Picture of group of individuals standing with a focus on their different shoes.

Does one shoe fit all? Not in education. For instance, I like to wear size nine red stilettos, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to expect everyone in my building to wear a pair of these stilettos today to go to work. What if you don’t wear a size 9? Know how to walk in stilettos? Dislike the color red, or feel that these shoes are inappropriate for you?

The same goes for education. As teachers, we tend to rely on and repeat techniques we are comfortable teaching with and assume that students are fine with them. But instead, we have to remind ourselves that these preferences might not always work for our students, and that we may have to accommodate their individual needs. As human being, we like having choices. Students’ attention and interest are attracted in significantly different ways. Even one same student will differ over time, as he/she develops new interests, evolves in different environments, or undergo personal or biological changes. Therefore, it is essential to have alternative ways to catch students’ interest, while also reflecting the differences among them.

Universal Design for Learning (aka “UDL”) addresses these issues and helps teachers design flexible learning environments that adapt to the variability of learners.

Here are four reasons why you should use (or learn about) Universal Design for Learning:

1) UDL is research-based

The Universal Design for Learning framework was developed by CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) to guide the design of instructional goals, curriculum, and assessment that can be adjusted to each individual’s needs. UDL relies on what neuroscience research tells us about the way human beings learn. Below is an illustration of the three primary brain networks that are activated when we learn:

This is a visual representation of three primary brain networks that are activated when we learn.

© CAST, Inc. 2009-2012. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.

Each of these three networks has implications for teaching, and together, they drive the main principles behind UDL implementation: 1) Provide multiple means of representation, 2) Provide multiple means of expression, and 3) Provide multiple means of engagement.

2) UDL is flexible

The UDL framework is not a cookie-cutter set of rigid rules, but rather a flexible approach to teaching that can be customized based on each teaching situation. It was initially designed as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 as a framework to guide educational practices in order to provide flexibility in how information was provided and to allow students to demonstrate their learning in various ways. This was intended to “reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and {maintain} high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient” (http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udldefined).

The chart below describes the sets of guidelines you can adapt to your teaching situation:

This is a chart of UDL guidelines for teaching.

© CAST, Inc. 2009-2012. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.

3) UDL is about learners

UDL focuses on student learning through proactive curriculum creation. That is, you as the teacher are responsible for removing the possible barriers that could prevents students from learning your material. This involves four components: goals, methods, materials, and assessments.

For instance, when I create a lesson plan, I need to reflect on the following:

  • Goals: What are the learning expectations? How can my lesson turn my students into experts learners? Goals are the knowledge, concepts, and skills that all students should master. When I apply UDL, I need to make sure that I acknowledge learner variability and differentiate the goals from the means. I need to offer options or alternatives, along with a variety of tools, strategies, and scaffolds to help learners reach mastery.
  • Methods: What instructional approaches or decisions can I follow to enhance learning? UDL helps us focus on teaching methods based on learner variability. This happens both within the context of the specific task, and the individual learner’s social/emotional context, along with the classroom’s atmosphere. My methods need to be flexible and varied, and adjusted based on a continuous monitoring of learner progress.
  • Materials: What media can I use to present the content and what media can the learner use to demonstrate knowledge? With UDL, materials are variable and flexible. They should offer different pathways to similar outcomes while including choices for the learner where appropriate, multiple levels of support and challenge, and alternative options to create interest.
  • Assessments: Are my assessments accurate? Are they comprehensive and articulate enough to guide instruction for all learners? When using UDL, I need to ensure that I focus on the goal, and provide different supports or scaffolds; and that I accommodate learner variability by reducing barriers to measuring learner knowledge, skills, and engagement with the content.

All this should be done following UDL principles of multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement.

If you’d like to see what UDL looks like in practice, look at this article created by CAST which illustrates UDL principles in action.

4) UDL is a rich community of practice

Whether you are just interested in learning more about UDL, or are ready to start implementing it in your classroom, UDL possesses an extensive community of practice that can support you every step of the way. Below are some resources, ranging from theoretical to practical applications of UDL:

Tutorials: the National Center on UDL offers online media presentations that help educators to build UDL understanding, along with other supporting material.

Videos: CAST also has a Youtube channel where you can find updates and material related to UDL.

Forum: UDL Exchange is a place to browse and share resources or lessons related to UDL.

Social media: Follow #UDL and #UDLchat on Twitter

Books: To learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of UDL, check out the following books on the topic:

Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice by David Gordon, Anne Meyer & David H. Rose (2016).

Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age by Rose & Meyer (2002)

The Universally Designed Classroom by Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock (Eds.) (2005)

A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning by Rose & Meyer (Eds.) (2006).

Have you implemented UDL in your teaching? Or, do you have questions about where to begin? Share your experiences and questions in the comments below.

This is bio pic of Sarah Gretter.

Sarah Gretter is a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology & Educational Technology at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on Media & information literacy. Specifically, she is interested in the competencies that educators should acquire to successfully help students understand the functions of online media and information in our digital lives. She is also interested in student acquisition of 21st century digital skills, including media & information literacy, computational thinking, and online citizenship. (website: www.sarahgretter.org)

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