Breaking Down Barriers

How UDL Transforms the Learning Experience

A Guest Post by Kelsey R. Ortiz

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, provides a framework for instructors—whether its higher education, K-12 or even corporate learning—that removes potential learning barriers for all learners, including those who experience learning differences and those with learning disabilities. In comparison to individualized accommodations, UDL anticipates what works best for a variety of students and intentionally integrates that throughout the course, reaching a larger portion of students. It also allows for authentic learning to take place, permitting learners to uniquely engage with educational content with multiple opportunities to respond and express their evidence of learning. Learn more about UDL, how applying UDL principles is different from individualized accommodations, and how you can incorporate this into your learning environment below.


Think back to a time when you took a multiple choice quiz in college, but struggled to identify the correct answer because none of the options seemed to fit. You studied the material and felt like you had a good command of the concepts, yet you were unable to demonstrate this on the quiz. As a result, you may remember experiencing feelings of frustration, powerlessness, and being misunderstood as a learner.

You may have thought to yourself “I knew this stuff! If only the instructor would have asked the question a different way or given me the opportunity to explain what I know!”

This is an example of what a student with a learning disability (LD) often experiences after taking a traditional quiz or exam. For a student with LD, demonstrating knowledge and understanding of academic content can be very challenging. For example, to be successful on a multiple choice quiz, students must possess a high level of reading comprehension, understand word or application problems, and be able to retrieve specific types of information. Students with LD may struggle with acquisition of these types of skills. Additionally, if classwork is online, the learning disability may impact the student’s ability to navigate the learning management system (LMS). Students must be proficient at recalling a series of procedures that often require technical knowledge. This requires strong memory, reasoning, and reading skills all of which may be compromised by the learning disability.

Institutions of higher education (and all educational institutions, really) have a responsibility to be responsive to all types of learners including those with disabilities. This can, in part, be achieved by adopting the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework which provides guidance and structure around what instructors do to engage students, the ways in which academic content is presented, and how the college setting allows students to express themselves during the learning process.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

If the scenario above resonates with you, then you would have benefited from an instructor who integrated UDL principles into their course. Instead of requiring all students to take a multiple choice quiz, the instructor would have integrated ways in which the course could allow for “individual choice and autonomy” by offering more than one way to express learning. Thus, an instructor could have allowed you to dictate your comprehension of concepts to a fellow student, draw a diagram to show how the concepts relate to one another, or use digital media to compose a collage to visually represent big ideas discussed in class.

Essentially, the UDL framework centers around anticipating what works best for each student and then intentionally integrates those guideposts into the course. Instructors who leverage UDL principles understand that in order for authentic learning to take place, all students must uniquely engage through meaningful presentation of academic content and be provided with multiple opportunities to respond and express evidence of learning. This process is viewed through three primary phases: accessing, building, and internalizing thought necessary to achieve overarching goals. The ultimate goal of a UDL classroom setting is to foster expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal directed. The following diagram illustrates how these concepts interact with each other.

UDL Guidlelines grid

For more about UDL in higher education visit UDL on Campus by CAST.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, version 2.2 [Graphic Organizer]:

Provide multiple means of Engagement

Affective Networks: The “WHY” of Learning

Provide multiple means of Representation

Recognition Networks: The “WHAT” of Learning

Provide multiple means of Action & Expression

Strategic Networks: The “HOW” of Learning
Access Provide options for Recruiting Interest Provide options for Perception Provide options for Physical Action
Build Provide options for Sustaining Effort & Persistence Provide options for Language & Symbols Provide options for Expression & Communication 
Internalize Provide options for Self Regulation Provide options for Comprehension Provide options for Executive Functions

Expert Learners who are…Purposeful and Motivated, Resourceful & Knowledgeable, Strategic & Goal-Directed, Copyright CAST, Inc. 2018

Does UDL Resolve the Impact a Learning Disability May Have on Student Outcomes?

The integration of UDL principles into a college classroom does not completely resolve the impact a learning disability has on a student. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), students with LD attend college at half the rate of students without LD. Further, once students with LD do make it to college it is extremely difficult for them to get the accommodations they need in order to be successful. Individualized accommodations are different from what is offered from a UDL perspective. Since learning disabilities affect a student’s acquisition of knowledge and skills due to a neurodevelopmental disorder, accommodations must be identified and appropriately prescribed in order for the brain to successfully process information and engage in learning activities. Accommodations could include but are not limited to having a note taker, proofreader, or extended time on assignments. UDL on the other hand is different because it provides the instructor with a “blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments” in order to increase effectiveness in reaching a larger portion of students. The following venn diagram illustrates a few of the key differences.

Venn diagram of UDL principles versus individualized accommodations

Diagram by Kelsey R. Ortiz
For more information on differences between UDL and accommodations visit Accommodations and Universal Design from The DO-IT Center.

Venn Diagram with left circle: UDL Principles and right circle: Individualized Accommodations. The circles overlap with the word ACCESS in the center since that is what they have in common.

UDL Principles: All Students, Proactive, Preferred, General, and Predetermined.

Individualized Accommodations: One student, Reactive, Required, Situational, Specially Designed.

How Can Instructors Leverage UDL to Support a Barrier Free Learning Environment for Students with Learning Disabilities?

Since one major commonality between UDL and individualized accommodations is access, it is possible to use both approaches to facilitate a barrier free learning environment. UDL principles are anchored down by nine guidelines and associated checkpoints which lends itself nicely to course planning and implementation. For example, if some or all of the college course work lives on a learning management system (LMS) then it would be safe to assume that incoming students require a certain degree of digital and media literacy. Instructors can anticipate barriers naturally imposed by a LMS and design a more responsive learning environment. The course could embed support driven by guidelines and checkpoints that set up a student with a learning disability for success.

Below is a line of questions that may help initiate the integration of UDL supports in an existing classroom setting. Start from the bottom and work your way up.

Considerations for UDL Supports

What communication process is in place to check effectiveness of the accommodation?

Does any student require an accommodation in order to achieve the learning goal?

Does any of the UDL features require explicit instruction to be accessed by all students?

What UDL Guideline/Checkpoint Should be Referenced?

What UDL Principle is Active?

What is the Potential Barrier?

What is the Learning Goal?

Recommendations for Leadership

Sometimes those in a leadership role may not be confident enough in the subject matter to evaluate online learning content and give advice of a pedagogical nature, especially as the content becomes more specialized or technical. Leadership can still assist instructors with being more responsive to the diverse learning needs of their students. First, identify ways in which dialogue can be fostered around UDL and learning differences to help instructors understand why some students may be struggling. For example, department leaders could start a discussion board, subscribe to UDL newsletters, add UDL topics to meeting agendas, or encourage attendance to UDL webinars. Second, connect instructors with supportive resources on campus for students. There may be programs that offer free screenings for learning problems, peer tutoring, counseling and mentors. Lastly, help instructors connect learning objectives and assignments with opportunities for students to express learning through multiple means. Assignments can integrate use of media labs, library resources, art studios, printing shops, and auditoriums as a way to provide multiple means of expression.

About the Author: Kelsey R. Ortiz

image of Kelsey R. Ortiz

Kelsey R. Ortiz is the Director of the Inclusive Digital Era Collaborative (iDEC) at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas. iDEC is a research group that works to connect research around online learning environments with education stakeholders to support the development of equitable policies.

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