Pedagogical Development with Universal Design for Learning

A Brief History of Universal Design for Learning

Outside photo of Arts and Administration building with an accessibly designed building ramp
Accessible designed Arts and Administration building ramp. Photo by Marc Proudfoot

Pedagogy is typically understood to be the methods and practices of teaching that shape learning environments and the framing of curricular content. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an inclusive pedagogy rooted in the seven principles of universal design, associated with architecture and the work of the late Ronald L. Mace. Universal design in architecture ensures that infrastructure in the built environment is accessible to all individuals, regardless of age and ability. In the image included on this page, the ramp outside the UTSC Student Center and Arts and Administration building demonstrates the accessible design, including for individuals who may be walking, using a mobility device, pushing a stroller, or pulling luggage.  

UDL is about designing the learning environment so it is accessible to as many learners as possible, much like what universal design in architecture does for the built environment. As described by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) UDL is based on scientific insight into how people learn and aims to optimize learning and reduce barriers at the curriculum level. To help educators implement UDL in the classroom, CAST created UDL Guidelines, which consist of principles, guidelines, and checkpoints to support educators. The Universal Design for Learning Academy provides an explanation of how to read the UDL guidelines.

This page explores a few approaches to understanding and applying UDL in the planning, teaching, and assessment cycle and its connection to the principles of EDI. The CAST model of UDL is organized into three pillars, each connected to a neurological network for teaching and learning: 

1. Provide multiple means for Engagement (the "why" of learning).  How do we stimulate, motivate and hook our learners while keeping the goals and objectives of the lesson or lecture in mind?

2. Provide multiple means for Representation (the "what" of learning). What methods and mediums will you use to assist students in making sense of what they see and hear, knowing that everyone processes information differently?

3. Provide multiple means for Expression (the "how" of learning). How could you change the way students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and what they have learned which takes into account the different ways students may process, plan, and express their learning? 

UDL has developed a way to provide multiple opportunities and access points for students to engage with course materials as an equitable practice.  Creating a variety of pathways for learners to engage and make sense of the work fosters a more inclusive learning environment for diverse learners on campus. 

Related Resources

Universal Design for Learning FAQs

An Introduction

Universal Design for Learning: Accessibility by Design is an online module developed by The Centre for Teaching & Learning at UTSC by Educational Developer, Cheryl Lepard. Referencing the CAST guidelines, Lepard notes that "[e]very student learns differently, so you can expect that learners in your course will differ in the ways in which they engage with course material, perceive and comprehend information, navigate their environment and express what they know (CAST, 2018)." Related Viewing: Watch UDL in Higher Education, an introductory video from Humber College's Centre for Teaching and Learning on understanding that "variability is the norm" when thinking about teaching and learning. A descriptive video text is available from the Dropbox website

The "Plus-One" approach

Thomas Tobin is a Teaching, Learning, & Technology Specialist at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and is considered one of the foremost authorities on Universal Design for Learning.  In Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (2018), authors Kirsten T. Behling and Thomas Tobin reframe how UDL is commonly understood and suggest implementing it using a "plus-one" approach: "Instead of focusing on the three brain networks, think of UDL as merely plus-one thinking about the interactions in your course. Is there just one more way that you can help keep learners on task, just one more way that you could give them information, just one more way that they could demonstrate their skills?"(p. 134). This is not a dismissal of the neuroscience grounding UDL, instead this approach is a manageable and tangible approach to understanding and applying UDL to everyday teaching and learning situations. 

Related Resources

University of Toronto

Universal Design for Learning: Accessibility by Design is a module created by Cheryl Lepard, Educational Developer -- Universal Design for Learning, at the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at UTSC. It is centered on the understanding that all students learn differently and that learning experiences and spaces need to be designed with all learners, including those with disabilities, in mind. The module examines the theoretical foundations and classroom applications of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

For instructional support, Cheryl may be contacted at

Making your Course Accessible is another comprehensive resource section by the CTL to support the development of accessible courses. It includes:   

  • Guiding Principles to Promote Accessibility
  • Resources for Instructors
  • Resources for Students

The Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) examines the CAST UDL guidelines with dedicated sections related to: 

  • Centres and institutions promoting specific UDL practices
  • Training opportunities
  • Key research findings related to UDL

Other Post-Secondary UDL Resources

eCampusOntario Online Modules

1. Introduction and Overview of UDL

2. UDL in Post-Secondary & Technology Enabled Learning Environments

3. Legislative Requirements Under the AODA and OHRC

4. Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)

5. Indigenous Pedagogies and the Benefits for All Learners in Ontario

6. UDL for AODA, EDI and Indigenous Pedagogies in Post-Secondary Learning Environments

  • Universal Design for Learning: Inspiring Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education is an online course developed by George Brown educators Mandy Bonisteel, Ravinder Brar,  Joanna Friend, and Jessica Paterson. The modules look at how “the principles of universal design, equity and inclusion, decolonization, and digital fluency are woven together to create flexible online learning environments that honour learner variability, diversity, and lived experience.” The certificate course is organized into five sections, including four modules:

1. Introduction to the Course

2. Introduction to UDL and Equity Education Frameworks

3. Engagement

4. Representation

5. Action and Expression

The 3 UDL Guidelines chart has been posted with permission from CAST. The alternative text for this image is posted on the CAST guidelines page and the SpeechStream screen reading toolbar is available. PDF versions of this chart are available on the CAST downloads page.The 3 column chart outlines the three Universal Design for Learning Guidelines from CAST.  The column to the left is titled "Provide multiple means of Engagement." The middle column is titled "Provide multiple means of Representation."  The final column, to the right is titled "Provide multiple means of Action and Expression."

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UDL on Campus 

UDL on Campus "is a collection of resources developed by CAST [Center for Applied Special Technology for]... postsecondary institutions." The UDL Examples section was developed by faculty from the College STAR (Supporting Transition Access and Retention) project to "help campuses become more welcoming of students with learning differences." They used the UDL framework to redesign courses in the disciplinary areas of Education, Music, Construction Management, and Criminal Justice.

Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising Practices

Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising Practices was edited by Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington and founder of DO IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). This book was developed with UDL practitioners in post-education settings.  It is organized into three sections:

  1. Introduction to Universal Design in Higher Education
  2. Evidence-Based Practices from the Field
  3. Promising Practices & Resources

Related Viewing: Watch Sheryl Burgstahler discussing Higher Education and UDL

University of Toronto 

1. Zohreh Shahbazi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences and Acting Director at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UTSC. With permission from Professor Shabazi, this screenshot from Calculus I for Mathematical Sciences (MATA31) demonstrates the UDL  guideline of providing multiple means of representation

The screenshot is of Professor Shabazi demonstrating "Proof by Induction" in a video available for student viewing and downloading in Quercus.

Controlling the playback rate of the video allows for customized processing of information (1.1), including through the Closed Captioning (CC) feature and opportunities to review and process the visual information differently (1.2) and "heighten the memorability of the information" (3.4) of the concept(s) taught.

2. Sa’diyya Hendrickson is a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto, who primarily teaches first-year mathematics courses with the Faculty of Engineering and the Mathematics Department. She has also taught mathematics for the International Foundation Program (IFP) and is currently a project lead for the online Preparing for University Mathematics Program (ePUMP) at the university.

In a presentation at the 2023 University of Toronto Teaching and Learning Symposium, Sa'diyya Hendrickson discussed her resource, Learning How to Learn Mathematics. It encourages the planning and development of learning strategies, related to CAST checkpoint 6.2 and a number of others:  

Related Reading: "Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning" (2013) by John Dunlosky in American Educator. This learning strategies-oriented article explains how options for Self Regulation and options for Executive Functions, outlined by CAST, may be used to increase student engagement with course material and facilitate metacognitive skill development. 

University of British Columbia (UBC)

Introduction to Universal Design for Learning is a self-paced module within UBC's online Inclusive Teaching resources. There are many sections to this detailed resource and two will be highlighted:

  • Multiple Means of Action & Expression is one of UBC's modules for developing instructor capacity with inclusive teaching. In Section 4.4, there is a downloadable worksheet looking at how UDL fits into the assessment cycle along with four examples from different departments (Computer Science, Law, Dentistry, and Arts) which provide examples that you may bridge to your own disciplines.
  • Systemic Barriers and Possible Solutions is activity 1.7 within the UDL module. Based on case studies and the systemic barriers students may encounter in school, readers are guided through possible approaches to make their teaching practices more accessible. 

As part of the Carl Wieman Science Education InitiativeEvidence-Based Science Education in Action is a gallery of videos looking at how small group activities can be managed in large lecture halls. Four examples have been selected and paired with possible CAST UDL guidelines, illustrating the provisions for providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression:   

Related Reading: Two-Stage Exams (UBC); Two-Stage Exams (University of Guelph) [with options for remote courses] 

While these examples are paired with options from the UDL framework, ensuring that the materials used and proposed methods are accessible to students of all abilities. For example, are there options for these worksheets to be in an electronic format and possibly handed out prior to class? Will the two-stage exam take into consideration those who may need extended time limits or the use of assistive technology?

Camosun College, British Columbia

Utilizing the UDL guideline of providing multiple means for action and expression, John Lee (Chair, of Chemistry & Geoscience) allowed his students to demonstrate the learning from their labs by providing "a rubric to guide what information they need to include in their reports, but beyond that let students choose different methods to present their lab results." Two examples of how the students chose to demonstrate knowledge are presented here:

1. "Bad Chemistry" (comic strip)

2. "The Life & Death of Sproinky: Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy" (TV show)

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Durham College, Ontario

Durham College in Oshawa has created a comprehensive webpage of UDL resources with hands-on materials ranging from developing checklists to lesson plans and course outlines. Two specific examples will illustrate the scaffolding which UDL offers:


  • Using the pillar of providing multiple means for action and expression, the professor in this Education Psychology course offers students a number of assessment options to demonstrate their learning.  Central to this approach is the idea that all students must demonstrate an understanding of the course learning outcome, regardless of the approach they take to completing the assignment.
  • There are some additional, downloadable examples of actual assignments posted on Durham College's UDL and  Assessment and Evaluation page demonstrating the various methods for students to respond, demonstrate, and express their learning.

Student Supports

  • Graphic organizers were developed for students by the Centre for Teaching and Learning to help them organize and understand and frame new information presented in class, a textbook, or other learning settings. The organizers are examples of 'pre-reading' or 'pre-activity exercises' as a means for providing multiple means for engagement and a method for developing student metacognitive skills. 

Active Learning at the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Queens University

In the CAST guideline on Representation, they note that learners "differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is being presented to them [so] providing options for representation is essential." The perception and comprehension of course material may also be enhanced through active learning, an approach that can be aligned with Action and Expression in the CAST guidelines.

In defining what active learning is, the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo quotes Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent's article Active Learning: An Introduction (2009) as "anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes (p.2)." Providing options for learning is at the core of active learning and is connected with the recognition networks of the brain and is based on cognitive neuroscience.  

Related Reading

Navigating the Acronyms

In "Models of Universal Design," the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) explains the differences among the acronyms listed below. For each one, a visual model is outlined to enhance your understanding of the models:

In Universal Design: Process, Principles, and ApplicationsSheryl Burgsthaler, Affiliate Professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington and founder of DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), explores the theoretical framework of Universal Design. Related Viewing: Watch McGill University's Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) video on Universal Design.

Centre for Teaching and Learning, Trent University, Peterborough

Former Senior Education Developer, Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe explains the differences between UID and UDL. 

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Related Resource

Accessible digital teaching tools that pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic are playing an increasingly important role in post-pandemic classrooms, both in person and online.

Published in August 2020 as part of the Geographies of Education course (GGRC50) by Professor Mark Hunter from the Department of Human Geography at UTSC, factors contributing to students leaving UTSC are examined through three interrelated lenses:

  1. Anti-Black Racism
  2. Institutional Failure
  3. Economic and Cultural Inequalities

The purpose of this question in this section is not to analyze the significance of these findings but to explore how these issues may be mitigated, in part, by shifting aspects of teaching and implementing some of the UDL checkpointsRelated Reading: *Learn More about the Geographies of Education course

Institutional Failure & Grade Inflation from Secondary School

In Case Study 4, Derek has poor work habits but managed to receive good grades in his graduating year of high school and was encouraged to and was accepted at UTSC. He would often forget about his classes, tutorials, and, sometimes, exams.  Unlike his experience of secondary school, Derek was not able to find shortcuts or options to ameliorate his academic issues at UTSCand he was placed on academic probation.

While not a panacea for Derek's challenges, the section provides options for skill development in the areas of executive functions and self-regulation. Derek likely needs assistance with being able to develop goal-setting and planning to obtain these goals.  This is, in part, related to the important habit of developing coping skills, and his metacognition in order to navigate some of the challenges he encountered on campus.  

Related Resources

Imposter Syndrome & Anti-Black Racism and Mental Health and Harassment

In the September 2018 issue of the University of Toronto Magazine, Graham Scott explains that it is "a common trait among high-achieving people: a belief that their successes are flukes, and that they will one day be unmasked as the frauds they feel themselves to be."

In the case of N.U., her sense of imposter syndrome was also compounded by being Black.  Her "long-standing feelings of inferiority and inadequacy" were compounded by the "underrepresentation of Black people among students, faculty, and administrators." N.U. also explained a negative encounter with a professor when she dropped by a professor's office, which further reinforced her feelings of being an imposter.

In a separate case, Chloe Silverado also articulated a negative encounter when attending a professor's office hours, leaving her with the feeling that she was not being supported.  In Chloe's case study, she describes two patronizing encounters she has with student-facing offices on campus and the toll it took on her mental health.

Two areas within the CAST/UDL framework address the following concerns.  Minimizing threats and distractions looks at the importance of creating safe spaces for learners and being mindful of the power differentials and intersecting identities that manifest in encounters between faculty, staff, and students.  

While it may seem that these approaches may appear to be a sharp departure from the typical model of teaching in the university, they are in alignment with the Executive Summary of the Campus Curriculum Review that prioritized "not only what we teach, but how we teach, and the learning environments and related supports and policies that students experience at UTSC" (p.11). 

Connect with Andria Lewis-Alexander, Black Student Engagement Coordinator in the Office of Student Experience & Wellbeing at UTSC. 
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Stereotype Threat & Interventions

Stereotype threat is not something specific to Black students and may affect several student populations, especially if we are taking an intersectional approach to understanding social identities. In Mindset and Stereotype Threat: Small Interventions That Make a Big Difference (2018), Marie K. Norman, PhD, and Michael Bridges, PhD, explain that this phenomenon "shows that students from groups stigmatized or stereotyped on the basis of social identity experience stress when asked to perform challenging tasks that converge know stereotypes" (para 5).

Norman and Bridges explain 4 interventions that can work to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat:

  1. Attribution interventions
  2. The malleability of intelligence interventions
  3. Affirmation interventions
  4. Belonging interventions 

There are two CAST -- and possibly more -- guidelines relating to the interventions listed. Checkpoint 9.2 explores how "judgments of 'natural' aptitude" may be questioned when students feel they are incapable of a certain task. Checkpoint 8.1 exists alongside intervention #3 and may work as a reminder of the goal and what is needed to achieve it. 

Related Resources

Resources to Understand and Support Student Retention and Success