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Using UDL to be a Better Teacher (Universal Design for Learning)

Updated: Nov 6, 2020


Heard of UDL? It stands for Universal Design for Learning. There’s a lot to UDL, but if we hit the highlights, we can be better teachers. So let’s jump into it.

First, if you want to go deeper (and I think you should), head over to to check out all of the in-depth resources CAST has to their UDL framework.

UDL is a framework, meaning it gives you the structure for learning, it doesn’t give you all the details. I like to think of it as a new way of looking at lesson or learning design. This works for any education setting, brick and mortar, virtual, or hybrid. It works for lessons rich in educational technology or for those that are strictly paper and pencil. It’s a way to think when you’re designing your lessons.

At its heart, UDL wants you to incorporate the three networks of thinking into each lesson – affective (“why”), recognition (“what”), and strategic (“how”). The UDL Guidelines encourage us to “provide multiple means of” engagement, representation, and action and expression.

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If a learner is not engaged, they’re not learning. I guess they’re not a “learner” then either, so it’s very important to have them engaged or I’ll have to change what I’m calling them. So, how do we get them engaged?

UDL says we should give them as much discretion, autonomy, over their learning as possible. Let your students choose (as much as is possible and within reason).

  • How they gather information

  • The timing of sub-task* completion

  • How they practice or demonstrate skills

  • The type of rewards available

  • The level of challenge

  • The design of activities and tasks

  • Their academic goals

Students want their lessons to be authentic and appropriate. They also need their activities to be varied, so they aren’t getting bored (even if they love that activity at first, it gets old with too much repetition). Self-reflection should be built in to get feedback about the lesson from students. Including problem-based activities that allow for creativity also builds engagement.

It’s also important to provide your students with a safe environment to learn. Physical safety is always paramount, but we’re also talking about academic and mental safety. Students should know that failure in tasks is common and essential to learning, provide an opportunity for students to understand what to do when they encounter these setbacks. Keeping students safe from the unexpected involves scheduling to help them to know when things are due and when the routine may change. Sometimes providing an unexpected change is good to break up routine activities. Finally, minimize distractions so your students can focus. Providing background noise or music is fine and even encouraged from time to time.


This section deals with how students get information. We should offer students multiple options for receiving information. If you’re able to offer ways for the students to customize the information delivery, students enjoy the flexibility. Students also need alternatives to auditory information (such as lecture or teacher-led instruction). Provide options to getting information through voice alone. With that said, students need alternatives to visual information. Some students thrive with listening to their teacher, some with print materials, but still others need other options. Those options can be interactive websites, hands-on activities, podcasts, visual presentations, etc.

Action & Expression

As you see above, options for information delivery is key to building expert learners. To take that further, we should be providing options for action and expression, how students “show what they know.” UDL tells us to provide more than one way for students to interact with information. As educators, we should provide alternatives to the timing of information interaction and alternatives to how students indicate answers.

Along with this, we should explore technologies and tools that will assist students to optimize their learning. Making it easier for our students to find, discern and interact with information, then to express their understanding of that information is essential for student success.

Goal of UDL

The goal of this framework is to produce expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, as well as strategic and goal-oriented.

More Information

Believe it or not, this just touches the tip of the iceberg with UDL. We just looked at the first component which CAST calls “Access.” The other areas are “Build” and “Internalize.” We’ll look into this deeper in a future post or you can explore in the meantime.


The most important thing to remember is that we should be providing options for our students in the ways they acquire information and the ways they express their understanding. It’s a paradigm shift, a new way to think about how we set up our lessons. Providing choices can be set up with curation tools such as Padlet and Wakelet, or even Choice Boards. We’ll explore all of these in future posts.

Online Learning

How do you apply this to education and technology or to online learning? Think about how you’re setting things up. I like to make sure I cover the main categories of audio, video, print, website, and interactive. For audio, record information for students via your voice recorder on the laptop or smart device. There are also great options for podcasts on various subjects you can include if it covers your learning goals. In the realm of video, record mini-lessons for the students. Short videos can be of you standing teaching, screencast recordings of your computer desktop with a voice-over, or video presentations with graphics and voice-overs. Print can range from materials you might traditionally hand out or it may be an informational pdf. This also covers any informational graphic, really anything that can be read. I included website in a separate category because they can be more in-depth than just a pdf. Lastly, the interactive can be an online quiz, a simulation, a game, anything that requires a more engaged back and forth from the student to the resource. Hands-on activities in the classroom fits the bill here too.

That covers how information is given to students, but remember that there should be choice in the expression too. I have categories here too. Audio for voice recordings where the kids answer questions or create their own podcast, videos like FlipGrid or a movie where they show their understanding, posters using a technology tool or even pen/paper then a snapshot is taken, presentations using Prezi, Spark, Sway, Visme, etc., and finally interactive activities where they complete games or quizzes online. Be creative here. Allow the kids to develop activities. Give your students autonomy and control. It’s scary at first, but you’ll see great benefits.


Drop a line and start a conversation. What are your thoughts? Your feelings? Your questions?

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