About Universal Design Learning

About Universal Design Learning

Universal Design Learning is an application of several design principles that specifically promote teaching and learning. The overarching goal of Universal Design Learning is to remove barriers to learning so that information is accessible to all people. It was created by the CAST organization, based on the principles of Universal Design.

Universal Design Learning focuses on three specific areas of learning:

  • Engagement
  • Representation
  • Action and expression


Various social, economic, and cultural factors can affect how an individual engages with content. Engaging learners to help drive their motivation is a challenge, yet it's required to remove barriers to learning.

The Universal Design Learning guidelines for engagement suggest three primary techniques to motivate learners and boost engagement:

  • Encourage genuine interest for the learner
  • Continually promote their efforts
  • Teach learners to self-regulate emotions and sustain motivations

Encouraging Genuine Interest

Instructors can help encourage genuine interest by:

  • Inspiring participation
  • Creating a safe environment for learning
  • Reducing distractions and building focus
  • Giving learners choices
  • Fostering a sense of autonomy
  • Creating personalized, contextualized experiences

Promoting Ongoing Efforts

Instructors can promote ongoing efforts by:

  • Conveying course goals and expectations frequently and consistently
  • Providing variation of complexity in activities, projects, and assignments
  • Establishing small groups and fostering community among learners

Teaching Learners to be Self-Sustaining and Regulating

Instructors can show learners to sustain their motivation and regulate their emotions by:

  • Encouraging self-reflection
  • Providing mentoring and coaching
  • Demonstrating appropriate coping skills


Representation concerns how learners understand the information presented to them. Depending on an individual's learning style, the content might be comprehended more easily by listening to an audio clip, watching a video, or reading a transcript.

To best meet the needs for these various learning types, the Universal Design Learning guidelines for representation suggest a few ways of serving learners:

  • Recognize how learners perceive information differently
  • Consider how we communicate
  • Aim for comprehension that promotes the future application of learning

Recognizing Perception Differences

Instructors can ensure the perception of information by:

  • Offering audio and visual alternatives when presenting information
  • Providing the ability to customize the display of information

Considering Communication

Instructors can consider how the communication of information affects learning styles by:

  • Supporting learner comprehension by defining terms and symbols
  • Clarifying the meaning of the written word and data structures (such as tables, graphs, and diagrams)
  • Using different media types to promote learning
  • Providing translation assistance (or translation tools)

Aiming for Long-term Learning

Instructors can foster skills that promote long-term learning by:

  • Providing background information and prerequisite concepts
  • Linking information, activities, and instructions to previously learned content
  • Using metaphors and analogies
  • Covering high-level themes and outlines
  • Organizing content effectively with good structure, chunking, and sequencing
  • Utilizing mnemonic devices and other memory strategies

Action and Expression

The idea of action and expression considers the various ways learners demonstrate their knowledge and comprehension of information. For example, some individuals best communicate their understanding of a topic by speaking and conversing, while others are more confident in writing. Some learners might also have physical limitations that prevent them from fully participating in activities or using instructional materials.

Considering the possible ways learners can act upon and express their mastery of information is vital for removing barriers to learning.

Universal Design Learning guidelines for action and expression recommend several methods of eliminating potential interaction and expression barriers:

  • Provide multiple means of interacting with tools and materials
  • Offer learners varied ways to communicate, participate, and express themselves
  • Foster the development of high-level thinking, skills, and problem solving

Provide Multiple Means of Interaction

Instructors can provide more than one way of interacting with course content by:

  • Selecting and using software that works with assistive technologies
  • Incorporating both physical (like pen and paper) and digital elements (like online forms and activities) in a course

Offer Varied Ways of Communication and Expression

Instructors can provide learners with several ways of expressing, conveying or demonstrating their knowledge by:

  • Varying assignment types (like diagrams, essays, PowerPoints, drawings, outlines, videos, screencasts)
  • Providing exposure to different tools and programs
  • Creating opportunities for learners to present their work or knowledge

Foster High-Level, Executive Functions

Instructors can foster the development of executive functions in the learner by:

  • Helping learners set goals
  • Incorporating prompts in assignments for learners to explain their reasoning
  • Teaching learners how to categorize information
  • Showing learners how to take notes
  • Providing learners with rubrics and exemplar submissions

How you use these recommendations in online learning environments may vary. The goal is to incorporate and consider as many of these factors into your learning as possible so that you can foster knowledge and remove barriers to learning.

For complete information on Universal Design Learning, visit the CAST website. The website contains a detailed breakdown of each guideline and various checkpoints to help you achieve them.


CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Author: Katherine Baeckeroot

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