Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 101
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was adapted from the architectural concept of designing buildings that are accessible to the widest range, abilities, and interests of all people. UDL applies this philosophy to the classroom, promoting successful learning for all students while reducing the barriers they may face due to diverse learning styles, abilities, and interests.
UDL says that because everyone learns differently, accessibility should be designed into lesson plans so that every student can understand and benefit from the same curriculum. To learn more about how UDL works on an everyday scale, we spoke with Dr. Caitlin Solone — education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA — and Dr. Mary Falvey, professor emerita of special education at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), a former dean of CSULA’s Charter College of Education, and a national authority on inclusive education for students with and without disabilities.
What is UDL?
Dr. Solone explains that UDL — which was originally developed by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology in collaboration with Harvard University — is a set of principles created to meet the individual needs of all students by providing a variety of materials and learning modalities. Teachers using UDL create a flexible learning environment and a more accessible baseline to support a diverse set of students.
The UDL framework is based in neuroscience, and centers on three brain networks that correspond to three main principles:
- Engagement (the affective network): why a child is learning
- Representation (the recognition network): what a child is learning
- Action and Expression (the strategic network): how the child is learning
While UDL is designed for students with learning differences, it actually helps everyone. “When I was growing up, there were no curb cuts in sidewalks, so when I rode my bike, I often would pop a tire,” Dr. Falvey says. “When we recognized that we needed curb cuts for people who use wheelchairs, we also realized it was a good thing for everyone (people who push strollers, ride bicycles, skateboard, and more). The same goes for UDL. When we create an environment that’s more accessible to more people, the environment becomes more alive.”
Dr. Falvey adds that UDL builds procedures into the lesson plan that accommodate multiple learners — it’s a forethought, not an afterthought: “UDL recognizes that people learn in different ways and that we need to meet students where they’re at rather than force them to do things in ways that are harder for them.”
Examples of Universal Design for Learning
Some kids are visual learners and benefit from the use of images during lessons; other kids benefit more from auditory presentations, such as saying the same thing in different ways or learning educational songs. With UDL, Dr. Falvey explains, “students get a chance to hear things in the way they are actually going to learn it.” She adds that instruction should be varied from day to day, so kids who might have been struggling with linguistics have an opportunity to learn visually and vice versa. This helps the students who need it without calling them out individually.
While children in a classroom that uses UDL should be taught from the same lesson plan, their learning outcomes may not necessarily be the same. Dr. Solone says, “It’s about making children feel safe in their classrooms so they can take risks and learn while having multiple ways to engage with the material.”
Dr. Falvey adds that students should also be offered various ways to demonstrate their knowledge; for example, if a traditional book report might not work for some kids, they could draw a picture or do a pantomime to demonstrate what they learned about the subject. “Students should be able to learn and demonstrate their learning in ways that work for them.”
How is UDL used in the classroom?
Many school districts scheduled professional development in UDL for teachers after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. However, because UDL is a set of principles and not a curriculum, teachers often have to “recreate the wheel,” as Dr. Solone puts it. This means that while teachers are often taught to use UDL, they still have to figure out how to use it (alongside their curriculum and state standards) on their own.
Dr. Falvey adds that the new standards for elementary, secondary, and special education teachers incorporate UDL, and suggests that teachers ask their principal for staff development on UDL.
Teachers trained in UDL understand that it is important to incorporate different needs, strengths, and learning styles into their lesson plans to engage as many students as possible. For example, they may use a combination of lecturing, visual aids, music, and tactile props (like sandpaper or shaving cream to engage students through their sense of touch). Teachers using UDL will also assess students’ knowledge using a variety of methods.
Dr. Solone tells us that there are many things a teacher needs to take into account when creating a UDL-based lesson plan, including the physical, emotional, and communication barriers that make learning more difficult. For example, an educator will need to consider whether a child has physical access to materials or if they will need adaptive equipment. When creating activities, teachers will need to think about how the children will participate with and learn content. Will the lesson contain videos or practice alongside the teacher? What options will the children have to demonstrate their understanding?
How can UDL be used with state standards?
UDL can be used in tandem with Common Core State Standards. Dr. Solone explains that the standards tell a teacher what to teach, and UDL principles can help them determine how to teach it. For example, one teacher used the state standards to determine the objectives for her lesson on addition, and now she can use the UDL framework to use multiple methods to build activities. She might teach children from the front of the classroom using the whiteboard and then follow up with a hands-on activity where the children practice using colorful blocks at their desks.
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) can also be used with UDL to create a “more supportive environment that will allow students to thrive,” Dr. Solone says. As a framework, MTSS can provide targeted intervention and support for children who need it. With UDL as a baseline to provide students with multiple ways to learn content and demonstrate their knowledge, schools can then use the principles of MTSS to add extra support where needed so children can continue to make progress.
How can parents advocate for UDL to be used with their kids?
For more, watch the recording and highlights from our live event on Universal Design for Learning with Dr. Caitlin Solone here!
Don't be a turkey, teacher!
When it comes to the classroom, UD makes equal sense. Because everyone learns differently, accessibility should be built into lesson plans so that every student can understand and benefit from the same curriculum. In the above cartoon, the teacher could have incorporated UDL by asking the whole class to create hand turkeys, using the activity to teach them about the bones and muscles in the hand.
Districts can access training programs in UDL from:
- Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE)
- California Department of Education (CDE)
- Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA)
Recent research and helpful resources can be found at: