Declaring UDL – Universal Design for Learning

In spite of a lack of evidence that the use of learning style inventories can improve teaching and learning (see my previous post for more on this), the idea still has supporters. I think that this is because intuitively it seems to make sense. We relate to the idea that different people prefer to learn in different ways – although we may add the qualification that this is not fixed, but varies depending on context and motivation. It is difficult to understand if and how we can use these differences in teaching; maybe it’s just that learners need to be aware of the different approaches and incorporate them into their learning.

While reading about learning styles, I came across another concept, which intuitively makes sense, the idea that:

The references provided in the original website were not informative, but some googling led me to information on UDL – Universal Design for Learning – for example, the CAST organisation, which defines UDL as follows:

Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

This is based on the principles of universal design in architecture and other domains, which suggest that designing for all users, including those with accessibility needs, from the outset will lead to a better result for everyone.

The use of UDL is widespread in the US and Canada, being enshrined in accessibility legislation, and there is much very good material on the topic available online. For example, I spent some time exploring an openly available UDL course for educators in Ontario.

One of the recommendations of this course resonated with me, since I greatly appreciated the multiple ways of viewing learning materials offered on an xMOOC that I undertook.

an accessible course design improves the learning opportunity for all students and significantly reduces the need for accommodation [for students with a disability].

For example, if you are using videos in your course, those videos may require captioning depending on the needs of the students (eg. a student who is hard of hearing or deaf). What research has found is that captioning not only benefits students who have hearing disabilities, but also assists students whose first language is not English, those who may have processing difficulties, or those who may be watching the video in a noisy area such as a bus, cafe or cafeteria where hearing it may be difficult.

For me, the accessible design of the xMOOC allowed great flexibility in when and where I studied the materials, including on my daily commute. And the captioning helped me to understand the American accents!

Overall I think that there is a lot of merit in the UDL approach, although as yet experimental evidence of the effectiveness of the technique in improving learning is somewhat limited. This is acknowledged in this review, which discusses how the technique should develop as it enters its second decade of use, and a body of research is building up, with information being collated on the UDL Center website.

My favourite suggestion from my readings on UDL was the use of a graphic syllabus to bring clarity to course structure.

Maryellen Weimer (at begins by describing a novel use of mind-mapping in class:

Not being a visual learner, I always struggled with ways of graphically representing course content. I was never very successful until I discovered that students could do what I couldn’t. During those summary times at the end of a class session, I often asked them to show graphically their sense of how the ideas related. I was surprised how clearly those visual representations showed whether or not they understood. Even more surprising, they sometimes depicted relationships I hadn’t thought of or positioned ideas so that they highlighted different aspects of a relationship.

The author then introduces Linda Nilson’s related idea of including a mind map in a course syllabus, as described in this presentation:

This includes several examples, and I love how they make the learning aims of the course clearer. If you only have time to look at one example, go to the final slide and see how this brings order to a very complex course. (Actually, I think this may be intended as an example of overcomplexity, but it works for me!)

One thought on “Declaring UDL – Universal Design for Learning

  1. Pingback: #ocTEL Week 3 Explorer Activity 3.4: Learning styles | gdougblog

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