What Is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) combines what we know about how learning works with a commitment to providing course materials that are engaging and accessible to produce a learning experience that benefits all students. David Rose at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Boston first conceived of UDL, and called for instructors to provide multiple means of engagement (provide students with a variety of assignment types and the ability to choose), multiple means of representation (different avenues into course content), and multiple means of action and expression (help students develop metacognitive skills such as self-monitoring). Review also, the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines from CAST. 

Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

This first principle identifies strategies for increasing student engagement in the course. These strategies include emphasizing for students that the academic goal ahead of them is achievable, that they are able to make some choices about where they focus their efforts in the course, and that they are part of an academic community. For example, UDL suggests that instructors consider ways of building in options regarding the type of assignment that students can turn in to show that they have achieved a student learning outcome or course goal. Instead of a 3-page paper, consider letting students create video essays or tutorials, and ask students to caption the videos themselves, using the automatic captioning tool in Panopto and editing those captions. Sandi Connelly, who teaches biology at RIT, has written out detailed instructions for the videos she asks students to create to show they understand the course content. Paul Van Auken teaches sociology at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and has written about working to increase student engagement by a number of means, including providing students with options for how they’d prefer to demonstrate their learning in class (“Maybe it’s both of us: Engagement and learning”).

Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Implementing UDL in your course need not be overwhelming. How can you get started increasing the accessibility of your content?

  • The Ally tool in myCourses automatically provides alternative formats of many of your myCourses Content to students. Alternative formats can enable students to use the media type that best suits their device and learning needs. 
  • Consider the use of captions and transcripts for video recordings. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing need captions in videos. Captions also benefit students with learning disabilities, students with ADHD, and anyone who might like to watch a video with the sound off (someone trying to watch a video in the library or trying not to disturb a sleeping child, for example).

Tom Tobin, coordinator of learning technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, calls UDL “plus 1” thinking in his article, “Increase online student retention with Universal Design for Learning”. What’s one thing you can do to provide one more way to access content? For the previous example of captioning videos, consider also providing a transcript. Transcripts are a quick way for all students to review the content of a video, and they are easy to provide if you write out what you plan to say before you record and then use that as a script. Transcripts are automatically created in Panopto when you add captions. Scripts can be easily turned into captions.

In October 2016, Katie Linder, research director at Oregon State University Ecampus, published the results of a national study on caption use. She found that among all students, 98.6 percent of students find captions helpful, with the largest percent (75.5 percent) using captions to aid in learning. Students described their use of captions: "Closed captions allow me to watch the video in two different ways: the first time I watch a video, I go through it without subtitles and the second time, I watch it with subtitles. This allows me to check if I missed anything in the video and allows me to pause the video to write stuff down if I want an exact quote." and "I had to watch videos for a Spanish class, and the closed captions helped me learn the vocabulary and overcome the fast paced speaking. Also, in several science classes, I have used closed captions when the professor was discussing hard to understand vocabulary or complex chemical names." (Linder, 19) While students also used transcripts, they used them less frequently than captions, and they used them mostly as study guides. Another finding from Linder's study is that not all students know how to tell when a video has captions or when a transcript is available. I encourage you to review Linder's report to read her findings.

Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Another aspect of UDL that supports all students is an emphasis on helping them develop their executive functioning and metacognitive skills. As Linder found, a majority of students who use captions do so to aid their comprehension of a topic, but students don't always know how to find the video captions. An important part of helping students to be successful in your class is helping them learn how to learn--telling them which study strategies are effective, clearly articulating your expectations for their work. The Disabilities Services Office at RIT recommends that instructors provide students with a syllabus with clear explanations of tasks and specific due dates. If these clear explanations include defined subtasks of a major project along with due dates that are staggered across the semester, you’re helping students learn the type of thinking and collaborative work that is valued in your discipline, and you're helping students learn how to project manage a major assignment. The Study Tool Kit available through RIT’s Academic Success Center provides students with planning documents and self-monitoring strategies.

Instructors and researchers affiliated with Tulane University have created an excellent guide to creating an accessible syllabus that features such things as sample statements of inclusion and strategies for working with requests for deadline extensions. Helping students learn how to learn is one of the benefits of articulating metacognitive strategies in class. Kimberly Tanner, who teaches biology at San Francisco State University, has published an article, “Promoting student metacognition,” that explains how she incorporates metacognition into her introductory undergraduate biology course. This excellent article is worthwhile reading for all instructors, no matter the discipline.

References and Additional Resources

Accessible Syllabus from Tulane University posits that "Accessible classroom resources promote student engagement and agency" and then provides strategies and examples of syllabus statements

Cognitive Load, Memory, and Instruction introduces successful change in one's teaching means taking into account the critical role of memory and cognitive load in learning.

Hazlett, C. (2013, November 13). Optimal Video Length for Student Engagement

Linder, K., (2016). Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.

Tanner, Kimberly D., “Promoting student metacognitionCBE—Life Sciences Education 11 (Summer 2012): 113-20.

Tobin, Thomas J., “Increase online student retention with Universal Design for LearningQuarterly Review of Distance Education 15.3 (Fall 2014): 13-24,48.

Top Ten Teaching Tips | NTID Teach2Connect. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2016.

Van Auken, Paul, “Maybe it’s both of us: Engagement and learningTeaching Sociology 41(2): 207-15.