Universal Design for Learning:
What it Is, Why Students with LD Need it and
How to Make it Happen
This Talk has concluded.
Please scroll down to the bottom of this page to view the questions that were asked and to view our expert's answers.
Almost three million students in America’s schools receive special education services because of an identified learning disability (LD). For these students, learning in today’s environment is daunting, even when provided with specialized instruction, accommodations, and assistive technology.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a new approach to teaching and learning that can reduce learning challenges, for all students, not only for those with LD. By making broad changes to how information is presented to all students and the ways in which all students are able to show what they know, the horizons for students with LD will be expanded from a "student deficit" approach to a "student success" approach.
Join Patti Ralabate, Ed.D., Senior Policy Analyst for Special Education at the National Education Association, as she answers your questions about UDL and highlights how parents and teacher can work together to support its implementation in a school or classroom.
If you have any experience with UDL please share that with us and also submit your questions.
Read more about Patricia Kelly Ralabate
Thanks for this important question! Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is all about "how" we define goals, teaching methods, instructional materials and assessments. Using UDL principles allows us to embed flexibility into all aspects of instruction from the beginning, rather than trying to retro-fit a rigid curriculum, set of instructional materials, or test for each student who happens to learn a different way.
To implement UDL well, we start at the beginning – as the curriculum is being defined by the state or school board, and as the textbook companies are developing their books and supplementary materials, and as the teacher is designing his or her lesson plan – using UDL principles as our guide.
Several quick videos explaining UDL and how it is implemented are available at the Cast UDL Lesson Builder Web site.
Unfortunately, the answer to your question right now is no. Some schools of education are including UDL in their classes as they prepare new teachers, but many aren't. Since UDL is a relatively new concept, it will take some time for teacher preparation programs to catch up.
The new provisions of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, recently passed by Congress should help. This law calls on teacher preparation programs to better integrate technology into their curricula and instruction consistent with the principles of UDL. In addition, in order to apply for grants for undergraduate teacher preparation programs, colleges and universities will need to demonstrate how they will increase the percentage of teachers who are prepared to use technology effectively and consistent with the principles of UDL, particularly if they are teaching in high-need schools. There are also grants to change how colleges teach technology, including UDL, to teacher candidates and a requirement that the State must include how teacher candidates are learning about UDL on its state report card.
This is a perfect opportunity to model UDL principles in an inclusive classroom. Working together with the general education teacher(s), you can help to design lesson plans that incorporate the principles of UDL:
- Multiple means of presentation;
- Multiple means of engagement, and
- Multiple means of expression.
Together, you could start by jointly using one or more of the goal setting or lesson planning tools available from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology (a national center focused on expanding learning opportunities for all students by promoting the use of UDL principles).
UDL can be used for students at all ages, including the college or post-secondary level. In fact, there are some excellent resources available to college faculty now on the web:
- An ERIC paper that specifically addresses how UDL applies to teaching college students with learning disabilities is "Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities" (2001) by Shaw, Scott and McGuire.
- Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability located at the University of Connecticut has a special site for college faculty called FacultyWare.
- Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) has resources on its web site for college faculty.
- "Best Practices through Universal Design for Learning" is a great video about UDL and work that Colorado State University is doing.
While Assistive Technology (AT), such as screen readers, are valuable tools to assist students with disabilities in overcoming barriers that exist in the learning environment, UDL helps us from the beginning to design learning environments that do not contain barriers.
Using UDL principles doesn't eliminate the need for AT, such as communication devices or aids, for some students. In fact, UDL and AT really complement each other. General classroom teachers can become much more familiar with AT as they work with the AT specialist and special education teachers to develop universally designed curriculum and lesson plans.
For example, if an assistive technology such as text-to-speech (which speaks and highlights text within a document), is built into a universally-designed lesson as one of the multiple ways of presenting information, those students with disabilities who need it to be able to read work side-by-side with other students who may not be disabled but can benefit from the added support.
For more information about appropriate uses of Assistive Technology, you may want to read "Assistive Technology (AT): Making Good Decisions" by NCLD's Director of Professional Services, Dr. Sheldon Horowitz..
Great question! Often, people think that UDL can only be used in a high tech classroom. In reality, UDL can be applied in both low tech and high tech ways. A low tech example might be the use of pictorial or graphic organizers on large charts in the classroom. A high tech example could be the use of electronic versions of textbooks that can be easily modified, translated or organized in a simpler format.
It might be quicker to start with low tech options because many teachers are probably using some of these already. They may not realize that these teaching tools actually are examples of a UDL approach.
You could establish a teacher-led learning circle or professional development group at your school or district and work through the free on-line professional development modules together. Several are available on the "Teaching Every Student " section of the CAST Web site.
You might also want to ask your principal or the district’s professional development coordinator to schedule professional development sessions on UDL. One source of an overview on UDL is available from the National Education Association, if you work through your local and state association to make the request for a presentation from the NEA IDEA Special Education Resource Cadre.
One potential resource is the ToolKit on Teaching and Assessing Students With Disabilities from the US. Department of Education.
Another great question! Differentiated instruction and UDL are often compared and confused with each other. They have many similar concepts and practices. UDL is a research-based approach that addresses learner diversity at the beginning of the design or planning effort. Using UDL to design academic goals and curriculum has the potential to dramatically change how we teach, how students engage in learning, and how we measure what students learn. Its purpose is to build-in from the beginning as much flexibility as possible – to eliminate barriers for all students in curriculum design, to provide immediate access to resources that meet all instructional needs, and to allow students to take charge of their engagement in learning.
Similarly, differentiated instruction is a process for designing instruction that tries to meet each student where he or she is and then modify or adapt the standard curriculum or instructional materials and provide needed learning assistance. In many ways, designing differentiated curriculum and teaching strategies helps students to overcome barriers that already exist in the standard curriculum or teaching materials.
UDL and Differentiated Instruction really complement each other. The CAST brief, Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation, helps to explain these two approaches and gives many good examples of how they complement each other.
When implemented together in a school or district, Response to Intervention (RTI) and a UDL approach can improve outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities.
There isn’t enough time to review RTI in depth here. However, a brief explanation is that RTI is a framework for looking at student performance and making decisions about when and how to provide more intensive instruction for students who are experiencing academic or behavioral difficulties.
Both RTI and UDL recognize that barriers exist within the traditional curriculum and instructional practices that make it difficult for some students to learn and be successful. This may not mean that those students who are having difficulty are necessarily disabled. It may mean that the curriculum, instructional materials, or teaching strategies are not flexible enough to meet their needs. In other words, both RTI and UDL view a "one size fits all" approach as ineffective because it is inflexible and does not meet the needs of all students.
Also, RTI and UDL view student assessment as something that informs instruction, is on-going, and meaningful. Both RTI and UDL encourage the use of curriculum-based measurement to inform instruction and guide decision-making regarding appropriate instruction and intervention.
For a more in-depth discussion of RTI, go to the RTI Action Network Web site or read the LD Online article, "Response-to-Instruction and Universal Design for Learning: How Might They Intersect in the General Education Classroom?" that describes RTI and UDL.
Retro-fitting the curriculum, instructional strategies, materials, and the classroom environment take precious time away from instruction. Frankly, once teachers realize that retro-fitting by adapting materials takes much more of their time than planning from the beginning with a UDL approach, they are genuinely intrigued by UDL.
Some other ways that you can influence the use of UDL without actually co-teaching include:
- Modeling UDL principles in your own teaching;
- Providing easy weekly "tips" and suggested websites for your colleagues on the school web page or by leaving them on the table in the teachers’ room or on the bulletin board;
- Advocating for those curricula and instructional resources that are developed using a UDL approach while serving on school or district textbook or curriculum committees, and
- Sending information about UDL to administrators, the school board and in your messages to parents.
"Specialized instruction" is how special education is defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Specialized instruction is based on the individual strengths and needs of specific students who have been identified as disabled and needing special education.
Only a small percentage of students are eligible for and receive special education (less than 12-14% in most districts and states). UDL, on the other hand, allows educators to provide access to appropriate curriculum and instruction to all students. It is not a special education service or program.
However, using UDL principles can provide a more accessible learning environment for students with disabilities. You might want to view this introductory video explaining UDL that was developed by the Ohio State University for Faculty and Administrator Modules in Higher Education (FAME) Project – a project aimed at creating accessible higher education for students with disabilities.
The good news is that teachers all over the country are becoming more familiar with UDL; but it certainly isn't a concept that most teachers are comfortable with right now. Also, curriculum and instructional materials are still being developed without using UDL concepts. So, this will take time.
If parents like you begin to advocate at the school and district level for professional development on UDL, and if parents and others start to ask questions of administrators, school board members, and classroom teachers about how to increase the use of UDL in your school or district, change can happen a lot faster.
First, congratulations on submitting this question and being involved in this on-line chat. Becoming knowledgeable about UDL is an important first step. Learn as much as you can. Then, find out which teachers in your school know about UDL. Does the principal know what it is? Ask your PTA or PTO representative at your school to sponsor a presentation on UDL for parents. Talk to your local school board members about it. Do they know what it is? Are they willing to fund professional development and other resources to help teachers learn about it?
The NCLD's Parent Advocacy Brief, A Parent's Guide to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has several additional suggestions for how you can promote UDL in your school or district. You may also want to listen to NCLD's recent Universal Design for Learning Podcast featuring Skip Stahl from the Center for Applied Special Technology.
1. Are there plans for certification or certificating trainers/teachers about UDL?
2. Are there any evaluative tools you can recommend for assessing UDL? I've been using a modified version of the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Iniative (WATI)form. Thanks.
First, I don’t know of any effort to certify teachers as UDL trainers or users. However, the new reauthorized Higher Education Opportunity Act does call on states to measure and report on how many teachers understand UDL as part of the requirements in the state’s report card. What gets measured usually gets done.
Second, CAST developed and published the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines which can be used in a broad way to assess components of UDL. (A one page description is available at this site).
The CAST Curriculum Self-Check may also be useful to you. It’s an on-line resource but you need to establish a username and password to get into it. It’s available at .
UDL is applicable and beneficial for all students, no matter what grade level or school environment. That's one of UDL's greatest assets – it works for the broadest population of students and no one needs to "qualify" or "be eligible" to benefit from it!
For those students who do qualify as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, those protections extend to college students or students participating in post-secondary tech programs. Using UDL in post-secondary schools will actually make the instruction accessible to students with disabilities, as well as other students.
There are also specific provisions of the newly reauthorized Higher Education Opportunity Act that aim to increase the use of UDL in post-secondary schools. For example,
- There will be demonstration projects for students with disabilities who are attending college or post-secondary school (Title VII, Part D, Sec. 760-765), and
- An advisory commission on accessible instruction in post-secondary schools that is charged with encouraging the use of UDL for students with disabilities (Title VII, Part D, Subpart 3, Sec 771-772).
Because UDL principles provide for flexibility in how lessons are presented (i.e., multiple presentations), how students engage in learning (i.e., multiple engagement opportunities), and how students express or show what they have learned (i.e., multiple expression), UDL can transform high school teaching and learning. Instruction becomes more than just a lecture or small group discussion.
Using a UDL approach can encourage "interdisciplinary" projects that are very engaging for high school students. UDL allows for integration of the various subjects, connecting important concepts and tapping into student interests and skills, challenging them, and motivating them. Connected learning – integrated learning – is remembered. CAST presents several case stories that focus on student learning at the high school level.
And, there are actually some video examples of high school student projects on YouTube that illustrate this point. This video is an example of a geometry lesson.
Absolutely! Since virtual schools are digital to begin with, providing flexibility can be imbedded in the technology. Using the internet for homeschooling makes it possible to provide links to video, case stories, and on-line demonstrations. Technology is a bedrock for universally designed curriculum and instructional resources.
Yes. CAST is working with several schools and districts across the country. In particular, the project in Kentucky includes over 100 middle schools. Visit the Kentucky Department of Education's "Pathway to Achievement: Universal Design for Learning (UDL)" to learn more about that project and their success.
Yes, CAST is working with a number of states to help them with implementing UDL as a state initiative. Kentucky, Indiana and Louisiana are three states that have statewide UDL initiatives.
- The Kentucky Department of Education's "Pathway to Achievement: Universal Design for Learning; (UDL)";
- Indiana initiative is "Promoting Achievement through Technology and INstruction for All Students" (PATINS Project), and,
- The Louisiana initiative, "Bridging the Gap through Universal Design for Learning" (which is jointly sponsored by the Louisiana Department of Education).
Certainly, it would be more effective if programs use UDL principles as they are being designed. That’s why many of us are advocating changes in federal statutes, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), to encourage funding for UDL initiatives and policies that promote the use of UDL in the development of textbooks and instructional materials. To learn more about this effort, go to the National Task Force on UDL Web site.
However, UDL principles can be incorporated into your instructional planning no matter what program you are using. I recommend that you look at CAST’s Teaching Every Student website for ideas and formats that you can use to design your instructional strategies and classroom expectations.
Unfortunately, I don't know of any states that are really using UDL-designed standardized assessments for NCLB accountability purposes. There are several that are working on it. The National Center on Educational Outcomes has a guide, A State Guide to the Development of Universally Designed Assessments that might be helpful to you.
Test development and standardization is a long, expensive process. Many of the national education and parent groups are strongly recommending increased federal funding and guidance to help us accomplish this. Assessment and accountability measures should be meaningful.
That concludes our LD Talk for today. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful questions and thanks to our expert, Dr. Patti Ralabate, for her time today.
Additional Resources on Universal Design for Learning:
- NCLD Parent Advocacy Brief: A Parent’s Guide to Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
- Universal Design for Learning Podcast,
Featuring Skip Stahl from the Center for Applied Special Technology
- NCLD's "Universal Design for Learning" section
- Universal Design: Introduction and Background
- Universal Design Q&A for Educators and Adminstrators
- LD Talk: Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Effective Technology-based Teaching Practices for All Struggling Learners
- Considerations for Universally Designed Assessments Items
- Tool Kit on Teaching and Assessing Students With Disabilities (U.S Department of Education)
- Universal Design for Math Learning: Bridging the Technology and Policy Divide
by Steve Noble, Director of Accessibility Policy, Design Science, Inc.