Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning is a model for teaching that centers the needs of students with disabilities, with the goal of creating a learning environment that is accessible by all students without modification. This module offers resources and specific strategies for educators to investigate course content and structure to illuminate invisible barriers to learning. 

Applying universal design principles to instruction is a proactive approach that involves course revisions before engaging in the classroom with students. These modifications will not replace the formal academic accommodations process, but they will help to create a flexible and inclusive classroom and may significantly reduce the number of requests for adjustments during the course. With this in mind, we invite you to explore the resources on this page and incorporate many of the suggested approaches into your teaching practices. 

This article covers: 


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Eliminating unnecessary hurdles in the learning process.

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Supporting all students in becoming strategic and knowledgeable expert learners.

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Allowing students to engage with course materials in ways that most benefits them

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Expanding students' competencies and improving their skills.

What is Universal Design?

The term “Universal Design” was introduced by Ronald Mace, an architect who contracted polio in early childhood. Mace spent his life in a wheelchair and experienced many physical barriers on the North Carolina State campus where he received his undergraduate degree. After graduating, he began to work on designing all products and physical structures to be “aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.” Researchers at North Carolina State created these seven universal design principles (The Center for Universal Design): 

  • Equitable use:  useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities 
  • Flexibility in use:  accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities 
  • Simple and intuitive use:  easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level 
  • Perceptible information:  communicates necessary information regardless of ambient conditions and user’s sensory abilities 
  • Tolerance for error:  minimizes hazards and adverse consequences of unintended actions 
  • Low Physical effort:  can be used efficiently and comfortably, with minimum fatigue 
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use:  appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) expands the concept of universe design beyond physical spaces. It is a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners by dismantling participation barriers and centering learner viability in curriculum development.  

The Center for Applied Science and Technology (CAST), a non-profit educational research and development organization, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1994 and developed guidelines and principles for UDL (Rose, p. 136). Faculty can create goals that promote high expectations for all learners, use flexible methods and materials, and accurately assess student progress by implementing these three principles developed by CAST: 


  • 3 arrows of different color and direction pointing to a book

    Provide multiple means of representation to give students various ways of acquiring, processing, and integrating information and knowledge. For example, using PowerPoint as a visual supplement to your lecture and designating one student to take notes/represent material covered in lecture and share with the class. 


  • Phone, speech bubble and a book

    Provide multiple means of action and expression to provide students with options for navigating and demonstrating learning. For example, providing students options to demonstrate what they have learned such as essays, poster boards, video recordings, audio recordings, prearranged phone call to instructor, walk and talks, etc. 

  • 3 students raising their hands

    Provide multiple means of engagement to tap individual learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn. For example, engaging students in both group work activities and individual work, as opposed to engaging students only in individual work.

Is there a way to increase access without negating the presence of disability? In a sense, this is what Universal Design does – it allows us to claim disability as we limit the normalizing and segregating effects of cultural geographies. For Universal Design to be truly successful, it must do so without claiming to erase embodied difference.
Jay Domage, “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education”
campus in spring

Teaching Tools

Course Design Strategies

To explore how to implement the seven principles of Universal Design, plus two additional principles focused on teaching (Scott et al, p. 44), a list of course design strategies along with specific classroom practices are offered below (Osei-Kofi et al, p. 69).  These are not exhaustive lists, but rather a starting point to get the ideas flowing.

  • Equitable use
    • Turn on captioning for all in-class and recorded videos 
    • Post lecture slides one day in advance for students to review and access during class 
    • Check to make sure that course software is compatible with assistive technology such as a screen reader 
  • Flexibility in use
    • Introduce various methods (audio, video, written) of submitting assessments 
    • Allow students to choose between working in groups or by themselves 
    • Present course information in at least two formats for full access
  • Simple and intuitive use
    • Organize your syllabus without bolding or graphics or color 
    • Make your Canvas course easy to navigate (perhaps ask a colleague to review!) 
    • Provide rubrics and examples of submitted work
  • Tolerance for error
    • Allow students to do corrections on quizzes, exams or papers 
    • Give credit for multiple drafts of a paper 
    • Flexibility in attendance requirements, allowing students to miss class and submit work for credit
  • Low physical effort
    • Interrogate the layout of the classroom to allow easy access to all spaces
    • Consider physical access during activities like field trips 
    • Ask a student to review your course materials to determine if navigation is smooth
  • Size and space for approach and use
    • If you use a laboratory space, make sure that the tables and safety equipment will be accessible to any students with physical disabilities 
    • If you use a computer lab for group activities, make sure that it is physically accessible
  • A community of learners
    • Add roles and responsibilities to group work. Invite students to have a conversation about learning needs on their team
    • Use pair share activities in class to do check-ins and allow students to create relationships with each other
    • Include a statement on a syllabus that invites students to meet with the instructor to discuss learning needs
  • Instructional climate
    • Provide multiple ways to communicate with you (email, office hours, surveys) 
    • Include images and examples of people with diversity in body size and ability in your content
    • Set up opportunities for frequent feedback from students regarding access to your course content and activities

Classroom Practices

  • person raising hand icon

    Students may miss in-class discussions due to health issues, both physical and mental. Faculty can implement the equitable use principle by shifting from an attendance requirement to a “course engagement” requirement. For example, an online discussion board can be open for a week, and students can add ideas at any point and allow for their thoughts to be included even if they miss class (Osei-Kofi et al, p 69).

  • handshake icon

    Note-taking in class is a common accommodation request, and faculty can apply the principle of flexible use by asking students in the class to submit their class notes to be displayed in the course material. Five or six students can be assigned to this duty for each class period, which will represent several different representations of the course content. Added benefits include increased engagement by all students and a collaborative approach to learning together (Rose, p. 141). 

  • book icon

    Many students with disabilities are spending more time and energy navigating course materials, and faculty can apply the simple and intuitive use principle by adding a glossary into the course syllabus. Many course terms and concepts can be defined at the outset of learning to reduce any potential confusion.

  • lightbulb icon

    If students don’t feel comfortable raising their hands to participate, faculty can engage the principle of tolerance of error by asking students to write down their comments or questions on a note card to be read anonymously by the professor. Students can also fill out these note cards between classes, allowing for deeper thought and less anxiety during learning (Domage, p. 120). 

  • crowd of people icon

    Some students with disabilities do not have access to the formal accommodations process and appreciate the opportunity to ask for their access needs to be addressed. Faculty can engage with the instructional climate principle by sending out a course accessibility survey at the beginning of the semester. Compiling and sharing anonymized results from the survey along with responsive shifts in course structure will help to create a community approach to supporting these needs.

student wearing backback walking through halway with floor to ceiling windows. A beautiful sunny green campus outside

Supportive Resources


Recommended Articles and Guides

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA)

When UD principles are applied in a postsecondary institution, educational products and environments meet
the needs of potential students with a wide variety of characteristics... 

Link to Guide
student study session

Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education

Reflections on Principles and their Application. Universal design, although well established in architecture and other domains, is relatively new to K-12 education and even newer to higher education... 

Link to Article
  • References

    Burgstahler, S. E., & Cory, R. C. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Harvard Education Press. 

    Burgstahler, S. (2013). Websites, Publications, and Videos. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. 

    Domage, J.T. (2017) Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press.

    Osei-Kofi, N., Boovy, B. & Furman, K. (2021) Transformative Approaches to Social Justice Education: Equity and Access in the College Classroom. Taylor and Francis.

    Rose, D.H. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19 (2). 135‐151.