Teachers all share a common goal: providing the best possible learning experience to their students to attain great academic outcomes across the board. Achieving these objectives is no small feat, especially in large and diverse classrooms where students possess different aptitudes and learning styles. To help create a positive classroom experience that works for all students, more and more educators turn to learning frameworks such as universal design for learning, or UDL.
For educators pursuing advanced degrees or working to develop greater expertise and align their pedagogy with best practices, mastery of UDL can be an important step toward more effective classroom management.
What is Universal Design for Learning?
At its heart, universal design for learning is an approach to teaching that seeks to give each student an equal opportunity to succeed. In a practical sense, UDL is a framework for developing lesson plans, classroom activities, and student assessments with accessibility and inclusion in mind. The framework for UDL was developed in the 1990s by CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization.
The name itself may be misleading. UDL is not “universal” in the sense of providing a single, one-size-fits-all learning solution. On the contrary, the UDL framework encourages teachers to employ a variety of approaches within their classrooms, removing any educational barriers that impede student progress. When employed properly, UDL should create flexible, nimble classrooms, allowing teachers to adjust their approach to accommodate all learners.
While UDL does not directly target students who have learning disabilities, these students may find more opportunities for engagement in classrooms guided by UDL principles, and educators may find that it helps them reach those students who have otherwise fallen behind or exhibited signs of struggle. By design, UDL can be applied across all learning levels and across all subject areas.
What are the Principles of Universal Design for Learning?
UDL is based on three core principles: Engagement, representation, and action/expression.
UDL encourages teachers to seek ways to motivate their students and sustain their interests. Engagement can include:
- Letting students make choices within the classroom
- Presenting lessons in a way that feels relevant to the students’ lives
- Creating opportunities for students to get up and move around the classroom
Another key component of UDL is presenting information in more than one format. So while a teacher might provide students with a printed worksheet or handout, this handout might be accompanied by:
- Audio (even if this just means reading instructions out loud)
- Video presentations
- Hands-on learning activities, including activities to improve mindfulness in the classroom
Finally, UDL encourages students to interact with the lesson and demonstrate what they have learned. Examples can include:
- Giving an oral report
- Completing a pencil-and-paper examination
- Creating a video, diorama, comic strip, or another creative project
What are the Benefits of Universal Design for Learning?
The goal of UDL is to create an improved educational experience for all students, including those who have learning disabilities of one kind or another (note that about one out of five US schoolchildren exhibits a learning or thinking impairment).
Some specific benefits of UDL include:
- UDL makes learning more accessible, even in general education classrooms. The UDL framework creates more flexible classroom experiences, meaning that teachers can deliver meaningful learning opportunities to all students. This is especially critical given that even students with learning disabilities may spend most of their time in general education classrooms, not specialized spaces.
- UDL reduces stigma. By accommodating a wide range of learning styles within the same classroom, UDL helps eliminate the sense that certain learning styles are privileged or require special attention.
- UDL adapts the content to the learner. One of the great values of UDL is that it adapts the material to the learner, rather than asking the learner to adapt to the material.
- UDL plays to students’ strengths. By furnishing a range of opportunities for students to interact with the material, UDL allows students to play to their strengths. For example, students who struggle with pencil-and-paper quizzes can exhibit mastery of the material through creative projects or oral reports.
What are the Challenges of Universal Design for Learning?
While UDL presents numerous benefits to educators and students alike, it can also present some challenges. Teachers who hope to implement the UDL framework should be aware of a few potential barriers, including:
- Time. Simply put, most teachers have very limited time available to them. UDL may require a significant revamp of lesson plans and curriculum, which is a significant up-front time investment.
- Lack of support. In some schools or districts, teachers may feel like they have limited administrative support, especially if the administration does not have any examples of successful UDL implementation to observe.
- Knowledge. Even teachers who are drawn to the core principles of UDL may feel as if they lack the knowledge base to enact those principles in their classroom. Further training may be necessary to confidently employ UDL as a teaching method.
Explore Different Educational Frameworks
Universal design for learning is just one of several frameworks that educators can use to support student learning. Advanced degree programs, such as American University’s Online Master of the Arts in Teaching (MAT), can equip educators with the skills and knowledge to create more inclusive and equitable learning environments.
Find out more about how the American University program can provide a wider range of pedagogical tools, making classrooms more inclusive and ensuring flexible accommodations for students of all aptitudes and learning styles.