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Queen Mary Academy

Universal Design for Learning

Creating a learning environment that challenges and engages all students

We design and plan often not knowing exactly who our learners will be, but it is certain that today’s classrooms are more diverse than ever, and it is our responsibility as educators to create a learning environment that challenges and engages everyone.

Inclusivity and accessibility should not be approached as an afterthought or only on a case-by-case basis but should be included from the start. So, how can we design a learning environment where all learners can thrive?

About Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning (UDL) can provide a framework for inclusive teaching and learning materials and pedagogy. Based on the architectural concept of Universal Design, UDL employs the same core principles as those considered in the creation of universally accessible physical spaces. Applied to educational spaces and practices, these principles lead to inclusive educational environments that are dedicated to multi-modal instruction, engagement, and assessment that suit the needs and aspirations of the largest numbers of learners (Grogan 2015; Shaw 2011). Following these principles is not meant to be restrictive or prescriptive; flexibility is central to ensuring student needs are met.

UDL also draws heavily on Social Justice Education and the Social Model of Disability which has been central to the struggle for disability rights. The view was, as Michael Oliver wrote, “disablement is nothing to do with the body, impairment is nothing less than a description of the body” (Oliver 1990). This view, applied to education, follows the hopeful model of “universal education”—believing that, given access, anyone can learn. More broadly, the university should elevate society based on the education of all its citizens, rather than being a place to sort society based on the education of the privileged few (Dolmage 2017). UDL will benefit all students, including those who are not receiving disability-related accommodations, and who might be excluded because of social class, race, gender, faith, and age for example.

UDL, which is built on decades of research on neuroscience, is based on three principles:

  1. Multiple means of engagement
  2. Multiple means of representation
  3. Multiple means of action and expression

UDL at a glance

For an explanation of these principles, watch this short video by CAST, the organization which created the Universal Design for Learning framework

Implementing UDL

How can you approach or implement some of these principles in your teaching? You can start by taking a few small steps. 
For example, ask yourself the following questions when designing your next course:


  • Where can I integrate choice and autonomy or make content more relevant to students’ lives?
  • Do the students have choices?
  • Will they be able to answer the question: this content/activity/task is relevant for me because …?
  • Have I included a variety of ways for students to practise, interact, and build community?
  • Do I provide multiple means to engage students?


  • Is my key content presented using multiple modes beyond text, including graphics, audio, and video?
  • Have I used captions, transcripts, alternative text, and audio description in my material?
  • Is my content clear, organized, and presented in ways that support all students?
  • Can the instructional material be manipulated?
  • Do I provide digital text where possible?
  • Are my lectures accessible?

Action and Expression:

  • Does the assessment reflect the learning goal?
  • For which assignments and activities can I provide multiple options or channels for participation?
  • Are the expectations transparent?
  • Have I allowed scaffolding and support to complete important tasks? For example, have I planned for frequent formative opportunities?

Although it requires forethought and effort, proactively applying UDL will minimize barriers to learning and maximize success for all your students.

Getting started

For further exploration, please read Jay Dolmage’s practical advice Universal Design: Places to Start.


Introducing Universal Design for Learning

For some more practical suggestions please watch this presentation from Dr Giorgia Pigato that summarizes the UDL principles.

Further reading

For a detailed presentation on the UDL principles

Burgstahler, S. (2015). Universal Design of Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Second Edition. Boston: Harvard Education Press. 

Burgstahler, S. (2013). Preface. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from

Nelson, L. L. (2014) Design and deliver: Planning and teaching using universal design for learning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Oliver, M. (1990). The politics of disablement. London: Macmillan Education. 

Oliver M. (1996). Understanding disability: from theory to practice. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan. 

A podcast from Teaching in Higher Ed where Bonni Stachowiak speaks with Mark Hofer about his experience in implementing UDL in his teaching.

Dolmage, Jay T. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. E-book, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017,

On assessment

Poore-pariseau, C. (2013). `Universal Design in Assessments’, Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising practices, retrieved from

Hanesworth, P., Bracken, S., Elkington, S. (2019) `A typology for a social justice approach to assessment: learning from universal design and culturally sustaining pedagogy’. Teaching in Higher Education, 24:1, 98-114, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1465405

Grogan, G. (2015). `Supporting students with autism in higher education through teacher educator programs’. SRATE Journal, 24(2), 8–13.

Shaw, R. A. (2011). `Employing universal design for instruction’. New Directions for Student Services, 2011(134), 21–33.

Fabri, M., Andrews, P., & Pukki, H. (2016). A guide to best practice in supporting higher education students on the autism spectrum—for professionals within and outside of HE.

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