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The Case for Using Universal Design for Learning at Your Institution


Consideration of “equity” in higher education often suggests the idea of ​​helping students who need individual adjustments. This could be due to conditions such as physical differences, chronic illnesses, sensory impairments, learning differences or mental health issues, and while we are aware that a truly inclusive society would mean that institutions of Although higher education would not need disability support provisions, in practice university departments serving these students face many challenges. For these teams, who typically grapple with these myriad barriers during the design phase, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles can provide a framework for, as well as a catalyst toward, inclusive practice. .

What is UDL?

Based on the concept of Universal Design, the UDL is a framework that supports access and participation for all learners. Ron Mace, an architect, coined the term “universal design” as a way to “design all products and the built environment to be aesthetically pleasing and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age. , their abilities or their status in life”.

Likewise, UDL embeds broader structural changes in our learning processes and environments that are accessible to all, regardless of student needs or individual adjustments. UDL can lend itself very well to a variety of settings, from learners with disabilities to culturally diverse and international students. Most strategies that enhance learning for one type of learner also benefit others – for example, supplementing lectures with visual aids or captions helps students who are hard of hearing as well as those who are unfamiliar with the teacher’s accent or vocabulary.

Practical advice

One of the goals of UDL is to enable students to be more creative and develop resources and knowledge. Personalization is key here, and providing high-quality work examples can be a beneficial form of support for all students. Most importantly, provide examples of processes students can use to achieve these outcomes. Ask students to report their answers and the process they went through to arrive at those answers. Provide feedback on students’ strategy as well as the final product.

The UDL also promotes different modes of expression, which can be integrated through activities and teaching methods. Multisensory formats, which can be integrated into different types of courses, are good starting points. This includes lectures with visual material such as pictures, tables, charts or videos. Additionally, courses with interactive tools where students can provide feedback anonymously can improve student engagement. Additionally, small group or pair activities during class discussion can provide a safer space for students to discuss their understanding than whole class discussions, which reduces anxiety.

It can be helpful to give all students the opportunity to share important individual information without it being mandatory. This shows students that the university cares about their diverse backgrounds, which can help with student engagement. The usual model of disability support in higher education institutions may include individual learning support plans for students with disabilities. However, the UDL would propose to provide opportunities for all students to share information, not just students with disabilities. For example, create a self-service option for students to share anything they would like their professors or staff to know about their education, name, gender pronouns, learning needs, disability, and goals of learning.


In promoting and supporting UDL, there are countless challenges, especially since many equity and inclusion services tend to be viewed insularly and can, unfortunately, find themselves far from mainstream. key aspects of teaching and learning.

Ironically, the Equality Act (2010) can also cause problems for these teams. The law, a main driver of inclusive practice in the UK, states that universities must not discriminate against students with disabilities and requires universities to advance equal opportunities. However, traditional models of supporting students with disabilities in universities can be unintentionally ableist by separating students with disabilities from their peers physically and emotionally under the supposed service of providing for them.

Additionally, most institutions of higher learning place the onus on the person with a disability to self-identify and request reasonable academic adjustments. However, many students choose not to self-identify as disabled and therefore forgo reasonable individual adjustments that might have helped them navigate their school experience more easily.

Additionally, student populations have many intersecting barriers to traditional learning. For example, at Arden University, where I work, over 80% of our learners are mature students with many competing responsibilities. Other figures suggest the makeup is 55.9% BAME and 41% white, with students coming mainly from deprived areas.

So how can institutions meet these challenges?

Integrating UDL principles into programs

When the principles of the CUD framework – engagement (supporting students’ purpose and motivation to learn), representation (displaying information in a flexible format), and expression (enabling students to express their knowledge in meaningful ways for their own purposes ) – are built into the design phase of course development, the program or process is automatically shaped, from the outset, to meet the needs of as many learners as possible.

When these strategies and principles are put in place correctly, it ensures that the curriculum (course objectives, teaching materials and methods) is intentionally and systematically planned and designed to accommodate individual learning differences. The fundamental principle of UDL, which is to provide maximum utility, also means that practitioners should always seek to provide information in the broadest possible way. For example, learning materials and lessons should incorporate not only text, but also graphics, audio, and video (with captioning) resources.

Use non-traditional forms of assessment

Beyond the teaching process, schools can also implement UDL through assessment practices. Rather than relying on the crutch of traditional assessments such as essays and exams, alternatives such as oral presentations, photo essays, and web postings can provide different and often more inclusive means of engagement for students. , as well as multiple ways for them to show their understanding – all without removing meaningful end points from modules or compromising critical judgment of a student’s ability.

Move to a self-service orientation for students

As mentioned earlier, a problem for inclusion service teams can arise from individuals refusing to self-identify. However, one solution is to set up services to offer support for “disabling experiences” instead of “disabilities or impairments”.

For example, the UDL principles could guide institutions in implementing framed student support in ways such as: how to maintain focus when feeling anxious; motivation when you feel unable to move forward; or how to study with pain, both physical and emotional. Instead of focusing on identifying individual students who require individual adjustments, it is equally important to help these students develop self-advocacy, self-awareness, self-determination, self-esteem and executive functioning.

To start

One thing that institutions looking to implement the UDL principles might consider is creating a UDL working group. At Arden, we have found this to be an effective way to develop a framework of UDL across the institution. Therefore, when designing or revising processes as a team, we begin to consider the following:

1. What privileges do able-bodied students/staff have at the university?
2. What should they not be aware of?
3. What do they not have to think about in terms of attitudes, physical structures and social norms in an HEI learning environment?

We are just beginning our journey towards implementing UDL within our structures, but the process is definitely worth it and has allowed us to work across the university with many different teams sharing the goal. to design for everyone.

Jacqui Whittle is an Inclusion Advisor and Caroline Pike is Head of Inclusion Services at Arden University, UK.