Utilizing Universal Design Principles

What is universal design, why is it important, and how do I apply it to course development and course requirements (e.g., length of time for assignments)?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn (CAST.org). It is considered an accessible pedagogy based on cognitive neuroscience because it takes into account the needs of individual learners in the design of course delivery, course content, learning activities, and assessment (Rose et al., 2006). Accessibility is built into the course, maximizing the potential for student engagement and learning.

UDL is based on three principles:

  1. Multiple means of representation– According to Rose, et al. (2006) “there is no one way of presenting information or transferring knowledge that is optimal for all students” (p. 237). Therefore, most students benefit from multiple means of representation (e.g., discussion, lecture, hands-on activities, group work, individual work) from which to acquire knowledge and skills. By selecting varied teaching formats, you can enhance student learning.
  2. Multiple means of expression-Students have different strengths and challenges so benefit from multiple options to show what they know.  By building multiple means of expression into your course (e.g., oral vs. written assessment, essay questions vs multiple choice, video vs. writing), your course design provides students with different ways to express their learning and engage in assessments that align with their strengths.
  3. Multiple means of engagement– Because students differ in the ways in which they are engaged or motivated to learn (e.g., novelty vs. routine; individual vs. group work; intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation), it is important to provide multiple ways and choices for students to engage in the learning process so they are interested and find value in course content (Rose et al., 2006). 

Applying UDL Principles-Representation

Putting these principles into practice.

Accessible course materials

Use common file formats such as .doc and .pdf documents compatible with text-to-speech software

  • Put a copy of the course text on reserve in the library
  • Provide links to Creative Commons resources
  • Use Open Education Resources (OER)
  • Post slides, readings, and course materials online in advance if appropriate

Multimodal sources of information

  • Include captions for graphics and transcripts for videos
  • Provide video recordings of lectures if allowed
  • Provide models and graphics in addition to text
  • Use animations

Pedagogical approaches

Use different pedagogical approaches to topics or concepts, such as logic, statistics, narrative, case study, multiple perspective, and testimonial

Student-created materials

  • Consider asking students to create a graphic organizer summary
  • Encourage students to create concept maps, metaphors, illustrations, storyboards
  • Ask students post their class notes to the course site (perhaps in small groups)
  • Have students create their own glossary of terms throughout the course

Comprehension and key concepts

  • Provide a study guide: outline and list of key concepts
  • Review key concepts at the beginning of each class
  • Create practice exercises and solutions
  • Highlight patterns and themes between ideas
  • Post a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and responses online

Check for understanding

  • Participate in online discussion forums
  • Hold Q & A in class
  • Put in place student response systems to check for comprehension and guide further discussion

Action and Expression

Putting action and expression into practice.


  • Ensure there are a variety of question types on exams: multiple choice, matching, short answer, fill in the blank, equations, label a diagram
  • Include exam questions that assess various ways of understanding: remember/ comprehend, analyze/ apply, and evaluate/ create (Bloom’s Taxonomy)
  • Incorporate graphics into some questions

Assignments and demonstration of skills

  • Assign presentations in class or online
  • Include different methods of demonstrating skills, such as role-play, debate, discussions
  • Provide opportunities to develop skills in real settings
  • Use question sets from the textbook as practice

Opportunities for feedback

  • Use question sets from the textbook as practice
  • Allow in-class peer feedback
  • Use rubrics
  • Hold student-led study groups
  • Create cumulative assignments with feedback at various stages
  • Post office hours

Student choice

  • Give students the choice of due date or topic
  • Provide student’s with a choice of assignment format: paper, presentation, website, poster, etc.
  • Incorporate social media as a communication tool
  • Offer tools and technologies to support learner needs and reduce barriers (assistive technology, spelling/grammar checkers, dictation software, typing vs. writing by hand)

Assessment anxiety

  • Use assignment guidelines to outline your expectations
  • Provide templates or outlines if appropriate
  • Have option to write final exam as a take-home exam if appropriate
  • Give sample assignments showing feedback and how they were graded if appropriate


Putting into practice the multiple means of engagement.

Variety in teaching and learning activities

  • Incorporate discussions and small group activities into lecture classes
  • Embed engagement materials in lecture notes, such as sample exam questions or puzzles

Interaction with others

  • Engage in In-class and online discussions
  • Encourage problem-based learning
  • Promote inquiry-based learning
  • Support study groups and TAs

Use of technology

Use the online learning environment for small group work, discussions, links to news articles, practice exam questions, videos, student and instructor profiles

Student choice of course content

  • Include one optional unit or topic after standard units have been addressed
  • Allow each group researches and presents on a different topic

Self-regulation and motivation

  • Encourage goal setting
  • Provide rubrics at the beginning of an assignment to prompt self-assessment
  • Create checklists for students to track their own progress
  • Schedule online quizzes, not for marks but rather for immediate student feedback

The categories and examples above were copied from the following source: La, H., Dyjur, P., & Bair, H. (2018). Universal design for learning in higher education. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Calgary: University of Calgary.

Additional Resources

Center for Applied Special Technology (http://udloncampus.cast.org/home)

This website provides extensive resources on UDL in higher education, including videos, handouts, and resource guides. Classroom teaching and online education are addressed.

CNDLS at Georgetown University (https://cndls.georgetown.edu/universal-design-for-learning/)

This website provides an explanation of UDL through a cognitive neuroscience lens, describes key principles of UDL, and reviews implementation of UDL in a course.

La, H., Dyjur, P., & Bair, H. (2018). Universal design for learning in higher education. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Calgary: University of Calgary

This guide provides an overview of UDL, applications for UDL in higher education, and examples of how to incorporate UDL into a course and classroom teaching.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines Graphic Organizer:

This guide provides a graphical representation of the three universal design principles and their components