September 14th, 2015

UDL: A Systematic Approach to Supporting Diverse Learners


brain learning

Advances in neuroscience and digital imaging give us an unprecedented understanding of how individuals access, process, and respond to information. Previously we may have had an intuitive understanding that our students learned differently. Now functional MRI scans demonstrate this in living color. However, simply recognizing learner diversity is one thing; navigating this challenge in the classroom is quite another. How can we possibly hope to present content, structure learning experiences, and devise assessments that will be appropriate and effective for students with different learning strengths and challenges? Fortunately, researchers have developed a framework based in neuroscience that can help.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offers a functional framework to understand and address this variability in our courses. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) outlines three principles that when systematically applied in the classroom help support diverse learners.

First, faculty can provide students with multiple means of representing content. Too often we rely on a narrow range of course materials that may present unnecessary barriers for some students. In addition to textbooks and lectures, we can provide students with a range of additional ways to represent important concepts and ideas in our courses. Both proprietary and open educational resources (OER) like videos, animations, simulations, and learning objects can provide helpful complementary entry points to concepts. Even using a variety of visuals, including concept maps and graphic organizers, in a lecture can assist students who have barriers related to auditory processing.

The second principle encourages faculty to provide students with multiple means of action and expression. In addition to class readings, lectures, and discussions, students can also engage in simulations, role-play, service learning, and case studies to build their knowledge. In terms of expressing knowledge, many of us rely on papers, exams, and different forms of written work to gauge our students’ learning. While written work is clearly important in virtually any academic discipline, students can also demonstrate knowledge by creating a film, designing an exhibit or model, directing a skit or play, or engaging in service learning. In some cases, these nontraditional opportunities for action and expression can help you better assess what students understand from your course.

The third principle often works in concert with the other two—faculty should provide multiple means of engagement in learning. In order to engage students intellectually in the course content, we can identify ways to stimulate interest in the content and devise ways to support students’ metacognitive processes. We can stimulate interest by designing learning experiences that are authentic, challenging, and novel. By beginning with a surprising fact, quote, or discrepant event, we can ignite curiosity. We can also inject humor and stories in our lectures and discussion. We can provide students with modeling and supports for challenging analytical work in the form of guided inquiry and problem-based learning.

Implementing UDL – A Practical Approach

In theory, one could strive to address all three UDL principles in each class session. This seems daunting and may not be sustainable long term. Rather, we can take a longer view. We can map out a range of strategies to represent the content over the course of the semester. If, for example, introducing a topic requires a heavy dose of lecture, we may want to consider an alternative learning activity—perhaps using a case study—in the next class. In terms of offering multiple means of expression, we can consider providing three different types of major assignments in the course (e.g., a paper, a model, and a film) that would appeal to different learners.

Alternatively, we can provide students with multiple options for a final project from which they can choose. In any of these ways, we can vary our activities and materials for teaching and learning over time. Consequently, we are more likely to reach and appeal to a broad range of learners.

Fortunately, CAST provides higher education faculty with a range of resources to support integrating UDL in our practice. They have developed a portal called UDL on Campus (, where they provide resources on assessment options, policies and legal information, strategies for selecting media and technology, advice on course planning, and descriptions and examples of teaching strategies.

Implementing UDL strategies may seem like significant extra work in terms of both planning and implementation. To some extent this is true. Why then might we consider this extra commitment? First, UDL-based approaches to teaching and learning have been shown to benefit students with different learning styles and preferences. Second, it challenges us to rethink some of our assumptions and typical approaches to teaching our courses. I have found the creative challenge in this process to be rejuvenating and exciting. I hope you will too.

Mark Hofer is professor of educational technology and the associate dean for teacher education and professional services at the College of William & Mary. You can follow him on Twitter @markhofer and at

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