What is UDL?
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was developed by CAST as a framework to optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how people learn. Similarly to universal design in architecture, it refers to designing environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptations or specialized design and encourages instructors to design courses with every student in mind. UDL offers a framework for course design that gives all individuals an equal opportunity to learn. UDL is not a one size fits all approach. It is a flexible approach which encourages offering learners options to meet individual needs. For more information on operationalizing UDL, visit CAST's UDL in Higher Education website.
UDL's three key principles of offering multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement provide a framework for designing a course to support the diverse needs of all learners. Designing a course with these principles in mind makes the class more accessible, usable, and inclusive.
Multiple Means of Representation
Multiple means of representation refers to offering options for how students intake information in your class. Not every student will learn best sitting through a traditional lecture or reading a textbook. Consider other options for students to take in class information such as:
- Offering captioned recordings of your class. This way students who missed something or need more help understanding a topic can go back and review that piece of class as many times as they'd like.
- Using course materials that are available in a digital format so that students can utilize a text reading tool to read it or use a custom font, size, or background color to help them concentrate
- Offering a variety of resources including websites, podcasts, and videos sharing supplementing your class material so that students can use their preferred method to learn necessary concepts
Those are just a couple of examples of how to implement multiple means of representation. It can be overwhelming to know where to start. A good rule of thumb is to identify "pinch points" in your course and start there. In their book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, Tom Tobin and Kristen Behling encourage instructors to identify "pinch points" or areas where students typically struggle to grasp concepts, typically ask a lot of questions, or typically get assessment questions wrong and add another option to help them better understand. For example if there's a STEM course where students typically struggle with a certain equation, perhaps you could film yourself explaining that equation and post it to your course site for them to review. Start with "pinch points" and move on from there.
Multiple Means of Action and Expression
Multiple means of action and expression refers to offering students options in how they share what they've learned. Not every student is able to best express what they've learned in the same way. Thus, when giving an assessment, it is critical to understand exactly what it is that you are assessing to allow for multiple options in how students approach assessments. Potential way to offer options in assessments include:
- Offering exams with multiple types of questions
- Offering fewer, more frequent exams
- Offering students to choose how to complete an assignment, ex. you can either write a paper or record a podcast to complete this assignment
Tom Tobin and Kristen Behling also discuss the idea that offering too many options can be an issue and suggest using "plus-one thinking" when offering assessment options. Essentially, add one option to what you typically offer for assessments. Offering two options means that everyone will have a choice, but they aren't overwhelmed trying to decide what to do and instructors aren't overwhelmed having to grade an unlimited number of different types of assignments.
Multiple Means of Engagement
A goal of UDL is to create expert learners. Not everyone is motivated to learn the same way. Multiple means of engagement refers to offering multiple ways to engage students in the learning process. This can include:
- Utilizing experiential learning opportunities as part of class. Add a hands on component or a case study for students to work through in class
- Offer discussion opportunities
- Utilize polling questions to gauge understanding
- Create opportunities where students need to be the experts on a topic and share what they've learned with the class
Those are just a few examples. Be creative and come up with ways to engage students in class aside from a typical lecture where an instructor talks and students listen.
Here are some helpful resources to help you dig deeper into the concept of UDL and how to apply it in your course.
- Addressing Evolving Needs with UDL OER offers asynchronous access to Northwestern's UDL practicum content focusing on practical UDL implementation and all resources used throughout the three week session.
- CAST's Universal Design for Learning website provides a comprehensive look at the concept of UDL through multiple formats including several helpful videos.
- The DO-IT Center offers articles and books on UDL in HIgher education, checklists and worksheets for applying UDL to your course, and videos on how to make your course more accessible.
- CAST's UDL on Campus website offers a plethora of information and examples on implementing UDL in course design, assessments, and course materials
- The Think UDL Podcast offers a new episode every week that features people discussing how they are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind in post-secondary settings.
- Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education is an excellent book that looks at how to practically implement UDL in higher education classes.