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Center for Teaching Excellence


Diverse Group of College Students

Universal Design for Learning

Each classroom may include students who struggle to learn for any number of reasons, including learning disabilities, English language barriers, lack of interest, or sensory and physical disabilities. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approaches learning from the aspect of addressing barriers keeping students from becoming expert learners.

A ”one-size-fits-all” curriculum is a barrier to learning. This barrier may not be intentional, but is based on the faculty’s lack of experience or knowledge of how to help students master learning.

A course that is created through a barrier-free design is best for all students. Students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to barriers to learning; however, learners without disabilities also fail to learn based on poorly designed curricula. Universal Design for Learning has three primary principles:

  1. Provide multiple means of representation
  2. Provide multiple means of expression
  3. Provide multiple means of engagement
Be cognizant of diverse learners.

Diversity in your classroom is the norm, not the exception. Curricula should not be designed only to meet the needs of the broad middle, but to include those with different abilities, learning styles, and backgrounds. This will provide all individuals with fair and equal opportunities to learn. UDL recommends the use of flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies to help educators use necessary tools to meet students' diverse needs.

Classroom space is also many times an issue for those with special needs who may be in a wheelchair or have other adaptive tools. Be conscious of how to effectively use your classroom space.

Teacher Presentation of Material: Provide multiple means of representation (the “what” of learning).

Students do not perceive and comprehend course content/information in the same way. Students with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness), learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia), and/or language or cultural differences, may require a different means to approach content. Students may learn through visual or auditory means rather than through printed text or students may learn by reading rather than by simply seeing a picture, chart or other object via a PowerPoint presentation.

The reality is that no one type of representation will be optimal for all students. Therefore, it is essential to provide options for the teacher presentation of material of content/information.

Student Expression of Knowledge: Provide multiple means of expression (the
“how” of learning).

Students do not all navigate a learning environment and express what they know in the same way. Students with motor disabilities (e.g., cerebral palsy), a lack of strategic and organizational abilities (e.g., ADHD), or who have language barriers, have developed different learning methods to complete tasks in very different ways.

Some students may be able to express themselves well orally, but not in writing or some students may be able to demonstrate a skill, but not orally explain steps to complete the demonstration. Students may also be able to provide information more adequately through an essay question instead of choosing between multiple choices. Presentations in pairs may also provide students with more opportunity to shine in your classroom.

In reality, no one means of expression will be optimal for all students. Therefore, it is essential to provide various options for the student expression of knowledge.

Student Engagement in the Content: Provide multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning).

Engaging students helps maintain student alertness and minimizes boredom. Different techniques must be incorporated into the classroom to engage or motivate students. All students are not motivated or do not become engaged in the same way. Some students are highly engaged by spontaneity and creativity, but other students may "shut down" when asked to engage "on the spot."

On the other hand, strict routines may be beneficial for some students while disruptive for others. No one means of engagement will be optimal for all students. Students perceive information in a variety of ways. Therefore, providing multiple options for student engagement in the content is helpful. 

Develop a community of learners and appropriate instructional climate.

Students come into your classroom with a variety of backgrounds and levels of prior knowledge. You need to meet your students where they are and help them feel comfortable at whatever level they may be. This will allow them to express their knowledge or lack of knowledge.

Creating a positive community of learners shows students you are willing to facilitate their growth. As students all start at a different point in their understanding, they will progress at a different rate as well. Students will thrive when they feel they are a part of a learning community in an appropriate instructional climate. 

Design a simple, yet intuitive environment.

The environment in your classroom begins with how you design your syllabus. Make sure your objectives, learning outcomes, and/or goals are clear and easy to understand. This is also true for assignments, activities, lectures and assessments. Providing rubrics assist in helping students understand your expectations. By carefully designing your syllabus and projects, along with providing rubrics to students, the expectations are made transparent and the environment tends to be more intuitive.

Be flexible.

Building flexibility into course requirements provides for the opportunity to approach situations in different ways. If one approach is not working for your students, you have the flexibility to try another. The first day of class is a great time to have students indicate (on a note card or another anonymous way) their strengths and weaknesses. After gathering the information, activities or projects can be designed to allow students to show their knowledge in a variety of ways to emphasize their strengths and hopefully work on their weaknesses.

Giving students options is a viable way to allow for strengths and weaknesses. For example, you may provide information at an introductory level in class, but allow students to work in pairs or groups to investigate and comprehend advanced information. Provide students the opportunity to learn at their own pace to expand their knowledge.