Universal Design in Education

Universal Design in Education

This guide focuses on the use of Universal Design (UD) practices in higher education, one of many frameworks designed to extend access and reach everyone in your classroom. You can find complementary practices and frameworks in our guide on Inclusive Teaching

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework of research-based guidelines developed by the CAST Institute. CAST defines UDL as a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. While these guidelines are helpful for many learners, they are not a replacement for accommodations intended to meet the specific needs of an individual.

UDL guidelines include:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement. Individuals come into a learning experience with different engagement abilities and needs. Provide opportunities for students to engage in your class in a variety of ways. For example, allow students multiple options for achieving a participation grade, rather than assuming everyone will demonstrate participation by raising their hand and speaking up in class.
  • Provide multiple means of representation. Individuals will perceive information in class differently based on their individual profiles and needs. Provide multiple ways for students to access instructional information. For example, you might provide a syllabus as well as a video introduction to your course. For more information, refer to our guide on Creating Accessible Materials.
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression. Individuals will vary in their ability to perform on a specific assessment or activity in class. Give students choice about how they can demonstrate their knowledge of the course material. Make sure that the assessments align with articulated learning goals, and that there are no unintentional barriers to students demonstrating their understanding. 

Universal Design for Instruction

Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) originates from a project at the Center for Post Secondary Education and Disability at the University of Connecticut. UDI principles build on guidelines from the Center for Universal Design and, according to Scott, Shaw, and McGuire (2001), include: 

  1. Equitable use: Instruction is designed to be useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in use: Instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities.
  3. Simple and intuitive: Instruction is designed in a straightforward and predictable manner, regardless of the students’ experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: Instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student, regardless of ambient conditions or the student's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: Instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills.
  6. Low physical effort: Instruction is designed to minimize nonessential physical effort in order to allow maximum attention to learning.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Instruction is designed with consideration for appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulations, and use regardless of a student's body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs.
  8. A community of learners: The instructional environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty.
  9. Instructional climate: Instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive. High expectations are espoused for all students.

Applying Universal Design

The principles of Universal Design can be difficult to understand, let alone apply. Consider the following applications, intended to illustrate how design choices impact students and the classroom environment.

Culture, Context, and Connection

  • Identify your students' needs. Any universally designed course is based on your present awareness of student needs. Provide a private way for students to express both their needs and underlying motivations for taking the course as you're getting to know them.
  • Identify and remove barriers in your course. With student input, continually identify potential barriers to student learning within your course, and remediate as needed.
  • Create a community within your course. Create opportunities for both peer-peer and peer-teacher interactions within your course. By doing so, you allow students to create a success network in your class, support one another in their learning, and be exposed to multiple perspectives.

Course Design and Teaching

  • Design with a curiosity for differences in mind. Consider what individual differences exist among your students, and design your course with those differences in mind. Differences may be cultural, perceptive (e.g. reading, seeing, and hearing), or experience-based, among other categories.
  • Articulate learning outcomes for the course. Creating explicit learning outcomes can help to bridge potential achievement gaps among students, and help students guide their learning and measure their progress along the way.
  • Seek to organize and simplify your course. Both cognitive load and potential distractors within your course can serve as unintentional barriers to student learning.
  • Present information in multiple ways. For example, offer students a choice between an article, video, or podcast on a given topic. Consider issues related to the accessibility of your materials from the start.
  • Engage your students and their motivations in multiple ways. Motivation is a key component to all learning experiences, and what motivates students varies from one to the next. Consider ways to identify and engage this variety of student motivations within your course assignment and activities.
  • Assess students in multiple and varied ways. The form of assessments in your course shouldn't prevent a student from demonstrating their understanding. Co-create assessment plans with your students to assess in both equitable and individualized ways.
  • Provide scaffolds throughout your course. Students will come into your course at different levels and with different needs. This will impact how they engage with an activity or assessment. Consider how you can anticipate a variety of student needs and levels within your course, and offer a variety of different pathways and supports for their learning.

Iteration and Improvement

  • Start with small changes toward more universal design, and iterate over time. Updating materials or a single activity is a great place to start. 
  • Ask for feedback from your students. It's important to know whether your designs and interventions are helping your students in the ways that you intend, and ways that they find helpful.

For a guided approach to applying UDL strategies, see the Practical Applications of UDL Worksheet by Amy Sugar (2023). For support on universal design and applying these principles to your courses, please contact us.


CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Scott, S., Shaw, S., & McGuire, J. (in press). Universal Design for Instruction: A new paradigm for adult instruction in postsecondary education. Remedial and Special Education. Retrieved from http://www.facultyware.uconn.edu/UDI_principles.htm

Universal Design for Instruction in Postsecondary Education (2012). Retrieved from http://www.udi.uconn.edu/