Understanding Universal Design for Learning

UDL is an excellent buzz word for special education, but what does it actually mean and how can it be useful (or not!) in special education?

Teaching Tips: Universal Design for Learning

My video on UDL

I can’t remember what class I made this for, but I made a whole video on UDL. I make no guarantees of its quality, but here it is.

Background on UDL

So, the big group behind UDL is CAST. They have a whole spiffy website with all of the graphics I used in my video and a whole bunch more. They really want to get UDL out there, so pretty much all of their resources are free and they offer some great, how to do UDL guides. 


I thought a lot about how to frame UDL here. A lot of people seem to look at it as a holy grail in accessibility and lesson design. I see it a bit differently.  At its heart, UDL is a list of reminders of things to think about when you are planning a unit that might have slipped your mind. Did you remember to build in ways to activate their prior knowledge? How are you going to frame the content to get them interested? Did you build in scaffolds for students at different levels? How are you going to give students ownership of their own learning? Is the content relevant to them? If not, are there tweaks you can make to get it there? On its own, UDL isn’t going to give you a strong lesson but as a checklist to use to make sure yours is good, it’s excellent. 


For those who are wondering about how it compares to differentiation, to me they do slightly different things. Differentiation is what I use to plan a unit. I start with my big ideas and use differentiation to figure out what I might need to get everyone there. UDL is then the checklist I use to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything important in my lesson planning. This post though isn’t on how I use UDL (though some day I am going to turn it into a checklist for my lesson planning!), it’s on what UDL is so let’s dive in. 


The principles: Like differentiation, UDL is built on core principles. The core principles for UDL are about how our brains learn. The folks at CAST describe our brains as having three big networks: 1) The recognition network: This is how we gather and categorize the information we take in from the world around us. CAST describes it as the “what” of learning; 2) The strategic network: This is “how we organize and express our ideas.” CAST describes it as the how of learning, but it is fairly similar to the product part of differentiation– it’s how students show their understanding of content; 3) The affective network: This is the engagement, motivation, and emotion part of learning. For CAST, taken together these three things make up the what, how, and why of learning– and to make learning universally accessible for students we want to think about having variety for each in our instruction.


Designing a lesson with UDL: When you are designing a lesson using UDL you need to:

  • Think about the goals of the lesson
  • Think about the barriers students might hit
  • Think about the strategies you can implement to help all students access the learning– and surmount the barriers
  • And then, finally, design the lesson


Those whats, hows, and whys of learning that we talked about before are there to help you think of strategies that can help students surmount the barriers and succeed with the content– so let’s look at each.

Provide multiple means of representation

Because learners differ in how they perceive and understand content, UDL recommends that you provide multiple means of representation of the content. This gets at the recognition network or the “what” of learning. 


First, they recommend providing multiple means of perception of the content. At the most basic, that might mean having visuals on the board when you talk so students can see it and hear it– or offering books on tape (old school!) as well as on the page. Taken more broadly, it means giving students lots of different ways to see, hear, and experience the content. In the differentiation post, I shared an example of a teacher I know who shared math videos on the content, explained it herself, had the students read the text book, had them work in collaborative pairs on it, and offered small group supports. She was crushing differentiation and providing multiple means of perception. 


Second, they recommend providing options for language and symbols. This includes everything from going over the definitions of words to providing dictionaries to providing text to speech supports for lessons to providing linguistic translations to pairing audio with visuals. Basically, support students ability to access the texts and graphics in as many ways as possible. I observed an awesome middle school ESOL teacher once whose sheltered English social studies class wove in a variety of language supports from tangible objects to pictures to written definitions to translation into Spanish and Vietnamese. As students worked through the grade level curriculum, she constantly built their understanding of the language– and forced them to take notes on the terms in ways that would be useful to them later.


Third, they recommend providing options for comprehension. They make this sound fancy, but it really boils down to providing all students with the types of supports that we know help with retention, comprehension, and transference. Special educators are the queens and kings of graphic organizers– organizers that, when pre taught and used well, can help students organize, retain, and understand what they learn. Similarly, this principle covers KWL charts– UDL talks about activating prior knowledge and what they mean is that you should do some form of KWL whether formal or informal prior to a lesson to get students’ brains primed for the new content. Strategies for comprehension also includes spiral review, review, and all of the post-learning activities that we do to help ensure students retain and can retrieve the new learning.

Provide multiple means of action and expression

Because students vary in how they can express what they know, UDL recommends providing multiple ways for students to show what they know. This gets at the how of learning or what in differentiation is the product. 


First up is physical action. Here UDL mostly focuses on providing accessibility to students with physical challenges– focusing on things like switches. TBH a lot of it is like, umm yeah if a kid uses a touchpad to communicate, let them. The most interesting part of this to me is the focus on teaching students to use their assistive technology supports. I have worked with augmented communication devices and with voice to text programs. I love both. What I realized though is that it wasn’t enough to teach students how to use them when they were with me– they needed a lot of reinforcement and support for using them in other contexts or they wouldn’t. I had multiple students with hearing aids who would take them off when they left my room because they weren’t “cool.” When I think about UDL’s focus on assistive technology here, that’s what I think about– how do we make all environments supportive of the tech kids need? And make it cool?


Second up is expression and communication. At the most basic, this means if students need voice to text or to do a presentation instead of a paper, awesome– more power to them. More broadly, it means showing students examples of what strong performance looks like in each and examples of how multiple different types of thinkers approach a task or a problem. UDL also lumps differentiated feedback in here– the idea that students with different strengths and challenges need different feedback. I don’t quite get why that fits here, but this is where they stuck it.


Third up is executive functioning. This is one of my less preferred terms because I feel like most teachers just call all of the skills under this umbrella metacognitive skills. This section focuses on how you support students in learning to set goals, to make plans, to monitor their own learning, and so on. UDL is not differentiation– there is no real focus on the needs of individual students. Instead, what they are recommending here is stuff like adding check your work to worksheets or boxes for students to describe their goals or their approach to solving problems. 

Provide multiple means of engagement

And last, but not least, on the UDL tour is providing multiple means of engagement. Different things motivate and engage different learners. If you have a one size fits all approach, you are always going to have some checked out kids. To me, the elements under hear are some of the most important in UDL because they cover the part of learning that we often forget about– how do we get kids to care about what we are teaching?


The first suggestion is “to provide options for recruiting interest.” Let students have as much choice as possible. To me, this is where the cool agenda and menus options I talked about in the differentiation post come into play. Each of them offers students controlled choice and that choice might just build their engagement. The second part of this is about relevancy. I am a big culturally sustaining pedagogy (aka culturally responsive teaching) person so I am going to go way past what they say in UDL. Someone (I forget who, sorry) once wrote that curriculum should be a window and a mirror– a place where students can see out into the world and where they can see themselves reflected in it. To me that is what relevancy is about. If the names in word problems don’t sound like your students (I had a lot more Lah Moos, Viets, and Jorges than I ever did Nancys or Sals), and the stories don’t ever include people with lives like theirs, you lose your students. Weirdly, this one also includes sensory stimulation and level of perceived risk in learning– they are both important but really not sure how they fit under interest.


The second suggestion is to  provide options for “sustaining effort and persistence.” This includes making sure students know what the big goals are and how the small steps are getting them there,  providing students with options and scaffolding for how challenging the activity is, creating community and managing group work well, and providing mastery oriented feedback. This is another kitchen sink one– but overall I find a lot of these ideas to be helpful when I think about how to get students to meet my big conceptual demands in class. 


Whew. So that is UDL in a nutshell. A really large, way too wordy nutshell!

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