What is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL in a Kami text box

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a set of principles that provide teachers with a structure to develop instructions and create a learning environment to meet the diverse individual needs of all learners. It’s not just a matter of following a hunch, either. The variability in students’ learning styles is backed up by peer-reviewed neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

UDL is an attempt to answer that oh-so-tricky question: “How can I devise my lesson plans and present information in an inclusive learning environment?”

Where does UDL come from?

The idea of learning styles goes back to at least the 1920s when Carl Jung came up with his theory of psychological types. In the field of education, the learning style concept has been recognized since at least the mid-1970s.

The UDL framework, first defined by David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s, calls for curriculum design that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

To find out more about the UDL principles, check out our UDL Principles blog.

Unsurprisingly, there is an entire book written on the subject. But the main idea is, lesson plans that benefit students with learning disabilities will improve the learning experience for all learners.
A really basic example that comes to mind would be a lesson plan that includes: Verbally stating instructions, having written instructions up on the board, and additional visual prompts with the written instructions for students with a slower processing or reading speed. A lot of teachers use the principles of UDL without even knowing it. It’s basically just supporting your learners and understanding that students don’t learn the exact same way.

Curriculum development, according to UDL literature, has four parts: instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments. UDL guidelines are intended to increase access to learning by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers to learning, as well as other obstacles. UDL principles also lend themselves to implementing inclusionary practices in the classroom.

UDL has not only become a popular fixture in modern lesson plans but it’s also being adopted into the way Americans develop education for the future. Universal Design for Learning is referred to by name in American legislation, such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008, the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. The focus is on all learners being able to access information. The accountability required by IDEA 2004 and No Child Left Behind legislation has presented a need for a practice that will accommodate all learners.

A common critique of UDL is that it can present learners with too many choices and potentially muddle their learning styles. It has been claimed that this abundance of options could be a detriment to students who need to be “taught how to learn.”

UDL is not necessarily about choice. It’s more about access. If you design assignments and activities with all your students in mind, you’re not so much planning a bunch of different “options.” You are creating a shared departure point that does not exclusively privilege one learning style. Your lesson plans can adhere to UDL principles and still be goal-directed.


Assistive technology (AT) is a new(ish) teaching initiative that can be used to complement universal design for learning framework in the inclusive learning environment. AT and UDL sit at two ends of a spectrum, where AT addresses personal or individual needs, and UDL is concerned with classroom needs and curriculum design (There’s a great Novak article on curriculum design here!). Around the center of this spectrum, AT and UDL overlap such that student individual needs are addressed within the context of the larger curriculum, without the exclusion of learners who would typically end up on the fringe of archaic learning environments. UDL provides educators with the framework for an educational curriculum that addresses students’ diverse learning styles and interests via AT.

According to the Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, AT includes AT devices and services. In recent years, and specifically, since the pandemic, AT has become a fixture in virtually every American classroom. The value and flexibility of Blended Learning Environments have become obvious to teachers throughout the country. AT is easily incorporated into the universal design for learning framework.

The variety of assistive technology is what supports teachers in implementing universal design for learning (UDL) in their classrooms. The UDL framework promotes a flexible curriculum aimed at maximizing equal opportunities, which would be further supported by the implementation of various assistive technologies depending on the need of the student. For example, a student struggling in a language course might need digital AT to assist them in the development of their ideas. However, from a UDL perspective, the teacher recognizes that the current version of the curriculum does not acknowledge forms of expression aside from manual writing. The teacher can adjust the curriculum to adapt to the needs of the students and implement AT to assist each individual student with their unique learning needs.

Research shows that the use of physical or virtual assistive technologies improves academic performance in students, but it’s difficult to compare results between classrooms since each classroom differs in how they implement assistive technology. Generally, teachers and other staff members need to consider the students’ internal and external factors when implementing AT devices or services. Internal factors involve assessing the individual needs of the student, sometimes with neuroscience testing by the school’s professional staff, and deciding what type of AT addresses their needs. As beneficial as AT can be, it’s not always accessible. Technology is expensive, and not every student, school, or district has equal opportunities to access these technologies. More resources and attention need to be allocated towards the training of teachers and staff using AT to support UDL practices in the classroom.

“But, hang on, what if NONE of my students have learning difficulties?” You might ask. Even if we overlook how impossibly unlikely this is, there is still a very good reason to include UDL principles in your lesson plans. 

You know how you can see people with luggage on perambulators walking up the ramp beside the stairs? Or how the sloped curb at crosswalks mean pedestrians never trip?

That’s universal design. The premise is that architectural design for people with mobility limitations also helps the non-disabled, often in unanticipated ways. They put those slopes and ramps down for people using wheelchairs, not those who walk without assistance. But, everybody benefits from these designs.

UDL is just applying this concept to educational designs. Learners benefit from protocols not necessarily designed for them, especially if those protocols are based on solid educational research. With the implementation of UDL, we can create inclusive learning environments that support the learning needs of all students. To find out how Kami supports teachers using a UDL-based approach in their classrooms, check out our Kami and UDL blog.

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