Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum and teaching that seeks to minimize barriers and maximize learning for all students (CAST). In practice, taking a UDL approach involves providing students with multiple pathways to connect with the work of the course, encounter course content, and practice and demonstrate their learning. In a UDL course, classroom policies and norms are also structured to create a hospitable environment and enable deeper learning. 

This introduction to Universal Design for Learning includes an overview of:

What is UDL?

Sharing the same goal with Universal Design (UD), UDL seeks to design courses that are “accessible and challenging” to the largest number of students possible from the outset, and do not require retrofitting. This approach is considered universal because the learning environment is designed in anticipation of inevitable student variability (CAST). And while UDL is most often associated with creating courses that are accessible to students with disabilities, without the necessity of retrofitted accommodations or segregation, it also invites instructors to consider other axes of student variability that influence the way students learn. A universally designed course aims to accommodate and challenge students with caregiving responsibilities and first-generation students as much as students with visual impairments and neuroatypical students. 

For example, an instructor may decide to provide transcripts of all video and audio files in order to create a learning environment that is ready for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and that decision may also benefit students with unstable internet connection who find it difficult to stream videos or ESL students who benefit from being able to pair audio to the written word. 

Boston College has played a significant role in the development of the UDL framework. Richard Jackson, Associate Professor of Teaching, Curriculum, and Society in LSEHD and a Senior Researcher at CAST, established a partnership between CAST and the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (2000-2005) and spearheaded a UDL Postdoctoral leadership project (2009-2015). BC also created a UDL task force and took on a campus-wide accessibility needs assessment in 2013.

Person First or Identity First Language? 

There is disagreement within the disability rights movement about whether it is best to use person first (a person with a disability) or identity first (a disabled person) language, and your students might notice–and infer something about your stance–based on the language you use. 

Those who advocate for person first language often argue that it is an important way to center the humanity of people who are often dehumanized by existing social structures and to acknowledge that a particular impairment or condition does not define them. Those who advocate for disability first language argue that it is important to recognize the integral role disability has played in shaping their identity and to take pride in that aspect of their identity. You can learn more about the person first vs. identity first conversation so that you can be more intentional in your own language use, but following each student’s lead is the best way to affirm that they belong in your course.

UDL as “Plus-One Thinking”

Preparing a course that is fully accessible to every potential learner from the start is a daunting task. A 2018 book on UDL in higher education advocates for a sustainable approach to UDL by describing it in terms of “plus-one thinking” (Tobin & Behling). For every interaction students currently have with course content, one another, or the instructor, this approach to UDL strives to provide one more way for students to have that interaction, prioritizing those interactions where students tend to have questions or struggle. Utilizing “plus-one thinking” in a course can look like:

  • Distributing guiding questions or an incomplete set of notes that ask students to fill in critical information if students often struggle to identify key points in course content.
  • Allowing students to submit an assignment in a variety of mediums (writing, audio, video) if students often tire of a particular medium and the content of the submitted assignment matters more than practicing a particular form of communication.  

Benefits of UDL for Students and Instructors

UDL embraces diversity and difference as the norm of any learning environment and thus advocates for learning experience design that will help all students achieve their educational goals.

Utilizing UDL principles in curriculum design benefits the instructor and students in the following ways:

  • Integrate diversity: UDL helps educators appreciate the variability in learning preferences, strengths, and experiences that are present in every classroom and provides guidance for course design decisions that result in a more accessible, adaptable, and inclusive course.
  • Maximize learning: By drawing on insights from the latest learning sciences research, UDL enables instructors to design courses and lessons that can meet students where they are and more fully engage students during learning.
  • Minimize barriers: UDL helps educators minimize barriers in instruction by creating a learning environment in which students do not need to jump through any hoops in order to have their learning needs met. This results in a course that maintains high expectations for students while accounting for the variability in learning processes that exists within and between students.
  • Reduce retrofitting: By anticipating inevitable student diversity from the start, practicing UDL minimizes the need to make changes to course design or teaching practice once that course has commenced and reduces the labor and confusion that can accompany such changes during the semester, for both students and instructors.

Limitations of UDL

While UDL’s promise of an overarching framework for proactively creating accessible learning environments is persuasive to many, some scholars and practitioners have pointed out limits to the philosophy and implementation of UDL.

  • Imperfect compatibility with legal compliance: While the ideals of UDL point to learning environments that are accessible to everyone from the start, a UDL approach does not always seamlessly interact with common interpretations of legal rights. For instance, a UDL approach might try to do away with the need for extended time accommodations by giving everyone 15 minutes to take a quiz designed to take 10 minutes. However, the law is commonly interpreted to mean that students with a 1.5 time legal accommodation are entitled to 22 minutes on that quiz.
  • Rhetoric of universal benefit dilutes focus on disability: While UDL recognizes that flexible and accessible learning environments benefit all learners, some critical disability theorists argue that the emphasis on universal benefit can sometimes obscure the particular needs and experiences of disabled people that UDL was originally intended to benefit (Hamraie 2016).
  • Labor: Taking a UDL approach requires labor to adopt new habits and processes in course design and teaching. While much of this labor can happen before a course begins and can reduce labor and stress during the semester, the specificities of a student’s experience may require some adjustments during the semester, no matter how proactive you try to be when designing the course. Taking the “plus-one approach” to UDL can help you identify priorities for designing more accessible courses.

Accessibility Partners on Campus

Because UDL is aspirational in its philosophy, students and instructors often continue to need formal accommodations that can ensure more equitable access on campus. The following campus partners help members of the community receive and implement accommodations and advocate for a more accessible environment:

  • Connors Family Learning Center: Provides support to students with learning disabilities and ADHD, including proctoring for students with extended time on tests. CFLC staff can also answer questions faculty may have about meeting a particular student’s accommodation.
  • Disability Services Office: Provides support to students with medical, physical, psychological and temporary disabilities. DSO staff can also help faculty meet the needs of individual students by answering questions about how to implement particular accommodations.
  • Libraries: Partner in seeking out and providing accessible materials and provide access to adaptive and assistive technologies.
  • Office of Institutional Diversity: Approves reasonable accommodations for faculty and staff and can serve as a resource to managers who are looking to implement accommodations.
  • ABLED@BC: An affinity group for faculty and staff with disabilities and allies who are committed to making BC a more accessible environment for all.

Additional Resources