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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).

What is 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.”

Illustration of the three main pillars of UDL from www.cast.org
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  

headshot of Angela Hosek

Angela M. Hosek, assistant professor and COMS 1030 public speaking course director, attended the UDL training and participated in the FLC. She also received a grant to attend a training at a CAST Professional Learning Institute in Boston. Hosek has done a handful of things to incorporate UDL into her communication studies curriculum:

Utilizing online platforms (COMS 1030, Public Speaking)

Hosek moved all quizzes and readings for COMS 1030 to the online environment through the McGraw-Hill Connect platform, so students can self-direct learning aspects of the course material at their own pace. While readings are due by the week the class will engage with that content, quizzes are open all semester and are officially due at the end of the semester. Some students take the quizzes before class, while others may take the quizzes after class. Connect lets students see where they left off with the reading, provides practice questions, and guides them to revisit areas with which they are struggling. “I’m just glad the students are engaging with the material,” said Hosek. “I can see it happening because of the way the timing is set up.”

Incentivizing content mastery (COMS 4800, Capstone in Intergroup Communication)

Hosek’s goal for this course was a direct result of her exposure to UDL: to incentivize her students to read more and truly master the content while also giving them a choice of how they do so. If her students could effectively demonstrate their proficiency in the content, she reserved the right to reduce the amount of questions on their midterm and final exams. “If students can show me through the mastery that they know the definition of intergroup communication, I’m not going to ask them that on the exam,” said Hosek. “So maybe we won’t be doing a multiple-choice exam, maybe all we will do is a take-home essay. But they have to show me that they know this content and they are mastering it.”She compiled a list of multi-modal ways the students believed they could show they learned the content, and the students completed one item on that list per week. The catch was the students could not choose one modal more than once, so every week tapped into a different way of thinking. Modals included outlining the chapter; answering discussion questions; finding an article, YouTube piece, or Facebook post that related to the material and writing a commentary; and more. At the end of the week, all these assignments were combined into a PDF and posted on Blackboard (with student permission), so the students had everyone’s information when the time came to study. “The students internalized so much in that class,” said Hosek. “I had them do oral exams for their final and they were able to pull things to mind quickly and articulate them with depth and detail. The UDL principles made such a difference in this course.”

Thomas Stevenson 

Headshot of Thomas Stevenson

Thomas Stevenson, visiting assistant professor, has been practicing UDL concepts for some time without even knowing he was doing so. He also participated in the FLC, which helped give him the formal framework for his strategies. “I think people who are interested in supporting and providing access for all learners, making things better for them, are operating under a UDL promise but they may not even know it,” he said. Stevenson incorporates a variety of UDL concepts into his courses related to the hospitality industry:

Using multiple means of expression

Stevenson consciously looks for ways to use multiple means of expression for his students—different ways they can show they learned what he is teaching. “I had always been less stringent to say, for instance, the only way I can determine if students learn is through tests or finals,” he said.” “I think there are other ways to assess whether or not students have learned what you’re trying to have them absorb.”

Giving students agency

Stevenson has seen an increase in his students’ learning when implementing other UDL concepts, such as packaging his syllabi more visually. He also removed the timing from exams. “It was more important for me whether students could share what they learned, rather than whether or not they could recite the information in ten minutes,” he said. Furthermore, he added an option on assignments for students to decide if they want to either create a project, give a presentation, or write a paper to show what they learned.

For example, a student in one of Stevenson’s classes was deathly afraid of the kitchen. The food component of this course would not have necessarily allowed her to be successful in the industry she was interested in, so Stevenson allowed her to do additional writings to show she understood the information in the class, instead of pressuring her to actively participate in cooking.

“My approach with her was ‘Okay, you are not going to be a chef, you don’t want to be a chef, so what is the best way you can share with me that you understand this information?’” he said. The student chose writings because that is what made her comfortable and worked for her. She ended up winning the top chef competition that semester, designing and creating the international menus Stevenson used in that course the following semester, and she is now going on to get her master’s degree.“I asked my students for reflections based on their learning experience in my courses and the outcome was dynamic,” said Stevenson. “All of them stated that they felt they were listened to more, they felt like they had an opportunity to share at a deeper level, that the experience taught them much more than what was just in the textbook, and that they learned more from their colleagues in the class.”

Athan Vouzianas 

headshot of Athan Vouzianas

Athan Vouzianas, lecturer of engineering and technology fundamentals, has been practicing UDL for years without the awareness he was doing so. After attending the FLC, Vouzianas became mindful of UDL in all his new experiences. “UDL made me aware of teaching skills that I already had, helped me organize my curriculum, and gave me ideas and tools to use,” he said. “I feel more enabled to teach better.”

Enhancing verbal descriptions

Vouzianas first became mindful of inclusive teaching eight years ago when he had a visually impaired student in mathematics. At the start, Vouzianas felt intimidated by the challenge of communicating geometric shapes with this learner, but he simply began being more verbally descriptive in his class presentations. “Instead of just throwing a shape on the board, I started describing it in words,” said Vouzianas. “I found this was impactful not only to my visually impaired student, but also to the rest of my students.”

Increasing the efficacy of the syllabus

After participating in the FLC, Vouzianas adjusted the syllabus for all his courses to make them more meaningful, utilizing UDL principles. “It may sound like a small thing, but I enhanced my syllabus with visuals and time lines,” he said. The time lines are set up in a table so students can see assignments and readings for the entire semester, as well as exams and reminders. After implementing these changes, a student told Vouzianas that the new syllabus made him want to read it.

Vouzianas also previously used colors in his syllabus and class lectures to distinguish levels of importance. It was brought to his attention that the colors used were difficult to see for one of his students. He then made adjustments so the syllabus was enhanced by the colors and did not solely rely on them. All his students were able to utilize it.

Visual/digital components

Vouzianas utilizes the online environment for his face-to-face courses. This allows him to assign daily activities to his students in a different delivery method, such as visual problem-solving and videos. Vouzianas also requires students to use Slack for questions about their work—they can post visuals related to their questions and the students can help each other with their challenges. “Sometimes I find that students can better explain problems to each other than I can,” he said.

Challenges when incorporating UDL

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?’”

Interested in UDL?

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.