What is Universal Design?

Universal Design for Instruction

Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) meets all types of learners with diverse abilities (abilities, disabilities, age, learning styles, other languages, etc.) in the classroom or online. The practice of UDI challenges instructors to be compliant in providing an accessible course, such as accessible documents (e.g., syllabus, Word, PPT, etc.) for all learners, including those with disabilities. Explore more about UDI Principles & Techniques from the University of Washington.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a concept or framework that improves or optimizes teaching and learning for everyone in any learning environment. UDL extends from the classroom to service areas; it filters through student, faculty, and/or staff support service areas. Some UDL principles are applied to multiple situations, such as IT Help Desk, counseling sessions, and university websites. An example of UDL at Landmark College illustrates how UDL blended into everything from the athletic department to student services.

This concept ensures that the techniques and tools are created, optimized, and accessible to meet all learning styles or needs and different abilities. The diverse body learns differently; not one size fits all. The following several videos offer powerful and thought-provoking perspectives on how we can empower and retain our learners efficiently.

  • The Myth of Average
    Ted Rose from Harvard presents how we can foster our learners’ learning potential. His metaphor illustrates the jagged size and learning profiles between a pilot and a student.
  • Universal Design at McGill University
    Faculty and learners from McGill University share their experiences with UDL and how that includes all diverse learners.
  • Universal Design
    This video illustrates powerful silent UDL examples from the learner perspectives.

UDL Principles

The key UDL principles, Representation, Engagement, and Expression guide instructors to optimize their curriculum; this allows all learners access to and participate in learning opportunities, such as an online course or in the classroom. UDL is composed of three key principles:

  1. Representation
    Present same information and materials in multiple ways that appeal to learners’ learning.
  2. Engagement
    Entice learners’ interest and motivation in learning through different interactions or activities.
  3. Expression
    Offer alternatives to learners so they can express their learning or knowledge.

Survey: UDL Principles are Vital to Learning

California University System surveyed 764 students with and without disabilities statewide in 2009. Students in both groups perceived the key UDL principles as vital to their learning.
Key UDL PrinciplesStudents Without DisabilitesStudents With Disabilites
“Offer multiple ways to teach important concepts visually and verbally.”
“Offer clear and specific feedback on assignments and encourage re-submission of assignments, as appropriate.”
“Provide clear guidelines and evaluation rubrics for all major course assignments.”

UDL and Accessibility

The UDL principles guide everyone to optimize their curriculum, services, or website content with multiple approaches and clarity. This will ultimately meet each learner’s needs with minimal barriers to their learning. When it comes to the course or website content, or learning environment, this is when accessibility comes into play.

When any of these are made accessible, learners with or without disabilities (i.e., English as a Second Language) should be able to access, use, or understand the information well. Devices such as screen readers or captioning services must ensure that learners can utilize in their learning process effectively.

Some of the common barriers that impede learning are:

  • Instructional delivery (vs promotional learning)
  • Course or website content
  • Learning environment
  • Technology

Utilization of UDL principles and accessibility applications to techniques or tools will prevent learning barriers for all learners. The learner retention rate will increase significantly for all types of learners; the process of improving teaching and learning will evolve continuously.

Diverse Learners on the Rise

The ever increasing student population also has a variety of learning differences in terms of age, race, responsibilities, international students, and disabilities. Bryan Cook from Dept. of Special Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (May 2009) presented these statistics:

  • Increasingly diverse college student body
    • 40% age 25 or older
    • 31% racial/ethnic minorities
    • 34% attending college part-time
    • 20% increase in international students from 1998 to 2004
    • Students with disabilities
      • 2.3% in 1978 to 9.8% in 1998

With such increasingly diverse learning differences, the utilization of universal design becomes an important tool for instruction, learning, and accessibility.


CAST. (2015). About Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html

Cook, B. G. (2009, May). Universal Design for Instruction: Practical Techniques for Post- secondary Education. Retrieved February 3, 2016, from http://www.ist.hawaii.edu/presentations/

Nine Common Elements of Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education survey. (2012). Retrieved February 3, 2016, from http://enact.sonoma.edu/content.php?pid=218878&sid=2028802, Course Redesign Resources: 9 Common Elements of UDL (PDF)