Universal Design for Learning

by Emily Baxstrom
March 2018

Current trends in education have increased the commonality of creating an inclusive experience in the classroom—planning and designing experiences that provide effective learning opportunities for today’s diverse student body. These types of support and modifications enable different individuals to be successful in their learning environment. One framework faculty at Ohio University are increasingly using to create this inclusive curriculum is through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).


The overarching philosophy of UDL is to include individuals instead of excluding individuals. UDL provides a structure for designing curriculum to fit highly diverse learners; it minimizes barriers while maximizing learning for all students through three main pillars: affective networks (the why of learning), recognition networks (the what of learning), and strategic networks (the how of learning). These pillars emulate the three broad networks of the brain (recognition, skills and strategies, and caring and prioritizing). Learn more about the guidelines of UDL.

Carey Busch, acting dean of University College, has been highly involved with the use of UDL at OHIO. For her, the most important thing about UDL is that it is based in the science of learning, and it is meant to help scaffold the learning experience. “It is not specific to teaching people with disabilities,” she said. “UDL is, at the core, about good teaching practice. It doesn’t have to replace someone’s primary approach to teaching; it can really integrate with it.”

Audra Anjum and Larry Hess, instructional designers in the Office of Instructional Innovation, said UDL helps faculty meet students wherever they might be. “The UDL framework is a reminder to give students choices, so they can take control over their learning and make personal, purposeful decisions about how they learn best,” Anjum said.

“UDL is a nice tool to consider when designing courses because it provides explicit guidance with set principles that educational psychology research has deemed necessary to enhance learning experience,” Hess added. “By considering these principles in the learning design process, you can ensure you are maximizing the instructional opportunities for a broad audience.”

Screen shot image of example ALEKS home page
Photo courtesy www.cast.org. The three main pillars of UDL are based on the science of learning: affective, recognition, and strategic networks.


UDL emerged at Ohio University within the past few years as a result of the strategic plan for disability and inclusion. Busch was part of this initiative, which led to the creation of a workshop. Busch utilized an 1804 Grant to bring a representative from CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology)—a nonprofit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through UDL—to Athens for one intensive day of UDL training. After the training, attendees made adjustments to one of their courses using elements of UDL.

Attendees showed such interest in UDL that they formed a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) and met throughout the summer and following semester while they taught their newly-adjusted courses. Busch facilitated the FLC, which was composed of faculty from across Ohio University. Throughout the semester, the FLC met periodically to see what was and was not working, learning from and supporting each other throughout the process.

Click the cards below to see how some of these OHIO faculty have implemented UDL elements in their courses, and the effects they have seen from doing so.

Angela Hosek

Scripps College of Communication

The most important takeaway of UDL for me was about the need to support learning variability in students and how researchers studying UDL argue that everyone is on the spectrum, so it’s just a matter of where you fall. In essence, UDL proponents highlight the fact that we would be better served if we build ramps instead of stairs because everyone can use the ramp.

Thomas Stevenson

Patton College of Education

My whole job is to get students to be curious about the things they want to have passion about, and then encourage them to look for ways and find resources to help inform that.

Athan Vouzianas

Russ College of Engineering and Technology

To me, UDL became a lifestyle of teaching and learning. Being mindful of the different learning styles and tending to the different learning needs makes me a better teacher.


When first talking to students about giving them choice for how they learn, they may be hesitant and unsure of where to start. Hosek said when she first approached her capstone students about giving them agency in how they complete assignments, they were confused about what was being asked of them.

“The challenges are that students are not ready for that conversation on day one. Some of them look at you and say ‘just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,’” said Stevenson. “In the short amount of time that is a semester, I want to encourage students to be an avid participant in figuring out what their purpose and their goals might be in the industry.”

Many of today’s students do not come to college with a lot of life skills, which Stevenson attributes to the lack of UDL implementation in the pre-postsecondary educational systems. Students are used to simply checking assignments off their to-do list, but Stevenson stresses that someone won’t always be there to tell them what to do.

“As educators, we’re consistently looking for ways to be innovative in order to support learning for every student that’s in the classroom,” Stevenson said. “I want to know what the students are interested in and figure out how to get it to them. I want to figure out how I can encourage them to find it, because at the end of the day when they’re graduated, I’m not going to be standing there.”

Stevenson has seen a difference in his students that are exposed to UDL earlier on in their education—they are more informed, engaged, curious, and feel more understood. “At the end of the day, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said, “Those are the students that challenge us and ask ‘Can I do it this way? Can I think differently?’”


For OHIO faculty interested in learning more about UDL and making first steps to implement some of the framework in their own course(s), Busch recommends visiting the CAST website. “They do a great job of presenting UDL in a context that works in higher education, and not just K–12 where there is a more set curriculum,” she said. “They offer a lot of ideas.”

Hosek suggests seeking out grant funding to attend a training or workshop at the CAST Institute, or even partnering with another faculty member. “Contact your colleagues that have done this, go have coffee with them. Reach out to OHIO’s advocates for UDL—we don’t do these FLCs to keep the information in a vacuum,” she said.

Busch said when looking at UDL, it is easy for faculty to want to change everything all at once, but faculty should focus first on low-hanging fruit. “Look at one or two things you can change one semester and then slowly, over time, work in more UDL,” she said “We had instructors who did something as simple as changing the way they presented their syllabus, which students interpreted as them being much more approachable and interested in them as a student.”

“UDL is important because it offers the potential for students to reach a really deep understanding of the materials,” said Busch. “Just the ways in which students engage with it allows them to be more reflective and think more deeply about the topics.”

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit the OII home page for more information.

Literature Review

CAST Website

“Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice,” by Sheryl Burgstahler

“A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning,” by David Rose and Anne Meyer

Request Service

Office of Instructional Innovation

Carey Busch
Acting dean of University College

Angela Hosek
Assistant professor and public speaking course director
School of Communication Studies
Scripps College of Communication

Thomas Stevenson
Visiting assistant professor in restaurant, hotel and tourism
Department of Human and Consumer Sciences
Patton College of Education

Athan Vouzianas
Lecturer of engineering and technology fundamentals
Russ College of Engineering and Technology


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