How can educators design instruction that engages and challenges all students?
Page 1: Universal Design for Learning
As educators notice the many differences in how their students learn, think, and communicate, their observations may often lead to one weighty question: How can I reach each learner in my classroom? Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that addresses this fundamental question. Developed by CAST, UDL isn’t a curriculum or an intervention but a framework that helps teachers design accessible, challenging learning experiences that work for all students. Think of UDL as a lens through which educators design instruction that allows students a variety of ways to access content, engage with instruction, and demonstrate their learning. Each word in the name Universal Design for Learning is intentional and reflects the priorities of UDL:
- Universal: UDL is an approach for designing instruction for all students
- Design: UDL is incorporated from the start, as instruction is being planned
- Learning: UDL is based on a deep understanding of how humans learn
For Your Information
Anticipating learner variability is not the same as grouping students into categories such as “students with disabilities,” “multilingual learners,” or “gifted students.” Rather, educators who understand variability recognize that every student brings a unique constellation of abilities and experiences to their learning. Variability is the rule, not the exception.
The primary purpose of UDL is to design learning experiences that reach every student. We know that every student can learn, but not every student learns in the same way. People vary in how they engage with learning, how they make meaning of what they learn, and how they express their learning. In the UDL framework, we refer to this as learner variability. For instance, students have diverse personal identities and life experiences. They bring varied interests and background knowledge to the classroom. In addition, educators should expect students to differ in the languages they speak, the cultures they represent, and the patterns of strengths and challenges they display.
Because of the natural variability among learners, classroom instruction that assumes all students learn in the same way simply is not effective. There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” lesson. And yet, it is also not practical for educators to create an individualized lesson for every student, every day. By using UDL, educators can address this challenge by proactively designing learning experiences that are flexible enough to reach all learners.
UDL is based on research from the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and the learning sciences. This research demonstrates:
- Due to unique combinations of genetic factors and individual experiences, each human brain is as unique as a fingerprint.
(Finn et al., 2015; Valizadeh et al., 2018)
- The human brain grows and changes in response to learning and experience, not just during childhood but throughout the lifespan.
(Fuchs & Flügge, 2014; Kolb et al., 2017)
- Among students with varied needs, UDL-based instruction can increase engagement as well as academic and social outcomes.
(Ok et al., 2017)
For Your Information
“Learning to learn” is a survival skill in the modern world. Many students today will work in jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been developed. Although there is no comprehensive body of academic knowledge that can fully prepare today’s students for an ever-changing world, a deep knowledge of learning and of oneself as a learner is strong preparation for life. The following handout provides more information about how to build learner agency.
In addition to addressing the needs of all students, the use of UDL also helps build students’ learner agency—that is, their capacity to take ownership of their own learning and to make decisions about their learning experiences. Educators can use UDL to design learning experiences that promote and honor the agency of every learner. In doing so, these educators help students master the art of learning itself, becoming expert learners. Expert learners are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed. With guidance and support, every learner can become an expert learner. Students develop expertise in how to learn well by reflecting on their learning experiences, the decisions they have made, and the feedback they have received from educators over time. Expert learners tend to:
- Recognize their own strengths and weaknesses
- Feel motivated by the act of learning itself
- Know how to set learning goals for themselves
- Know how to sustain effort and demonstrate resilience
- Make connections to their prior learning
- Recognize which tools and resources will help them learn new content
- Know how to transform new information into meaningful and usable knowledge
- Use cognitive and metacognitive strategies
- Monitor their own progress
In these interviews, David Rose and Lindsay Jones expand upon the benefits of UDL. Then, Susan Shapiro discusses the priorities of the UDL framework.
David Rose, EdD
Co-founder; Chief Scientist,
Cognition & Learning
Lindsay E. Jones, JD
Chief Executive Officer
Susan Shapiro, MEd
UDL Implementation Specialist/
To learn more about UDL, how it is embedded in educational policy and legislation, and the future direction of UDL, we encourage you to listen to Lindsay Jones in this extended IRIS Interview.
Recall from the Challenge that Mr. Hughes, Ms. Tong, and Mrs. Rios are all novices when it comes to UDL. As they learn more about the framework’s focus on learner variability, these educators reflect upon the range of students in their classrooms. Select all the ways that these educators can reasonably expect their learners to vary:
If you selected all of these options, you are correct! Learner variability exists in all of these areas and more. Mr. Hughes, Ms. Tong, and Mrs. Rios realize the learners who enter their classrooms every day are each as unique as their fingerprints. Clearly, it would be unreasonable to expect all their students to learn in exactly the same way.