ERIC Identifier: ED475386
Publication Date: 2003-02-00
Author: Orkwis, Raymond
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA. ERIC/OSEP Special Project.
Universally Designed Instruction. ERIC/OSEP Digest.
By definition, universal design for learning (UDL) is the design of
instructional materials and methods that makes learning goals achievable by
individuals with wide differences in their abilities. Universal design is
attained by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide
alternatives for students. As much as possible, these "designed-in"
alternatives, which include different assistive technologies and cognitive
supports, do not have to be added by teachers. However, effective use of the
materials requires that the teacher be familiar with the various teaching
strategies necessary to reach students of widely varying abilities, and many
teachers are not.
UDL is an approach to learning in which curriculum designers have considered
the scope of student abilities and learning styles, taking into account varying
abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, comprehend English, attend,
organize, engage, and remember. They then create a "package" of classroom
resources and situations that can be used as desired to meet the needs of these
individuals. UDL encourages learning through a combination of flexible materials
and methods that provide access, challenge, and engagement for each student.
Different explanations of UDL use different terms to describe its structure.
For instance, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), discusses UDL in
terms of multiples: multiple representation of content, multiple means of
expression, and multiple options for engagement. Behind this approach is the
idea that individual brains receive and process information very differently, so
instruction should be designed to accommodate those differences.
Alternatively, the Do-It Project at the University of Washington bases its
functional description of UDL on the seven general principles of universal
design developed by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State
Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse
Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual
preferences and abilities.
Simple and intuitive: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the
user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information
effectively to the user, regardless of existing conditions or the user's sensory
Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences
of accidental or unintended actions.
Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with
a minimum of fatigue.
Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for
approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture,
This framework was initially created to describe the design of space and
environment (including products), and it highlights ease of use and physical
access. While any universally designed classroom technique must be equitable and
accessible, students must be challenged in order to learn. This implies that a
universally designed curriculum must also incorporate the appropriate degree of
difficulty. Understanding the philosophy of physical and environmental access is
important, but it is equally important to understand how "access" functions
differently in educational situations. The next sections of this digest relate
the characteristics of UDL to good classroom practices.
FLEXIBILITY IS THE KEY
* The curriculum must be flexible.
* The teaching methods must be flexible.
* The classroom environment must be flexible.
* Assessment and evaluation must be flexible.
At the heart of any explanation of universal design is the understanding that
the product or service has been designed to be flexible in order to be usable by
the widest range of individuals. This is, in fact, the "universal" in universal
design. It is the opposite of a "one-size-fits- all" solution, in which the user
conforms to the limitations of an inflexible product. Universal design considers
how to provide a single curriculum, product, or environment that, as designed,
can accommodate many different abilities. Students do not need to adapt
themselves to the limits of the curriculum, because it can accommodate their
particular needs. Instruction is universally designed when, without
after-the-fact adaptation, it is equitable to all students, provides them easily
perceptible information, requires low physical effort, and provides the
appropriate level of challenge. The teacher must identify and break down the
right barriers-those that impede the student's access (such as physical
barriers) or their path to understanding (such as the information that is
scaffolded for students)-but maintain an appropriate level and type of
difficulty. If we eliminate all barriers-if there is no difficulty-students will
INCLUDE AND SUPPORT EVERY STUDENT
* The teacher must
understand the student diversity in the class and teach in a way that includes
* Instruction, materials, and environment must accommodate student
differences, needs, limitations, and abilities.
* Teachers and students must maintain high expectations.
* Students are encouraged to be responsible for their own learning but are
always given support to understand how to develop and maintain that
Including students means more than just being flexible; it implies a
classroom atmosphere where all students are welcome and supported--from the
physical environment that provides easy access to all learning areas to the
acknowledgment that each student is important and is included in all activities.
This can be accomplished as simply as calling on as many different students as
possible or creating heterogeneous groupings of students to work on activities.
When UDL is explained in terms of teaching strategies, the six principles of
effective curriculum are often referenced. These are Big Ideas, Conspicuous
Strategies, Mediated Scaffolding, Strategic Integration, Judicious Review, and
Primed Background Knowledge (Kame'enui & Simmons, 1999). To give just two
brief examples: A teacher is using Big Ideas when, rather than just teaching a
lot of facts, her teaching encourages students to develop higher- order thinking
strategies. And she is scaffolding student learning when, during a social
studies class, she helps students with reading difficulties to grasp the overall
concept by sounding out the phonemes with them. By using such strategies,
teachers support the individual needs of their students and include them in the
general curriculum. Whether a student is reading two grade levels below the rest
of the class or three grades above other students, a supportive teacher
understands their needs and uses all available resources to keep the student
engaged, challenged, and progressing in the general education curriculum.
BE PREPARED AND ORGANIZED
* Know your class
* Set clear learning goals: What all students should learn, what most will
learn, what some will learn.
* Organize and prepare materials to be used.
* Use the most effective teaching strategy.
* Use available resources:
* Move beyond the textbook
* Know how to integrate technology
* Understand student groupings as a resource
* Use collaboration and cooperative learning as resources
* Convey expectations to students.
* Link assessment to teaching.
All the descriptions of UDL make certain assumptions about teachers: That
they have been prepared professionally to make use of flexible curricular
materials and technology, that they know how to assess the individual needs of
their students, and that they know what instructional strategy will best meet
those needs. As the saying goes, if all you have in your toolbox is a hammer,
everything looks like a nail. To effectively deliver universally designed
instruction, teachers need to have a well-stocked toolbox, so to speak. They
must understand that learning theories such as multiple intelligence's and
brain-based learning can provide a means of understanding learning differences
within and outside of the special education domain. They should be able to apply
the lessons of progressive educational practices such as differentiated and
anchored instruction, collaborative teaching, or constructivism to their
particular situation. Even though these connections are far too complicated to
be contained in a single chart attempting to explain UDL, they are implied in
all attempts to show universal design for learning as an instructional practice.
Fortunately, groups like CAST and the University of Connecticut's Center on
Postsecondary Education and Disability are developing information to demonstrate
the connection between research and practice. The CAST website is creating case
stories of UDL in action. One can also find at the website a number of
explanations of progressive instructional techniques and their relationship to
The University of Connecticut project, funded by the U.S. Department of
Education, is creating a clearinghouse of jury-reviewed instructional products
that exemplify the principles of universal design for instruction. Another
online resource, Project Intersect, is a study funded by the U.S. Office of
Special Education Programs (OSEP) and conducted by the University of Oregon. It
posts teacher- created lesson plans that promote inclusive and flexible teaching
methods. While this project was not designed to specifically employ universal
design, its innovative promotion of digital text as a flexible instructional
tool is a fine example of universal design methods in practice.
Universal design for learning, like other student-
centered programs of curriculum reform, begins with teachers considering how
best to provide for the range of student abilities in their classrooms: What
overall and specific learning goals are most appropriate for the students, what
methods of instruction will help them achieve those goals, and how teachers will
assess what the students have learned. The teacher's central concern is what the
students can and will learn, rather than the general assumption that what is
taught is necessarily what is being learned. In a universally designed
classroom, the teacher's job is to provide individualized paths to learning for
students by using the built-in flexibility of instructional and assistive
technologies, progressive, proven teaching methods, and varied learning
situations. Physical barriers to learning are removed for those students with
sensory-motor disabilities and cognitive disabilities are accommodated by
variable presentation of information.
But UDL is not just a matter of students having access: Students with
learning or cognitive disabilities must be challenged in ways that effectively
and affectively engage each of them. Nor is it solely in the province of special
education: Its ultimate goal is to engage the full range of students, those with
disabilities and those without, those who are average, below-average, and above-
average. It is not a one-size-fits-all or do-it-yourself solution to learning
problems, but a means to achieve an ideal educational experience. Like
democracy, it is rarely achieved fully, but remains worth enacting even in part.
Bergstahler, S. (2001). Universal design of
instruction. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2002, from
Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University (1997). What is
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with Disabilities: The architecture of instruction. (ERIC/OSEP Mini Library on
Adapting Curricular Materials, Vol. 1). Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education.
National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (2002). Effective
classroom practices. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2002, from
Ryerson University (n.d.). Seven principles of universal instructional
design. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2002, from
University of Guelph (n.d.). Lecture guide to the principles of universal
design. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2002, from
Shaw, S. F., Scott, S. S. & McGuire, J. (2001). Teaching college students
with learning disabilities (ERIC digest No. E618). Arlington, VA: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. http://ericec.org