL - Case studies and 4-part blog series
UDL Curriculum Self-Check - Evaluate your own materials
UDL Exchange - Share/obtain universally designed digital books
UDL Book Builder - Create/obtain universally designed digital books

Contact Us

Janice Carson

Director and AEM State Lead
Idaho Assistive Technology Project
University of Idaho Center on Disabilities and Human Development
1187 Alturas Drive, Moscow, ID 83843

Dan Dyer

Education Coordinator
Idaho Assistive Technology
Resource Center - Coeur d'Alene
1031 N. Academic Way, Room 130D, Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814

sde Idaho Assistive Technology Project
Center on Disabilities and Human Development
1187 Alturas Dr.
Moscow, ID 83843