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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  • Paula Ahles

    Teacher-education faculty love to use neuroscience and/or brain-based learning as if there is a direct link between brain imaging and classroom instruction. There is not. While neuroscience may hold much promise for future educational strategies, most strategies/assistive technology/software, etc. "sold" as brain-based have absolutely no scientific support to back up their claims. Neuroscientific findings must be interpreted by cognitive psychologists, who may then be able to suggest applicable classroom strategies.

    Having said that, the strategies described by the author have been supported in psychological studies for years (far longer than brain-based jargon has been around). There is nothing "new and improved" about multiple representations of content, multiple student engage strategies, and multiple assessment strategies. And can we please STOP using learning styles to justify these strategies? Learning styles theories have been discredited through countless psychological studies. Looking at the content I'm teaching and thinking about how many different ways I can present it and assess it are simply examples of good teaching.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    Although I agree with the advice to bring a variety of approaches to the classroom, I do so for different reasons. There are no grounds for thinking that "learning styles" are hardwired in the brain, and fMRI certainly does not show that they are. The most we can say is that students have preferential ways of learning given their development and experience so far. I have had students who showed great difficulty at the beginning of a semester in reading a text closely and then defending their interpretations with reasons orally and in writing, but who were able to pick up the skills, and sometimes even to excel, by the end of the semester. I also had students who had a mental block about math at the beginning of the year and decided to go into calculus, and did well in it, by the end of the school year. I have seen the same in creative writing. Students should be exposed to all sorts of skills and made to develop them. We should do so because it will enrich their intellectual lives and open new options to them. But we do them a disservice when we given them alternatives just to keep them from being challenged, on the basis of an untenable theory about the brain.

    • Bloom

      Great points! While we should facilitate all types of learners, we owe them the opportunity to develop their weaker intelligences as well as their strengths.

  • George Reid

    Couple of thoughts: Serious consideration of UDL requires faculty to think outside their preferred modes of delivery and a bit of work to implement– both of which we ought to be doing. Second, and I am teaching in China at this time, UDL provides an interesting challenge when teaching students who have a strong predilection for a single mode of learning, i.e., group work and unison response. Getting students to experiment (take a risk) with different modes of engagement with MBA content has been a challenge, but I have seen the benefits to learning in my students.

  • Steve D.

    The premise of this argument is that learner diversity requires learner accommodation. But do our efforts to ensure that everyone is accommodated go too far? Maybe the NFL also needs to find a way to bring Madden champs onto the field. After all, there are those who can run the plays in real life and those who can do it in the virtual world. Don't these diverse athletes deserve some accommodation? Our efforts to educate are noble efforts. And if we can help someone learn, that's a good thing. But redefining the game for different individuals seems to cross a line. What you call "unnecessary barriers for some students," I might call a well-defined set of course expectations. Not everyone is wired to achieve those expectations, you say? I'm okay with that. It's called the real world.

    • April

      As an educator, I believe our role is to help people learn, which often requires making accomodation. That accomodation could be as simple as repeating a topic, spending more time on it, or (as suggested in the article) presenting it in a different format. It is hardly "redefining the game," it's doing your job well. It's a sad thing to have an educator who refuses to modify their style to better reach those they are supposed to be teaching.

  • Some of these comments are really quite harsh. Perhaps adding to this conversation might help explain why we should be doing UDL in higher education. The concept of UDL started as a broader discussion on Universal Design — a model for architecture that would allow buildings to be accessible to those with disabilities AND others. For example, all of us benefit from curb cuts when we have a child in a stroller, are riding a bike, or carting luggage to the airport, but it was really designed for the person in a wheelchair to be able to access a sidewalk/building. I don't think anyone complains about curb cuts like they do designing instruction. If we want all people to have access to buildings, why wouldn't we want the same for learners?

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