UDL Questions and Answers

Q 1: What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a research-based framework for designing curricula—that is, educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments—that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously providing rich supports for learning and reducing barriers to the curriculum, while maintaining high achievement standards for all students.

Q 2: How does Universal Design for Learning help teachers in real classrooms?

From pre-kindergarten to graduate school, classrooms usually include learners with diverse abilities and backgrounds, including students with physical, sensory, and learning disabilities, differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds, varied preferences and motivations for learning, students who are unusually gifted, and many others.

Universal Design for Learning supports teachers’ efforts to meet the challenge of diversity by providing flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies that help teachers differentiate instruction to meet these varied needs. It does this by providing options for:
  • Presenting information and content in different ways (the "what" of learning)
  • Differentiating the ways that students can express what they know (the "how" of learning)
  • Stimulating interest and motivation for learning (the "why" of learning)

A universally designed curriculum is designed from the outset to meet the needs of the greatest number of users, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes to curriculum unnecessary.

Q 3: How does UDL help guarantee students equal opportunities to learn?

Both IDEA and NCLB recognize the right of all learners to a high-quality standards-based education. The laws preclude the development of separate educational agendas for students with disabilities and others with special needs. They also hold teachers, schools, districts, and states responsible for ensuring that these students demonstrate progress according to the same standards.

Neither law adequately addresses the greatest impediment to their implementation: the curriculum itself. In most classrooms, the curriculum is disabled. It is disabled because its main components—the goals, materials, methods, and assessments—are too rigid and inflexible to meet the needs of diverse learners, especially those with disabilities. Most of the present ways to remediate the curriculum’s disabilities—teacher-made workarounds and modifications, alternative placements etc.—are expensive, inefficient, and often ineffective for learning.

By addressing the diversity of learners at the point of curriculum development (rather than as an afterthought or retrofit), Universal Design for Learning is a framework that enables educators to develop curricula that truly "leave no child behind" by maintaining high expectations for all students while effectively meeting diverse learning needs and monitoring student progress.

Q 4: How does UDL address the core principles of No Child Left Behind?

Universal Design for Learning supports:
  • Greater accountability by guiding the development of assessments that provide accurate, timely, and frequent means to measure progress and inform instruction for all students.
  • Greater flexibility and choice for teachers, parents, and students by guiding the development of curricula that provide high expectations for every student and meaningful choices to meet and sustain those high expectations.
  • Greater use of evidence-based practices by guiding the design of high-quality curriculum that include research-based techniques for all students, including those with disabilities.

Q 5: I've seen the term universal design but not Universal Design for Learning. What is the difference?

The term "universal design" refers to the movement in architecture and product development that aims to create places or things that are accessible to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities. Speakerphones, curb cuts, and close-captioned television are all examples of universal designs—innovations that benefit a variety of users, including individuals with disabilities. When applied to education, the term "universal design" generally concerns eliminating physical barriers to educational places or materials—for example, providing accessible textbooks.

Of course, increasing physical access is an essential first step. But it is only the beginning. Genuine learning requires much more than physical access—it requires cognitive (or intellectual) access, too. A student with a learning disability may be able to see text clearly (physical access) but may have difficulty understanding the assignment or purpose for reading, finding main points, organizing notes, and expressing understanding (cognitive access). Conversely, a student with cerebral palsy may fully understand an assignment and have clear ideas for executing it (cognitive access) but be blocked from expressing those ideas by inappropriate tools (physical access).

Universal Design for Learning recommends ways to provide cognitive as well as physical access to the curriculum. Students are provided with scaffolds and supports to deeply understand and engage with standards-based material. They not only have access to content and facts, but they learn to ask questions, find information, and use that information effectively. They learn how to learn.

Q 6: How can technology help teachers individualize teaching materials to make learning engaging and challenging for all students?

Technology tools, if designed according to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and UDL guidelines, can be created to support the individualization necessary to engage all learners, as illustrated by the following examples.

Pam, a student with learning disabilities for whom English is also a second language, uses CAST's eReader software to help her complete a reading assignment. eReader's spoken voice and synchronized highlighting features help her track words on a page, pace her reading, and associate the way a word looks with the way it sounds. After reading the story several times with the spoken voice option turned on and the highlighting speed set to slow, she turns the read aloud feature off, increases the highlighting speed slightly, and reads the story again. In this manner, she works gradually to increase her reading comprehension and speed.

Seth, a student with low vision whose word comprehension skills are excellent, uses eReader to adjust the font, style, size, and color of digital text, background, and highlighting, to achieve maximum contrast and readability.

Jeremy, a poor speller who does not enjoy writing, uses the auditory feedback offered by Don Johnston's Write:OutLoud software to engage in the task of writing an English composition. As he types his composition and it is displayed on the computer screen, the program reads it aloud by word, sentence, paragraph, or letter-by-letter, helping him to identify sentence construction problems and spelling mistakes. When he misspells a word, it flashes on the screen, indicating his error. Using the program's talking spell checker, he calls up a list of suggested words to replace the misspelled word, and, in the case of homonyms, short definitions to distinguish one word from another. Jeremy selects a word when its pronunciation (or definition) indicates it is the correct word, and completes the composition without spelling errors.

Daniel, whose physical disabilities prevent him from using a mouse or a computer keyboard, uses Ke:nx software with Write:OutLoud to gain single switch access to program controls and an onscreen keyboard. In this way, he too can access the writing supports of the program to help him complete his written work.

Ellen, an eighth-grade student with learning disabilities, finds it challenging to utilize the rich resources of the Internet because there is so much information to look at and so many visual distracters. But finding and organizing information from the Web is getting easier for her since her school installed CAST's eTrekker software on its library computers. She signs on, opens eTrekker, and types in a research question such as What did Harriet Tubman do in the Civil War as a nurse? eTrekker checks Ellen's spelling and identifies the keywords in her question, such as Harriet Tubman, Civil War, and nurse. Ellen presses the search button and eTrekker lists ten websites that match her search criteria. eTrekker's interface presents a search engine environment free of distracting advertisements and extraneous information. Ellen selects a few sites to visit, goes to those sites, and, using the reading supports of eReader, which she has also opened on her computer, selects the read feature to have information read aloud to her. eTrekker keeps her research question and keywords on the screen, helping her to maintain focus on the nursing aspect of Tubman's life, rather than her role in the Underground Railroad. Ellen highlights and pastes information into the onscreen notepad and generates some of her own notes on the topic. When she finishes her Internet search, eTrekker stores her research question and keywords, the websites she has visited, and her notes so that she can easily retrieve them.

Q 7: How can the Internet and multimedia be used to individualize learning for students with varied backgrounds, learning styles, abilities and disabilities?

The flexibility of digital media and the varied resources available on the World Wide Web provide great opportunity for individualization. However, care must be taken to structure any learning experience so that the focus remains on the particular goal at hand. This requires preparation and careful consideration of each learner's needs and skills.

Example: A seventh-grade science class, with the help of their teacher, uses Engaging Minds' Inspiration software, a concept mapping program, to create a ‘launch pad' of selected web sites to use when researching the topic of whales. Inspiration enables this diverse group of seventh-grade students, with varied abilities and preferences, to work together to fulfill the goal of the assignment: to find out the best place in the world to film whales for an upcoming movie, and how much such a project might cost. One student, a reluctant reader who does poorly in print-based assignments, excels when it comes to interpreting the data presented in maps and graphs depicting whale migratory patterns. Another student's math skills come to the fore as she analyzes how much it will cost to get a crew to the Gulf of Maine to film humpback whales in action. As the students gather their data, they weave their separate findings into a cohesive whole using Inspiration. When their research is complete, another student uses his visual talents to present the group's findings in a dazzling PowerPoint presentation.

Visit the National Center on UDL
National Center on Universal Design for Learning

Founded in 2009, the National Center on UDL supports the effective and widescale implementation of UDL by connecting stakeholders in the field and providing resources and information.

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