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Universal design for learning; including all learners from the start


Universal Design for Learning, UDL, based on three principles, provides a plan for the educator to identify the barriers and minimize them from the planning of the lesson. The author provides a general description of the UDL principles and guidelines as outline by Centre for Applied Special Technology, CAST, together with practical examples. Following the guidelines means planning a lesson which is accessible for all learners from the start without having to modify a one-size-fits-all curriculum. All learners could be able to access the curriculum by being presented with various options to engage, acquire information and demonstrate their knowledge.


‘UDL offers students the opportunity to be themselves, to learn according to their abilities and learning patterns thus facilitating their progress in the general curriculum’ (Tanti Burlo’, 2010, p. 55).

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning, UDL, was developed by Cast, the Centre for Applied Special Technology. This was evolved from Universal Design in architecture which required that public places were to be designed accessible to all from the beginning (Bart & Conyne, 2001) and not improved once they are built.

Educators may have been taught to modify a lesson after that it is developed to meet the unique needs of learners. This method often leads to leave out learners with other needs who are not ‘labelled’ or diagnosed as having difficulties (Lieberman, Lytle, & Clarcq, 2008). UDL expands the concept of Universal Design to schools, which may be more physically accessible to students with disabilities, than are the curricula within them (Dolan & Hall, 2001; Edyburn, 2005). According to the Higher Education Opportunity Act, 2008, UDL provides flexibility in three ways: how information is presented, how learners express themselves and how they are engaged.

UDL is a research based framework. It was inspired by neuroscience research and Vygotsky’s conditions (Jimenez, Graf, & Rose, 2007) and depends on three principles to eliminate barriers in the classroom and facilitate learning for all the students. According to Vygotsky as cited in Remedial and Special Education, 2001, every learner should be able to identify patterns, to have strategies and to be engaged by both in order to achieve exceptional learning.

Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014 compare UDL to a Global Positioning System, GPS, device. The device can offer the user different routes and may also suggest alternative ways to prevent traffic jams. It provides individualized support to a destination. Education could also be as flexible. This is possible when educators identify the students’ strengths and challenges in recognition, strategy and engagement while they are planning so that they can set SMART goals and appropriate variable material for all learners (Dolan & Hall, 2001).

Research shows that there are three neuro networks in the brain which are recognition, affective and strategic networks. On these, UDL developed their principles which takes into consideration the strengths and challenges of each learner.

Principles of the UDL Framework

As outlined by Rose, Meyer, Strangman, & Rappolt, 2002, these principles guide educators to offer the learners multiple ways of learning. When using these principles educators would be providing each learner with various options to engage in learning, acquire information and exhibit their knowledge and skills. To support the educators to teach all learners, a series of guidelines and checkpoints are linked with each principle.

Figure 1 shows the UDL principles, guidelines and checkpoints in a concise visual graphic

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Principle 1: Multiple means of Representation

The ‘what’ of learning is the way learners receive and understands the information given by the educator. Learners do this differently and so there is no ‘one size fits all’ way of representing a concept.

Guideline 1: Provide options for Perception.

A set of sentences printed on a book might be enough for a learner to understand a concept while it may mean nothing to another. On the contrary an audio track may be the right medium for one learner but may be hard to comprehend by a learner with hearing difficulties. On the other hand, it may be extremely useful for a learner who struggles to read or who is visually impaired (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012). The point is that the curriculum should be flexible enough for all the learners with so many unique needs, as if not some learners will not perceive information thus will be excluded.

Guideline 2: Provide options for Language and Symbols.

If an educator is introducing mathematical symbols a learner with dyslexia may not understand that when the teacher is doing 25 ÷ 5, she is actually dividing 25 objects between 5 children. However if the learner is provided with 25 candies and asked to share between 5 children, the educator will be providing a different option to make a symbol more concrete before presenting the mathematical symbol. As Ralabate (2012) points out, the educator should “Provide scaffolding for decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols…” (p.47).

Guideline 3: Provide options for Comprehension.

Some learners may have difficulties to process information even when this is provided in an interesting way which may be beneficial for a number of learners in the class. This guideline emphasises the importance of supplying background knowledge before presenting the material.

A seven year old who has hearing impairment may struggle to understand text about history or different cultures. This may be abstract to him/her. Watching a video with captions before reading the text would help the learner to build a background, understand text and make a connection. A visual such as a timeline will also be helpful not only for the learner with hearing impairment but also for others in the class who might have learning difficulties.

In line with all this CAST explains that ‘Students perceive and comprehend information presented to them in different ways’ (CAST,, n.d.). This is reinforced by Tanti Burlo’(2010) who writes that all learners with disability and not will benefit when presented with a variable of material.

Principle 2: Multiple means of Action and Expression

The ‘how’ of learning is the way the educator asks the learner to exhibit what she/he learned. In a typical classroom, learners are given a textbook or a copybook to demonstrate to the educator what they have learned from the lesson. This often creates barriers for learners who find it hard to express themselves in writing or who have fine motor difficulties, spatial difficulties or other learning difficulties. This UDL principle is all about providing alternatives for expression.

Guideline 4: Provide options for Physical Action.

A learner who has motor difficulties may not be able to speak or write but this does not mean that he does not have the capability to think. An example of this is Stephen Hawking, the physicist, (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014)who despite of his physical disability, he received thirteen honorary degrees. To remove motor barriers an educator can provide text-to speech software, word processor, digital recordings and multimedia presentation tools.

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Guideline 5: Provide options for Expression and Communication.

Not all learners can express themselves in the same way. Learners should be provided with choices to choose their best medium for their needs. Some learners might need little or no scaffolding while others may need different levels of scaffolding such as spell or grammar checkers or word prediction (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012). If the educator’s goal is that learners will be able to explain the importance of reducing, reusing, recycling and repairing, why a learner who has motor or severe dyslexia struggle? Why twenty-five learners with unique strengths and needs have to be presented with one option of expression? Providing multiple means for expression and communication would eliminate barriers created by the society and improve the quality of life of these learners.

Guideline 6: Provide options for Executive Function.

As explained by Hall, Meyer, & Rose (2012) Executive Function ‘…manage other cognitive processes… that are responisble for strategy, planning, and regulating behaviour’(p.129). Some learners such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder might experience difficulties to undertand information presented through speech as they may find it challenging to put into practice the strategies and abilities to listen, learn and memorise (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012). These barriers my be minimized by presenting external scaffolding such as charts and diagrams so that the learners are able to organise themselves independently.

To wrap it all up there is no ideal mean of expression and action for all learners and that is why educators should provide them with multiple options.

Principle 3: Multiple means of Engagement

This principle concerns the affective networks and concentrates on the ‘why’ of learning. Why should a student be eacher to learn? What motivates the student? ‘Some students are engaged by spontanity and novelty’ (CAST, Universal Design for Learning Guidlines version 2.2, 2018) while others prefer a strict routine and structure. Providing various options will aim to engage and motivate all students.

Guideline 7: Provide options for Recruiting Interest

Recruiting of interest by all learners may be challenging for an educator. To overcome this challenge UDL proposes to provide choices. ‘Reasearch tells us that one of the best ways to pique our students’ interest is to provide choice…’ (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012). The learner may be provided a choice to write using pen and paper or to use a word processor for example. If a learner takes too long to write and the objective is to learn long division, s/he can be given a choice to work 10 sums instead of 20 . Goals and activities should be interesting and authentic to increase motivation and recruit interest. Goals must be significant and distractions minimized.

Guidline 8: Provide options for Sustaining Effort and Persistance.

Learners need the right level of support. An easy task might be boring while a difficult one might be frustrating so the educator should find a balance according to the learners’ abilities. Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development is defined by Mooney, 2000 ‘…as the distance between the most difficult task a child can do alone and the most difficult task a child can do with help’(p.101). This is sustained by Ralabate (2016) who writes that the educator should find a balance between the requirements of the goal and the tools offered to reach it. Providing the learners with feedback is also crucial as they will be aware of what they need to improve and what are they are doing well.

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Guideline 9: Provide options for Self-Regulation

Some learners may learn to develop self-regulatory skills through modelling while others may need support to regulate their emotions and motivators. Ralabate (2016) suggests to provide the learner with self-assessment. With a simple rubric, students can start to reflect on their own work and behaviour and the educator can modify the rubric according the the students’ level of performance.

Bart & Conyne, 2001 state that when studens are given accessible tools, they are more motivated to learn because they feel they are able to complete their task.

UDL: From a concept to reality

Research shows that identifying barriers and eliminating them prior to lessons is more beneficial for all learners than to adapt the curriculum according to a particular need.

Lessons might be accessible without technology however Rose & Meyer, 2002 believe that ‘Before teachers can transform UDL theory into practice, they need acces to digital materials’(p.161).

A variety of software and hardware could be installed in all school computers so that eache educator could provide students with text-to-speech and other customizations such as CAST eReader, Pictureit and Mat Pad Plus. Curricula material which is available only in text could be digitalized so that the school will own a digital library gradually. When text is digitalized, students could benefit from more flexible representation of information such as appearance or size of text and text converted to Braille {{3 Rose”,David H. 2002;}} (Rose D. H., Meyer, Strangman, & Rappolt, 2002).

When planning a lesson, the educator could investigate the barriers which student could encouter to reach the particular learning goal. Once barriers are identified, the educator could adjust the material using multiple media (Rose D. H., Meyer, Strangman, & Rappolt, 2002) so that information is accessible to all and students can express themselves according to their needs.

Assessment whether it is done during teaching or seperatly should also be given through practical means of expression. When multiple means are provided needs for accomodations may be reduced. An example could be that when assessing mathemetical concept, reading and decoding should not be a barrier. Thus a sum could be presented both in words and diagrams.


‘If curriculum designers recognize the widely diverse learners in current classrooms and build in options to support learning differences from the beginning, the curriculum as inherently designed can work for all learners’ (Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2002, p. 12).

Around 30 years ago public spaces where not accessible to persons with physical disabilities. Retrofitting these spaces may have improved the access but at a considerable cost. Today it is very hard to imagine a place which is not accessible to all persons (Bart & Conyne, 2001). The progress in architecture could also be applied in schools. UDL is the solution to an accessible and flexible curricula for all students. Providing a flexible curriculum through UDL will provide access to all learners from the start. (from hall, meyer, rose, black book)

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