What Is UDL and How Do Teachers Make It Work in the Classroom?

These three principles can change student engagement, learning, and so much more.

UDL feature

As teachers, we often discuss the concept of differentiated instruction. This concept is built on the premise that each student has individual needs in order to achieve their best learning. Students have different ways of accessing, processing, and interacting with the material. However, the process of differentiating instruction can be incredibly time-consuming, and we often do not have the necessary resources, capacity, or time to collaborate that’s warranted to effectively implement differentiationBut what if we shifted our approach to instead examine how we can build our classroom and instruction in a way that meets the needs of the wide variety of individuals we teach? This concept is known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL is a scientific framework that can be utilized in a variety of settings.

While UDL does not replace the need for differentiation, it does make learning accessible and available to a greater number of individuals. This ultimately results in less need for differentiation. 

UDL is crucial to ensuring equity in education. Although often used interchangeably, equity and equality are not the same. Equality guarantees the same resources and supports for all individuals. Equity means that each student has access to the appropriate resources and support that student needs to thrive and learn. UDL allows us to examine the way we build our curriculum and lessons to ensure that all students have access to meaningful learning opportunities. 

The UDL framework consists of three principles:

  • Multiple means of engagement
  • Multiple means of representation
  • Multiple means of action and expression

Universal Design for Learning pie chart

Source: education.nsw.gov


Each principle examines a different aspect of learning theory and the brain, helping us understand how we can implement flexibility and variability within our curriculum to support the vast variety of learners. 

Here’s how you can apply these principles in your classroom:

1. Provide multiple means of engagement

This principle refers to our motivation to learn. Some students may be intrinsically curious and eager to learn while others may not. Some students may be fascinated by novelty while others become disengaged and anxious when presented with new material. When crafting your curriculum and lessons, remember that there is no “best fit” model to engage learners. Instead, it is important to build a rapport with each of our students and learn what intrinsically motivates them. If we truly want children to desire to learn, we need to prioritize intrinsic motivators over extrinsic motivators, such as sticker charts, reward systems, and earning “good” grades.

Some strategies to increase the variety of intrinsic motivators to learn include providing individual choices within activities and lessons, providing a variety of ways that learners can receive and process feedback on learning, and making learning relevant to learners. We can provide interest inventories to students and families at the beginning of the year and midway through the year to better understand what strategies and supports might optimize each student’s engagement in learning. 

2. Provide multiple means of representation

This principle refers to the different ways we convey information to our learners. Perception and comprehension of information are incredibly complex undertakings, requiring brain and sensory processing and coordination. Students with sensory-based, learning-based, or brain-based disabilities as well as students from a variety of language and cultural backgrounds may benefit from different ways to learn content. In addition, some learners prefer visual means of input, while others prefer audio means of input. And some learners benefit from multiple modalities of input to access learning.

The takeaway here is that there is not one optimal way to convey learning to our students. Some ways we can incorporate multiple means of representation into our classrooms include implementing multimodal learning strategies, relating new content to the prior knowledge and experiences of our students, and supplementing traditional means of learning with additional opportunities, such as bringing in a guest speaker or going on a field trip. 

3. Provide multiple means of action and expression

This principle refers to how we communicate and express our learning. Expressing our learning through speech, writing, and movement takes immense processing and coordination. We frequently ask students to communicate their learning verbally or in writing. For students where these modalities may be challenging, they may not be able to accurately express their knowledge and understanding. We can supplement traditional means of expression with other materials, such as manipulatives and interactive web tools. We can also incorporate the arts and movement, teaching students how they can use visual art, storyboards, music, dance, creative movement, and theater to demonstrate their learning.

In addition, we can provide support tools to all students, including graphic organizers, sentence starters, and progress-monitoring tools. It’s crucial to keep in mind that learning happens at different rates, speeds, and times. The typical wait time we use might not be enough time for some students to process and communicate their answers. We must take time to get to know our students and provide the appropriate wait time to allow students to convey their understanding.

Universal Design for Learning is simply good design for all. It benefits all learners, from learners with disabilities to learners who utilize a language other than English, to learners who would benefit from a variety of supports or means of interacting with the material. UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms is a great text to take a deeper dive into implementing UDL in the classroom.

Have questions about Universal Design for Learning and how to use it in your classroom? Join the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook to exchange ideas and ask for advice!

Plus, check out 20 Creative Ways To Check for Understanding.

Curious about Universal Design for Learning? Our resource-packed article is a great place to start in bringing UDL to your classroom.