Universal Design for Learning: A Powerful Framework for Today’s Classrooms

The modern education system, which emphasizes accommodating students from all walks of life, is fraught with difficulties. Individuals from marginalized groups have long struggled to gain the access, support, and respect they deserve. However, this is quickly changing — and innovative frameworks like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are to blame.

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UDL encourages us to rethink the tenets of ‘traditional’ learning and adopt a more inclusive and impactful approach, reflecting today’s awareness that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in education.

What Is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL is a valuable framework for teaching and learning that aims to remove barriers for a wide range of people. This approach is based on the architectural concept of Universal Design and draws on cognitive neuroscience (UD).

UD has transformed architecture and product design by focusing on principles such as equitable and intuitive use. When successful, UD makes a wide range of buildings and environments accessible to everyone, regardless of age, cognitive abilities, or mobility limitations. Its principles now promise to revitalize our schools.

When applied to education, UDL introduces more agility into the classroom environment by incorporating multiple modes of engagement and accommodations for all types of students.

Harvard’s David Rose (one of the UDL movement’s most visible and public figures) summarizes the framework’s philosophy as “tight goals, flexible means, as opposed to the tight goals and tight means that schools typically have.”

Why Is Universal Design Important?

According to a growing body of research, traditional classrooms and other learning environments have exacerbated learning difficulties for a diverse range of students. UDL aims to address this by ensuring that all learning experiences are designed with learners’ diverse needs in mind.

The central premise of this approach is that individual learners respond to virtually every aspect of instruction in a highly variable manner. As a result, many people are harmed by accessibility barriers that educational professionals may overlook. UDL highlights these issues and encourages active efforts to address and correct them.

Given the huge gaps in current learning outcomes — and the ongoing disparities that these gaps can produce in students’ careers and well-being — a concerted effort is required. If we do not close the achievement gap, another generation of students will be trapped in an endless cycle of inequality.

What Are the Three Principles of Universal Design for Learning?

UDL comprises three main principles that provide an inclusive and effective academic environment. These are outlined in detail in CAST’s official UDL Guidelines (initially known as the Center for Applied Special Technology).

Representation. According to UDL, no two students perceive or comprehend information similarly. As a result, information should be presented in various ways and formats, with the understanding that different approaches are compelling or accessible to foreign students.

Furthermore, the other representations assist students in making stronger connections between concepts.
Expression and action. Students differ significantly in how they express what they have learned or already know and show stark differences in comprehension. For example, some people excel at writing but struggle with speaking — or vice versa.

Others may require language accommodations as they learn new languages. Students should have numerous opportunities to share what they have learned in ways that are both accessible and compelling to them.

Engagement. When students are bored or disconnected, it isn’t easy to achieve positive learning outcomes. What motivates students will differ depending on their culture, background knowledge, and other factors. Some people enjoy routine, while others enjoy spontaneity. Some make great strides when working alone, but others benefit the most from collaboration.

How Does UDL Impact Student Learning?

While research on the long-term impact of UDL is limited, early indications suggest that this approach has already made a significant difference in classrooms across the country. More research will be available as “full-scale curricular applications and system-wide implementations are developed,” according to CAST.

At this point, a wide range of additional research supports the value of universal design for learning principles. CAST has gathered a collection of studies to back up the principles and specific checkpoints. UDL supporters believe that it meets students where they are rather than forcing them to adapt to a system that may be out of their reach.

How Does UDL Benefit Students and Teachers?

Students should enjoy learning, but this enthusiasm is often lacking in traditional classrooms. UDL aims to address this by creating learning environments that truly inspire joy and intrigue in students of all backgrounds. Every learner should find something appealing in the modern UDL classroom.

While the UDL’s value for students is evident, advocates believe this framework is also highly beneficial for today’s hardworking teachers. While one-size-fits-all approaches hampered teachers’ ability to reach diverse learners in the past, teachers now can tailor their strategy to the specific needs of each student and classroom.

Teachers, in particular, value the additional flexibility that UDL provides, and increased autonomy gives them more confidence in their work.

“Everyone is expected to question everything and contribute big ideas,” CAST research director Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann says of the value of respect and autonomy within the UDL framework. Everyone’s thinking is held to the same standard.”

When students’ needs can be met creatively, classroom management, in particular, becomes more inviting. Students are less likely to act out in this approach because each curated lesson and learning environment already meets their needs.

Embrace the Educational Opportunities of Tomorrow

Post University is pleased to offer a fantastic opportunity to investigate impactful options such as Universal Design for Learning. Our online Graduate Certificate in Learning Design and Technology provides a comprehensive overview of today’s most notable instructional design models and processes.

Furthermore, Post’s Master of Education program seeks to inform and expose students to educational practices, apply their learning to achieve successful outcomes for all students, and impact their field as professionals. Contact us today to learn more about Post University’s many excellent offerings.

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