Engaging Learners With Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning

Learners are multidimensional and each individual has their own experiences, strengths, and weaknesses in the learning process. In a given course or context, there may be students who represent multiple majors, interests, goals, social identities, and other dimensions that play a role in learning. Students may have preferences in how they engage with peers (e.g., independent work vs. group work) and demonstrate learning (e.g., writing vs. speaking). Additionally, learning environments can vary from student to student, and educators may not see these differences (e.g., students who are caregivers or have intermittent access to the internet, technology, or other resources). How can educators who want to teach inclusively and equitably meet the needs of such variable and diverse students?

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework aims to optimize teaching and learning by increasing access for all students (CAST, 2018). Informed by neuroscience research, UDL utilizes flexibility to maximize learning in all learning environments (Kumar & Wideman, 2014; Nelson & Badsham, 2014). Blended and online contexts may especially benefit from UDL because of the range of options available in technology-enhanced education (Educause, 2015).

In UDL, educators:

  • Identify potential barriers and biases, and determine ways to prevent or mitigate them.
  • Allow learner choice, when and where possible, to increase interest and achievement.
  • Empower learners to become experts in their process for learning and, ultimately, allow learners to self-assess and improve their learning over time.


Guiding Principles of UDL

UDL advocates that educators provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.

A visual representation of the guiding principles of UDL. Each principle is represented by an arrow that shows directionality between an instructor and student in a given learning environment. For multiple means of engagement, there is a double-headed arrow depicting the bidirectional relationship for engagement and communication between the instructor and student. For multiple means of representation, there is an arrow pointing from the instructor to the student, depicting how the instructor presents material to the student. For multiple means of action and expression, there is an arrow pointing from the student to the instructor, depicting how the student demonstrates learning to the instructor.

Provide multiple means of…What does this mean?What can I do? What might this look like?
EngagementProvide options for engagement by communicating in different ways and providing opportunities to foster interest in learners and, ultimately, sustain their effort.Consider demonstrating concepts through examples that are relevant to students or draw from their prior knowledge or experiences.For example, in a political science class, students are asked to bring in a current events article related to the lecture topic. This allows students to apply class concepts to their interests in the news.
RepresentationProvide options for representation by varying how content is presented, which can facilitate learners’ comprehension.Accompany lectures with live captioning or a transcript, providing a visual alternative to auditory input.When posting recordings of lectures online, ensure automated captions are accurate. Additionally, consider listing timestamps that correspond to the main lecture topics. This can serve as a table of contents that allow students to navigate the lecture more easily.
Action & ExpressionProvide options for action and expression by being flexible in how learners demonstrate what they know and can do.Implementing a variety of assessments (e.g., a combination of group and individual work; a combination of written assessments and presentations) so that students have multiple opportunities and ways to demonstrate learning.For example, students may be asked to complete an engineering design project where they need to create a prototype and write a paper. This allows students to demonstrate their learning through doing/building and through written communication.


You can see additional examples of UDL at other universities from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST): http://udloncampus.cast.org/home.

How does UDL support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Although the UDL Guidelines—as currently formulated—do not refer to “racism” and other forms of prejudice and oppression, they do give ways to engage a diverse range of learners and address barriers that marginalized individuals may experience (Chardin & Novak, 2020; Fritzgerald, 2020). In particular, “reducing threats and distractions” is critical when considering learners who may question whether they are welcome and belong. Recent work has provided many innovative ways to make the connections between UDL and social justice, antiracism, and trauma-informed pedagogy.


UDL implementation is centered around proactive design of learning experiences. Therefore, the UDL planning process starts by establishing learning outcomes and identifying potential barriers and challenges (Universal Design for Learning Implementation & Research Network, 2020). Here are some prompts to help you get started:

For getting started with UDL

  • How can you use students’ prior knowledge to foster motivation?
  • What challenges or barriers might students face in their learning environments? In your specific learning context?
  • Consider your students’ prior knowledge and potential challenges. What can you do to incorporate flexibility and/or support without lowering standards?

For implementing guiding principles of UDL

  • Engagement: What options can you provide for engagement?
  • Representation: What options can you provide for delivery of content and support of its comprehension? Accessibility might be a strong starting point when thinking about this. Read more about increasing accessibility for your Canvas course and lecture materials.
  • Action and Expression: What options can you provide for learners to demonstrate mastery?


CAST. (2018). The UDL Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Chardin, M. & Novak, K. R. (2020). Equity by design: Delivering on the power and promise of UDL. Corwin. ISBN-10:1544380240.

Educause. (2015). 7 things you should know about Universal Design for Learning. Educause Learning Initiative. https://library.educause.edu/-/media/files/library/2015/4/eli7119-pdf.pdf

Fritzgerald, A. (2020). Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning. CAST. ISBN-10:1930583702.

Kumar, K. L., & Wideman, M. (2014). Accessible by design: Applying UDL principles in a first year undergraduate course. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 44(1), 125-147.

Nelson, L. L., & Basham, J. D. (2014). A blueprint for UDL: Considering the design of implementation. Lawrence, KS: UDL-IRN. https://udl-irn.org

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education (1st edition). West Virginia University Press.

UDL On Campus: Home. (2021). Center for Applied Special Technology. http://udloncampus.cast.org/home