Universal Design for Learning: What is It?

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
Group of students working at a table with a teacher standing near by.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

According to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is “ a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” (CAST 2018). The foundations of UDL originated from the 1990s research of Meyer, Rose, and Gordon surrounding the human brain’s responses to a variety of educational stimuli, and the research surrounding the UDL principles continues through the present.

At its core, Universal Design for Learning consists of three principles rooted in brain-based processing research that include:

1) Affective Networks: The “why” of learning which relates to engagement;

2) Recognition Networks: The “what” of learning which relates to representation; and

3) Strategic Networks: The “how” of learning which relates to action and expression (CAST 2018).

As shown in the graphic on the CAST website, each component is divided into three smaller subsections that are aligned with the pedagogical principles of accessing, building, and internalizing knowledge for individual learners. Each subcategory then contains a series of three checkpoints that are further explained and then applied to a classroom learning environment culminating in the bottom “internalizing” tier checkpoints of self-regulation, comprehension, and executive function.

The concept of self-regulation, defined by CAST as “the ability to self-regulate—to strategically modulate one’s emotional reactions or states in order to be more effective at coping and engaging with the environment,” is a critical precursor to students’ development of a level of comfort when presented with new and challenging learning objectives (CAST 2018). This ability to self-regulate with regard to their approach to learning allows students to view potentially overwhelming objectives as steps in the curricular scaffold as opposed to insurmountable obstacles. Naturally, much of students’ ability to demonstrate this type of self-regulation stems directly from the manner in which the instructor frames the introduction of new material over the course of the term or school year. The UDL framework provides specific examples of how intentional teachers may promote student ownership of success through personal goal-setting, managing their emotions related to learning and promoting awareness of goal-oriented progress as well as learning from mistakes.

Comprehension is perhaps the most familiar component of the UDL framework as it primarily addresses the pedagogical elements of sound teaching. This component is similar to other familiar learning designs and relies upon traditional principles such as accessing students’ prior knowledge, emphasizing big ideas, highlighting the relationships between various concepts, and incorporating visualization and multiple exposures to the thematic elements within the unit or lesson series. CAST offers the following explanation of comprehension: “Constructing usable knowledge, knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making, depends not upon merely perceiving information, but upon active “information processing skills”,” (CAST 2018). Thus, comprehension remains the crux of the UDL framework.

Executive function, then, represents a level of mastery in which students are able to apply learned knowledge to more complex functions by reducing the amount of “brain energy” expended upon “lower level” conceptual processing. Executive function is the highest level within the scaffolded approach in which students are able to apply their knowledge to additional complex learning without the need to go back and revisit fundamental concepts. This component of the UDL framework again focuses upon advanced goal-setting fostered by the instructor in addition to instructor-modeled memory training and ongoing progress monitoring.

What are the Benefits of Universal Design for Learning?

While evaluating the benefits of any learning design is best accomplished through an analysis of empirical data, a review of the framework itself indicates that the platform is most certainly aligned with research-based approaches to instruction. Additionally, UDL’s emphasis upon empowering students to “own” their individual learning experiences blends well with traditional instructional theories as well as modern frameworks such as Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe 2005) and Mass Customized Learning (Schwann and McGarvey 2010).

In an era in which student engagement remains a constant learning barrier to be overcome, the Universal Design for Learning framework provides educators with the tools they need both to better understand their students’ individual learning needs and to create a classroom culture based upon student empowerment regardless of the level at which individual students may begin. Students enter the school building or online classroom with different backgrounds and exposures to academic content, not to mention the diversity among learners with regard to literacy and socioeconomic status. By addressing the needs of students head-on, UDL assists in leveling the proverbial playing field in order to enable each student to achieve his or her highest possible level of success.

Universal Design for Learning Examples in the Classroom

Primary Literacy Instruction

The teacher begins with a conversation with students in which they are encouraged to set goals for themselves based upon reading pre-test results. The teacher explains that failure is acceptable and that mistakes are tools for learning. The instructor then teaches for comprehension followed by assessment and student reflection and additional goal setting and progress monitoring.

Secondary Mathematics, Factoring Polynomials

Similar to the first example, the teacher administers a pre-test of the material to be learned, followed by individual goal-setting exercises by the students. The teacher then builds comprehension in accordance with the UDL framework, followed by student reflection and additional goal setting, progress monitoring, and memory building.

Physical Education, Push-Ups

The instructor conducts a baseline push-up test. The students then establish a goal to meet within 30 days. The instructor provides comprehension activities in the form of coaching on proper form and breathing techniques, and students practice the skills. Students then self-assess their progress and set additional goals while incorporating their acquired skills into a personal physical fitness plan that utilizes push-ups and other aerobic activities.

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