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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in Any Class

Author: Susan Aplin - School District 5 of Lexington Richland County


Ever since I became an instructional technology coach, I have loved helping teachers integrate technology into their lessons and learning. But in the early years of this work, one of the issues I faced was helping teachers focus on the “why” behind using technology. We also struggled with equity and effectiveness of technology usage. I knew there had to be more out there, so I started researching. In my research, I learned about SAMR, TPACK, AZ Technology Integration Matrix and the ISTE Standards as ways to frame and inform our technology use.

But through this research, I also discovered Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and I was hooked! Like so many educators, I am passionate about making sure all students have access to a quality education. In the last two years, I have chosen to take a deeper dive into UDL to see how it can help our teachers reach all students. I’ve read books and articles, attended webinars, and recently written and taught a graduate class on UDL for educators in our district.

I believe UDL is something that can help all teachers and students if we understand what it is and what it looks like in the classroom.

What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing instructional materials, activities, and environments that enable all students to engage and participate in the learning process, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. UDL is based on the principles of accessibility, flexibility, and diversity, and aims to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students. (ChatGPT, Mar 2023*)

The UDL framework is divided into 3 main areas:

  • Engagement: the why of learning

  • Representation: the what of learning

  • Action & Expression: the how of learning

In each area there are specific guidelines and checkpoints that allow students to have various educational opportunities.

This spring, I am using the book UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms by Katie Novak as the textbook for our UDL course. I highly recommend it to educators who want to learn more about UDL. In UDL Now!, Novak lists the following three core beliefs of UDL:

  • “Variability is the rule, not the exception. Learners may need to learn in different ways, using different materials, to reach the same goals.”

  • “All students can work toward the same firm goals and grade-level standards when provided with conditions of nurture and adequate support.”

  • “All learners can become expert learners if barriers are removed”. (p.22)

UDL focuses on developing students as Expert Learners who are:

  • Purposeful & Motivated (Engagement)

  • Resourceful & Knowledgeable (Representation)

  • Strategic & Goal-Oriented (Action & Expression)

Students will not know how to do everything, but we need to help them empower themselves as learners. An important part of that is removing barriers and recruiting students as partners in their learning.

When I want to use the UDL guidelines, I find these three questions from UDL Now! helpful:

  • “What is it that all learners need to know or be able to do?”

  • “Based on variability, what barriers may prevent students from learning?”

  • “How do I design flexible pathways for all learners to learn and share what they know?” (p. 26)

By asking these questions, and reviewing the core beliefs and guidelines, teachers can bring the UDL framework into their classrooms so that all students will benefit.


What Does UDL Look Like in our K-12 Classrooms?

In the K-12 education system, UDL can be applied in all grade levels and content areas to ensure that every student has access to the same high-quality educational experiences and opportunities to succeed. By applying UDL principles in the classroom, teachers can create learning environments that meet the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities, those who are culturally and linguistically diverse, and those who are gifted and talented. (ChatGPT, Mar 2023*)

Multiple Means of Engagement means that teachers provide students with opportunities to actively participate in the learning process and engage with the material in meaningful ways. By providing multiple means of engagement, the teacher ensures that all students have the opportunity to participate and learn in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them. (ChatGPT, Mar 2023*)

  • Math class example: a teacher provides students with a problem-based learning activity where they work in small groups to solve real-world math problems. A teacher provides students with manipulatives and real-world examples to help them understand mathematical concepts.

  • Social Studies class example: a teacher uses NewsELA (or other resource) to provide students with multiple ways to access the same text (in the example below, an article about Rosa Parks). NewsELA allows for various ways to access the material: the lexile level can be changed, students can have the article read aloud, the article can be read online or printed.

  • General example: teachers encourage students to set learning goals that align with course standards and to frequently reflect on their learning. In the example below, the teacher uses a template from and students may respond with text, audio and/or video.

Multiple Means of Representation means that teachers provide students with information in different ways, such as through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities. By providing multiple means of representation, the teacher ensures that all students have access to the information and can learn in a way that works best for them. (ChatGPT, Mar 2023*)

  • Science class example: a teacher provides students with a visual diagram of a cell, a recording of a lecture about cell structure, and a hands-on activity where students create their own model of a cell.

  • Social Studies class example: instead of having all students read one specific article to learn about a topic, the teacher provides multiple written, oral, and video options. Students select the options that work best for them. In the 8th grade example below, the teacher gathered resources so that the students would have reputable sources to begin with. The students also have the options of gathering additional resources as appropriate.

  • General example: a teacher chooses online resources that have Immersive Reader (to read texts aloud) and Closed Captioning embedded. These tools can help students who may need them (IEP, MLL, auditory issues, etc.), but can also help students who may prefer to learn with those tools.

Multiple Means of Action & Expression means that teachers provide students with multiple ways to demonstrate their learning and knowledge. By providing multiple means of action & expression, the teacher allows students to showcase their knowledge and skills in a way that is meaningful and authentic to them. (ChatGPT, Mar 2023*)

  • Science class example: to demonstrate their understanding of the cell cycle and mitosis, a teacher provides students with options for how to show what they know. In the high school biology class example below, students can create a map, brochure, son, book, story, essay or board game. Students have their choice of format. The teacher shares a rubric ahead of time so that students know how their creation will be evaluated.

  • General example: students need to create a multimedia presentation for a class, but the teacher allows the students to choose which technology tools they’ll use to create the presentation instead of requiring them all to use one specific tool. Some students create videos with Adobe Spark or Screencastify, some create infographics with Canva and some create presentation slides in Google Slides or Prezi.

  • General example: a teacher encourages students to self-reflect and create their own action plan and timeline for completing a project.

  • English class example: after reading a short story, a teacher gives students a choice board of activities. Some of the choices require writing, some require using images and writing, some allow students to use voice to text to create their answers. In the example below from Kate Mewborne at Dutch Fork High School, each student completes their work inside a Google Slide deck template, but has choice in which options to choose and how to complete them as long as they are meeting the associated standards.

Where to Start?

I hope that the examples above give you some ideas on where you might want to start or grow your implementation of the UDL guidelines. As you can see, providing and encouraging student choice is important. Student choice is a great way to start implementing UDL. Ask yourself, did my students have a choice in their learning at any point in this lesson? You can read more about choice in my fall blog post: One Size Does Not Fit All: How to Honor Learner Choice

I wish you luck on your UDL journey. I hope you’ll share your journey with others in your building and beyond. We have so much we can learn from each other.

Want to learn more about UDL? Here are some essential resources:

Here are some additional resources and examples I find helpful::

* Author’s note: As you can see from the text above, I used ChatGPT to help me write some of the definitions for this post (sections in italics). It’s exciting to explore how this AI can help us with various types of writing. It is important to learn how to use this and other AI tools with discernment.

About the Author:

Susan Aplin is a Google Certified Trainer and ISTE Certified Educator who serves as the district Instructional Technology Specialist for School District 5 of Lexington Richland County. Her goal is to support and lead educators in authentic technology integration that helps teachers and students meet instructional goals. Connect with Susan @AplinEDU.




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