Examples of universal design for learning include the use of flexible workspaces, accessible digital texts, and student choice throughout learning experiences.
Universal Design in Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that aims to create diverse and flexible learning environments that will accommodate a wide range of learner needs.
It ensures classrooms and educational activities have accessibility embedded in them, so accessibility is a design feature of education rather than an afterthought or augmentation.
About Universal Design for Learning
Today, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is spearheaded by the Center for Applied Technology (CAST), defined by Dr. David Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The concept and language of UDL was inspired by a movement in architecture formulated by Ronald L. Mace, who stated that:
“…the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”Author Name
UDL is based on research in cognitive science and neuroscience that has identified different areas of the brain that are involved with different types of learning.
UDL addresses the “What”, “Why”, and “How” of learning:
- Representation (What): Teachers present information through different modalities, such as auditory, visual, and tactile. Students learn best through different modalities so lessons should take this into account.
- Engagement (Why): Students differ in what stimulates their interest and motivation to learn. So, an educational activity should tap into those differences to inspire students that are different from each other.
- Action and Expression (How): Students are given options for how they demonstrate their understanding and learning. Some students will prefer verbal expressions, some kinesthetic, while others may feel more comfortable using technology.
Universal Design for Learning Examples
- Flexible Work Spaces – the classroom has work stations; some for working alone, some for working in groups, some for receiving guidance from the teacher.
- Expression Formats – students can demonstrate learning by creating a poster, through an oral presentation, writing a paper, or performing a song.
- Student Input – students are given opportunity to make suggestions regarding how a lesson is taught.
- Collaborative Learning Goals – teachers and students work together to set learning objectives.
- Multiple Information Modalities – information can be represented through print, audiobooks, videos, or verbally.
- Game Based Activities – students are given access to apps that present aspects of a lesson in a competitive game format on an iPad or website.
- Feedback Schedules – the teacher provides feedback on a consistent basis for students that benefit from supervision, while other students may prefer greater independence and less oversight.
- Digital Text – information presented digitally has options so students can control the size of text, font, screen color, and contrast levels.
- Blended Instruction – blended learning is when students can learn through a combination of online and in-class instruction. Materials can be placed online, classes can be held remotely, or students can meet face-to-face with teachers.
- Accessible spaces – The classroom is designed to be accessible for students with physical and sensory disabilities.
- Differentiated instruction – Students of all abilities can access the learning materials so it’s not too hard for any student to grasp, but students can also feel as if they’re able to extend themselves so they’re always learning. This may require the introduction of extension tasks for advanced students and step-by-step supports for struggling students.
- Low and no-tech options – While digital learning is embraced, students have the option to approach the learning materials without the need for technology or screens.
- Inclusive texts – Texts represent all students, including minority groups, so as to make students feel as if their identities are included and embraced in the educational environment.
- Post-it Note Board – teachers and students write goals on post-it notes that are placed on a bulletin board that can be referred to easily at any time.
- Student feedback to teachers – Students have the opportunity to provide input about the level of accessibility of the learning materials to achieve consistent reflection and improvement upon the UDL project.
- Culturally diverse instruction – Teachers avoid instructing students from just one cultural perspective and ensure students can access the learning material from multiple cultural viewpoints.
- Fidget toys – Students with attention deficits can use fidget toys to help maintain concentration.
- Multiple instructors – When available, teachers attempt to have multiple instructors in the classroom so students have multiple opportunities to hear about the topic from teachers with different teaching styles.
1. Promoting Racial Inclusivity in the Classroom
If you were to browse through picture books and story books for young learners in the early part of the century, you would think that a majority of the world consisted of one race. This disparity between what is portrayed in books and what exists in the population also exists in the media.
Although this situation is improving, slowly, teachers still must be aware that students need to see characters that look like them. Promoting learning environments that are inclusive is a key component of UDL and one that can be accommodated with a little extra effort.
Today there are more books than ever before for children that are racially diverse. Teachers can maximize the benefits of inclusion by selecting instructional materials and classroom decorations that match the characteristics of the students they are teaching.
Seeing role models that look and act like ourselves fosters student learning, social-emotional development, and self-esteem.
2. Technology Integration in Surgical Education
One key component of UDL is creating flexible physical environments that take into account learner needs. With the increasing integration of technology into instruction, UDL is being seen across a wide range of curricula.
One very interesting application involves the delivery of surgical education:
“Technology may act as a direct tool substitute, augment the learning experience by providing functional improvements, modify the task design within the learning experience significantly, or redefine the learning experience through the creation of new tasks” (Dickenson & Gronseth, 2020, p. 1011).
By creating VR simulations of medical scenarios, surgical students can acquire endless practice to hone their skills. Simulations can be uniquely adapted to individual student’s learning speed and abilities, and fine-tuned in ways never before possible in the classroom.
3. Fidget Toys
Some kids have a lot of energy that needs to be continuously released. Sitting still for the duration of an entire lesson is asking the impossible of some children. The principles of UDL stipulate that teachers need to accommodate this characteristic rather than trying to make all children fit into one mode.
This is where the fidget toy comes into play. A fidget toy is a small object that a student can manipulate with their hands while they are reading, working, or listening.
This fits with the UDL concept of adapting to the needs of students.
Fidget toys are a great way for kids to release that pent-up energy and help them maintain focus and engaged in learning. They may be particularly beneficial for children with special needs.
Although there is has been a fair amount of research on the effectiveness of fidget toys, the results are not completely clear (Farley et al., 2013; Kriescher et al., 2022).
4. Modified Seating
Not all children were created the same, but it sure does seem that all classroom seating was created the same. Hard-back wooden chairs and desks, all arranged in rows, has been the standard arrangement since the one-room school house from 100+ years ago.
But as any teacher can tell you, kids need more seating options. Fortunately, today there are a plethora of companies that offer a wide variety of furniture that can be easily integrated into the classroom.
This includes beanbags, floor mats, stools, therapy balls, peanut seats, and a whole lot more. You can see some great examples of flexible seating by clicking here.
5. Include Diverse Cultural Perspectives
Similar to racial diversity, cultural diversity is also important. Taking a quick peek into a classroom today in the U.S. and Canada, and one can see students from a wide array of cultural backgrounds.
Teachers can help these students become more engaged in lessons by including perspectives from their culture. For example, a lesson with a food-to-table theme can include common items at the dinner table from Asian or Muslim households.
When talking about holidays, teachers can include special occasions from other religions. Guest speakers can come to class and discuss the special significance of various customs and traditions.
According to UDL, anything that can help students become more engaged in a lesson will improve their motivation and deepen their interest.
Criticisms of Universal Design for Learning
While universal design for learning offers a great vision for accessible education, it’s often critiqued as being too unrealistic. After all, the amount of differentiation required for every single lesson seems almost impossible.
One way to address this is to try to integrate UDL from the design phase: the classroom can have a lot of UDL principles built-in, meaning accessibility is a design feature rather than an adaptation.
Nevertheless, features like the opportunity to access personalized digital texts and multiple teachers does face a range of barriers – not least of which begin funding pressures.
Universal Design Learning in education is a valuable framework that teachers can utilize to make lessons more effective.
Teachers can present information in a variety of modalities, including print, digital formats, audio or visual forms.
By including material that is racially and culturally diverse, students will be more engaged in a lesson and feel appreciated by the teacher.
Allowing students freedom to choose how they demonstrate their learning acknowledges that students have different learning styles and preferred forms of expression.
The basic premise of UDL is that each and every lesson has to take into account the incredible range of student characteristics that exist in the classroom. This makes the teacher’s job ever more challenging and is another reason these dedicated professionals play a key role in the advancement of society.
Balta, J. Y., Supple, B., & O’Keeffe, G. W. (2021). The Universal Design for Learning Framework in Anatomical Sciences Education. Anatomical Sciences Education, 14(1), 71–78. https://doi.org/10.1002/ase.1992
Bernacchio, C., & Mullen, M. (2007). Universal design for learning. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 31(2), 167–169. https://doi.org/10.2975/31.2.2007.167.169
Center for Universal Design. Universal design principles. 2008. Retrieved from: https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm
Dickinson, K. J., & Gronseth, S. L. (2020). Application of universal design for learning (UDL) principles to surgical education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Surgical Education, 7(5), 1008-1012. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsurg.2020.06.005
Farley, J., Risko, E. F., & Kingstone, A. (2013). Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 619. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00619
Kriescher, S. L., Hulac, D. M., Ryan, A. M., & King, B. L. (2022). Evaluating the evidence for fidget toys in the classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic. https://doi.org/10.1177/10534512221130070
Rose, D., Meyer, A., Strangman, N., & Rappolt, G. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development: Baltimore.