A Brief History of Universal Design for Learning
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.
- Review Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario's Dialogues on Universal Design for Learning: Finding Common Ground and Key Recommendations from the Sector
- Watch the Universal Design for Learning Academy video explaining the 3 pillars of UDL
- Complete the "Design for Each and Every Learner: Universal Design for Learning Modules" developed by the TIES Center at the University of Minnesota
- Read "Faculty Perspectives on UDL: Exploring Bridges and Barriers for Broader Adoption in Higher Education" (2022) by Melissa Hills et al. in The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
- Read Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success (2020) by Andratesha Fritzgerald
Universal Design for Learning FAQs
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.
- View and listen to the "plus-one" approach, explained by Thomas Tobin (Video Length: 2:19)
- Construct and use the UDL DIY template as a tool for applying the "plus-one" approach
- Use the "UDL-anti-checklist" developed by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen's University to begin implementing UDL approaches in your classroom with the "plus-one" approach
- Read about three common "UDL Myths," in A Comprehensive Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning (2022)
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 email@example.com
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
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA): A Guide for Post Secondary Educators was developed as a collaborative project between 10 colleges and universities across Ontario featuring six modules to help educators understand and incorporate principles of UDL and EDI:
- 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:
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:
- Introduction to Universal Design in Higher Education
- Evidence-Based Practices from the Field
- 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.
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:
- 6.3: Managing Information & Resources (using index cards supporting the solidifying of content)
- 9.1: Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation (emphasizing the importance of understanding and developing strategies to minimize anxiety)
- 9.2: Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies (addressing subject-specific phobias with scaffolded models)
- 9.3: Develop self-assessment and reflection (providing resources for students to reflect on study strategies they have used and effective alternatives)
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)
- 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 Initiative, Evidence-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:
- Tutoring Practices in Large Classes (8.3: Foster collaboration and community)
- Active Learning Mathematics Class (9.3: Develop self-assessment and reflection)
- Active Learning with Worksheets (5.3: Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance)
- Two-Stage Mid-term Exam (8.3: Foster collaboration and community)
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)
Video Length: 7:44
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.
- 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.
- Active Learning at the University of Toronto
- Active Learning Activities (University of Waterloo)
- Examples of Active Learning Activities (Queens University)
- "Is Active Learning Accessible? Exploring the Process of Providing Accommodations to Students with Disabilities" (2020) by Logan E. Gin et al. in Life Sciences Education
- Active and Distance Learning in Neuroscience Education (2020) by Stefano Sandrone and Logan D. Schneider in Neuron
- "The Neuroscience of Active Learning" (2015) by Claire Hoogendoorn
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:
- UD: Universal Design Principles
- UID: Universal Instructional Design
- UDI: Universal Design of Instruction
In Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications, Sheryl 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.
Video Length: 5:23
- Read "Universal Instructional Design: Creating an Accessible Curriculum" (2004) by AccessAbility Services and Teaching and Learning Services at UTSC
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.
- 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course was developed by University of Washington Affiliate Professor and Universal Design and Accessibility advocate Sheryl Burgstahler. Related Viewing: 20 Tips for Instructors about Making Online Learning Courses Accessible [Video length: 17:49]
- Improving the Accessibility of Remote Higher Education: Lessons from the Pandemic and Recommendations (2020) was written by Jackie Pichette, Sarah Brumwell, and Jessica Rizk and published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Available as a download, the study's summary lists ten recommendations for improving accessible learning.
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:
- Anti-Black Racism
- Institutional Failure
- 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 checkpoints. Related 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.
- View the UDL Academy video on Self Regulation and Engagement.
- View the UDL Academy video on Executive Functions
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).
Video Length: 4:19
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:
- Attribution interventions
- The malleability of intelligence interventions
- Affirmation interventions
- 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.
- "Setting the Tone for an Inclusive Classroom: Some Practices to Consider" was developed by the University of Michigan to counteract stereotype threat, address our biases, and teach about privilege.
- "Embodied Stereotype Threat: Exploring Brain and Body Mechanisms Underlying Performance Impairments" (2011) by Wendy Berry Mendes and Jeremy Jamieson in Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application, edited by Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader
- Watch a conversation with Claude Steele, Provost at Stanford University on Stereotype Threat
Resources to Understand and Support Student Retention and Success
- Colour Matters: Essays on the Experiences, Education, and Pursuits of Black Youth (2021), by Carl E James
- Towards Race Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area (2017), by Dr. Carl James, the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC); and the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators (ONABSE).
- "When I Envisioned a Black Male Environmental Scientist, I Could Only See Myself…" (2020), by Austin Gray, SETAC (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry) Inclusive Diversity Committee Chair
- "Transforming the Classroom at Traditionally White Institutions to Make Black Lives Matter" (2018), by Frank Tuitt, Chayla Haynes, Saran Stewart in To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development