How a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Approach Provides Access to Learning for All Students
Universal Design for Learning is an approach to teaching built around democratic, inclusive practices. Known widely by the acronym UDL, this method of working with students came about in the 1990s thanks to the work of Harvard Graduate School of Education professor David Rose. According to a 2014 profile of Rose, UDL is built around an idea “borrowed from architecture” that puts universal access to “products and environments” at the forefront of its design principles.
In the words of another early universal design innovator, Ronald Mace, the purpose of UDL is to create spaces and things that are “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible” without the need for later adaptations and adjustments—including people with physical disabilities or other special needs that might make learning challenging. Rose took this theory and applied it to the university classroom.
In the 2014 profile, Rose explained that UDL is about having “tight goals and flexible means, as opposed to the tight goals and tight means schools tend to have.” In other words, lessons should have a clear focus but be delivered in a way that appeals to the individual strengths and needs of particular students, without barriers that would make it difficult to learn.
Rose took a fascinating journey toward his ultimate career as a neuropsychologist working with children who struggle in school. As a graduate student, he studied the brains of young school-aged children and concluded that human beings grow new brain cells after birth—a radical idea at the time that was later proven true by scientists. After determining that brains are more flexible than previously thought, Rose began to embrace the then-burgeoning field of computers and technology as a way to help students with physical disabilities access learning opportunities.
Underscoring the efforts of Rose and his colleagues was a belief that all students can learn if they have the right support and sufficiently adaptive resources, including emerging technology that may foster personalized learning experiences. UDL is built around four essential cornerstones described by the National Center on Universal Design for Learning as goals, methods, materials, and assessments. Here is a breakdown of these concepts:
Goals: With UDL, goals are the main objectives that students are expected to grasp from a particular lesson or at a particular age or grade level. Think of them as very similar to standards, which help drive the framework of what gets taught and when. However, with UDL goals, the focus is not on mastering content but on reaching one’s potential as a student. This guide offers a top-10 list for teachers interested in creating learning goals with UDL.
Methods: This element is about tapping into multiple learning pathways in the classroom. Using research-based tactics and approaches, teachers embracing UDL will emphasize differentiation by asking how students learn best. This should be a “flexible and varied” approach that is combined with frequent check-ins and assessments. Are students grasping the necessary skills or materials? If not, what can be adjusted or implemented to help each individual student succeed?
Materials: How is content presented to students? How do students show what they are learning? Questions such as these drive the UDL approach to the use of materials in the classroom. As with the methods cornerstone, a UDL framework seeks “flexible and varied” materials intended to raise every student to a challenging level of instruction and engagement. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, teachers should have a grab-bag of supports ready to go—including “hyperlinked glossaries, background information, and onscreen coaching”—to facilitate greater student success. With regard to students with disabilities, teachers can make simple changes like adjusting the luminosity of the screen and increasing text-to-voice features to support students with varied levels of vision.
Assessment: In 2002, the education-focused group ASCD published a book about UDL written by Rose and several of his colleagues and titled "Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age." A chapter of the book available on the ASCD website offers a critique of traditional standardized testing and a list of ways to assess learning with UDL principles, including using digital tools for faster, more accurate, adaptable insights into student work as well as “options for monitoring varied strategic supports.”
The breadth of Rose’s work, which he carries forward through a UDL-focused nonprofit called CAST, is dedicated to making learning and assessments as flexible, purposeful, and accessible as possible. This puts student success and collaborative, ongoing problem-solving at the forefront of teaching and learning—something most educators will likely be excited to embrace.
Featured White Paper:
Oral language has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Read the white paper by Dr. Liz Brooke, Lexia's Chief Education Officer, to learn about the critical role of oral language in reading instruction and assessment, including the implications for teachers with Title I and English Learner students.