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Universal Design for Learning

This section offers suggestions to help you meet the needs of a variety of diverse student learners through Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a pedagogical framework developed to enhance accessible learning and create more equitable opportunities for academic success. While accommodations processes in higher education are typically based on a medical model of individualized adaptations, UDL is informed by a social model of disability, which identifies and challenges ways in which the design of the learning environment itself can be disabling (Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006; Hills, Overend, Hildebrant, 2022). At the course level, UDL provides guidance for instructors to address barriers to learning by assuming variability among learners as “the rule.” As such, UDL promotes inclusive practices by multiplying the ways in which students access materials, engage with learning, and express skills and knowledge. (UDLonCampus, CAST). By taking a proactive approach, UDL strategies may work with or reduce the need for retrofitted individualized student accommodations.

UDL has been applied to diverse disciplines, course contexts, international cases, and can readily connect to goals and practices of other inclusive pedagogical approaches that consider a range of diverse social identities (Laist, Sheehan, and Brewer 2022; Shea Sanger 2020; Novak and Bracken 2019). Research on UDL implementation at the course level, shows that strategies can increase students’ sense of empowerment and enhanced success (Kumar and Wideman 2014).

If the learning experiences in higher education are “not designed to meet the needs of all students, without the need for adaptation, then our institutions, classrooms, our curriculum, and our teaching are disabling.” (Novak and Bracken 2019).

Developed by researchers at CAST, the UDL approach is not a checklist of strategies but has guiding principles that act as a “blueprint for creating instructional goals, assessments, and materials that work for the widest possible range of learners.” (UDLonCampus, CAST). The guiding principles of Universal Design for Learning suggest that instructors are firm with the learning goals but create flexibility for diverse learners through multiplying the paths to achievement. In implementing UDL, researchers suggest that faculty can try a “Plus One” approach, that provides one more way for a learning interaction to happen, rather than trying to adopt everything at once (Tobin and Behling 2018). Faculty are advised to start with where students ask the most questions, have the greatest challenges, or request the most support (Tobin 2021). In reviewing the guidelines below, instructors may recognize that they already implement some of the strategies in their own teaching approach and may find additional ways to develop their UDL practice.

The three guiding principles of the UDL framework are:  

1. Multiply the means of Engagement 

Engagement in a UDL framework is about creating multiple ways to connect with “The Why of Learning”, that is, enhancing how diverse students relate to the purpose of learning and sustain motivation in the course. Strategies include: 
  • Creating a welcoming environment by posting encouraging messages on MyLS throughout the term
  • Selecting materials and connect lessons with diverse cultural or career relevance for students
  • Offering students a choice of topics on readings, essays, or presentations
  • Providing students with a choice of assessment dates (complete 3 of 4 quizzes, tutorials, or reflections) 
  • Increasing opportunities for feedback cycles to encourage achievement 

2. Multiply the means of Representation  

Representation in the UDL framework involves increasing the ways to access the “The What of Learning”, that is, presenting the information or disciplinary content in a variety of formats.  The intention to ensure that all learners have equitable access to the same information. Strategies include:  
  • Selecting learning materials or create lessons with video, audio, or reading options 
  • Providing captioning on presentations (turn on captions in virtual settings or subtitles in in-person PowerPoint presentations)
  • Providing video, audio, or transcripts of lectures
  • Creating a Discussion Board, where students sign up for a week to share their class notes on MyLS 
  • Sharing slide decks in advance of class 

3. Multiply the means of Action and Expression

Action and Expression in a UDL framework refers to offering options for students to express “The How of Learning”, that is, designing assessments so that students can demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Strategies include: 
  • Providing students with a choice of live or recorded presentations
  • Providing students with a choice of assessment format, such as podcast, infographic or factsheet. 
  • Making extra time for completion of tests or assignments for all students, where time is not relevant to the learning outcome.
  • Offering students an opportunity to choose the number of people to express learning on an activity or assignment (alone, pair, or group)

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How Can I Apply Universal Design Principles to Make My Course Content More Meaningful for All Learners?

Including Information in Formats that Can Be Easily Adjusted by Students

Providing students with content in Word or PDF format allows them to adjust the size of the document to improve its legibility. Even when you have created a narrated PowerPoint recording, also providing students with a link to the original PowerPoint file means that they can change colours and font sizes in ways that support their learning or vision needs. Ensuring that images, charts, and graphs are high-resolution so that they don’t pixelate when blown up is also helpful.


Offer a Variety of Formats

Where possible, make an effort to provide your content to students in multiple formats so they can rely on the formats that work best for them. For instance, if you make a video for your course, ensuring that the video is captioned and is accompanied by a text transcript will allow students to engage with the content through a variety of means. Zoom can be leveraged to record asynchronous course material with automated transcripts and captions. Whether you’re delivering course content, providing a demonstration or technical instruction, or interviewing a guest speaker, anything you record can be quickly published to students in that course and be fully accessible with an automatic transcript and captions.

Microsoft introduced automated live captioning functionality to PowerPoint shows, which you can turn on while you’re lecturing synchronously to automatically live caption your classes. Look for the “Subtitle” options in the Slide Show settings, and find more information in this guide from Microsoft

To set up a Panopto space to use to record vidoes: Laurier instructors can record right in their browser and get their videos captioned and share with students using Panopto in MyLS. Look for access in your MyLS course or visit Laurier's SSO Panopto portal to get started. 

To set up a Zoom space to use to record vidoes: Schedule the meeting you’ll use to create the recording through the Zoom Meetings tab in MyLS, but make it a private meeting with no one in it so you can record on your own. You’ll be able to be seen, heard, share your screen, annotate content, and draw on the digital whiteboard and everything will be captured in the Zoom recording. When you’re finished recording, simply stop the recording and Zoom will start automatically transcribing your video. So long as your Recording settings in Zoom on the web are set to create “audio transcript”, everything you record in Zoom will be transcribed.

Include Multiple Ways to Access Information

If there are different opportunities for students to access the same information, providing multiple options reinforces what’s important and allows students to choose what works best for them. For instance, you might offer students an article, video, and infographic as different approaches to understanding the same concept.


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How Can I apply Universal Design Principles to Make My Assessment More Meaningful for All Learners?

Give Students Some Control Over the Format of their Work

We often default to particular assignment types in our classes and expect that all students will show what they know in the same way. Allowing students more options to show what they know allows them to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that works well for them. For instance, if the focus is to have students plan a process, allow them the flexibility to choose to write a paper, develop a presentation, make a video, create a poster, or design an infographic to deliver their process, so they can demonstrate what they know in a format that works for them. The fundamental focus on developing a process is the same, but students have choice in how they demonstrate it.


Give Students Some Control Over the Topic of their Work

When possible, allow students to choose how they focus their work to help them build a sense of ownership and increase their interest and engagement. If the focus of an assignment is on a particular kind of output (such as writing a report or creating a business plan), allowing students to choose a topic of interest for the report or a kind of business they might want to start one day can give them more control while still demonstrating that they can do the necessary work.


Give Students Some Control Over the Timing of their Work

When possible, allowing students to choose the timing of their work can help them to build effective plans around the timing of their various courses and develop skills around time management. If the focus of your assessment is a large project or piece of writing you could offer a few potential hand-in dates based on different content points through the term. With smaller pieces of work, like quizzes or discussion posts, you can use the strategy of “best 5-of-7,” for example, to build some flexibility for your students so that they can manage their course load around other commitments.

Use UDL Rubrics for Grading

Assignments that offer multiple ways of completing the work can be graded using UDL rubrics. These rubrics focus on assessment points that apply to a variety of assignments, such as:

  • The quality and innovativeness of the idea;
  • Clarity of expression or presentation;
  • Relevance to course concepts; and
  • Depth of evaluation or application.

This section was modified from Niagara College’s Centre for Academic Excellence, Design, Develop and Deliver: A Guide to Effective Online Teaching, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.

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  • CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from
  • CAST (n.d.) UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education.
  • Bracken, S., & Novak, K. (Eds.). (2019). Transforming Higher Education Through Universal Design for Learning: An International Perspective (1st ed.). Routledge.
  • Hills, M., Overend, A., & Hildebrandt, S. (2022). Faculty Perspectives on UDL: Exploring Bridges and Barriers for Broader Adoption in Higher Education. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(1).
  • Kumar, K. L. & M. Wideman. (2014). Accessible by Design: Applying UDL Principles in a First Year Undergraduate Course. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 44(1):125-147. http://DOI:10.47678/cjhe.v44i1.183704
  • Laist, R., Sheehan, D. & N. Brewer (2022) UDL University: Designing for Variability Across the Postsecondary Curriculum. CAST publishing.
  • Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 17. 
  • Shea Sanger, C. (2021). Inclusive Pedagogy and Universal Design: Approaches for Diverse Learning Environments. In C. Shea Sanger & N. W. Gleason (Eds.) Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education: Lessons from Across Asia. Springer Singapore Pte. Limited.
  • Tobin, T. (2021) UDL Plus-One. Youtube video. UDL plus-one - Thomas Tobin (
  • Tobin, Thomas J., and Kirsten T. Behling. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.

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