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What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning

By Meghan Kyne

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Universal Design: a Brief History

Prior to 1945, sidewalks were designed for a single purpose - to walk on - and for a single demographic - those who could walk or move about without assistance. If that design did not work for somebody – well… tough. Figure it out.

In 1945, officials in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, wanted to accommodate wounded war veterans who were living there temporarily while receiving care at the Percy Jones Army Hospital. Their goal was to help veterans feel at home by creating a structure that would allow them to move easily about the streets in their wheelchairs.

The city officials ordered curb cuts throughout the city’s downtown area. This simple modification of cutting the curb out of the sidewalk in sections, allowed the veterans to independently access the sidewalks and streets of Battle Creek (Ware).

With this change, came a surprising observation. Not only did those with disabilities and other mobility issues benefit from the curb cuts, everyone did.

Mothers with carriages, people on bicycles, kids on roller skates, delivery men with hand carts – all benefited from this design.

Curb Cut Comic

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Sadly, this move to provide accessibility to those with mobility issues did not occur nationwide. Thanks to the efforts of disability rights activists, however, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968 which required federally funded buildings to remove all obstacles in the “built environment”.

A few years prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, Ronald Mace, an architect who had grown frustrated by the limitations architecture placed on individuals, created the concept of Universal Design. He defined Universal Design as “…the design of products and environment to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need of adaptation or specialized design.” He believed that architects and product designers should adapt to the people they are designing for, rather than the other way around. Just as curb cuts did, Mace believed Universal Design would benefit the population as a whole.

In the early 1990s, the Center for Applied Technology (CAST), noticed that Mace’s Universal Design concept contained basic elements applicable to the field of education. Using the elements of flexibility, inclusiveness, and the anticipation of people's needs, as well as CAST’s research-based evidence on how humans learn, Universal Design for Learning was created.


Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) operates under the same premise as Mace’s Universal Design. That is, design should be inclusive from conception with no need to retrofit or modify the product to meet the needs of specific individuals. From an educational perspective, that means that all barriers to learning should be removed in the development of curricula so that the only challenge a student faces, is the challenge of learning. To help teachers develop curriculum that addresses the needs of all students in a classroom, CAST developed the UDL Guidelines. This framework “encourages creating flexible designs from the start that have customizable options, which allow all learners to progress from where they are and not where we would have imagined them to be” (CAST).


The Three Principles of Universal Design for Learning

Principles of Universal Design for Leaning

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From research in cognitive science, cognitive neurosciences, neuropsychology, and neuroscience, researchers were able to identify the many differences in human learning and the paths by which we acquire information. Specifically, they identified three main neurological networks that affect learning (Kurzwell). The Three Principles were created to structure a pedagogy that addresses these differences and considers each network’s function.


Principle 1 - Provide Multiple Modes of Representation

Provide various means of acquiring information and knowledge.


Principle 1 addresses the Recognition Networks or the “what” of learning. These networks are responsible for how students gather and categorize information.

Recognition Tasks:

What this looks like in the classroom:

Principle 1

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To address this principle in her lesson on the brain, Ms. Darcy considered the learning differences and needs of the students in her classroom. Ms. Darcy provided the information in various formats that address the learning styles of the students. She provided auditory, visual, hands-on, and lecture based instruction with the use of visual aids. Ms. Darcy used Storyboard That to create visual vocabulary lists and charts. She also worked in flexible options such as the use of headphones, larger font or increased color contrast to eliminate the barriers to learning associated with learning and sensory disabilities. While Ms. Darcy planned her unit, she incorporated options for future students with differing needs. Ms. Darcy was able to incorporate all of these methods in one class period, but providing these formats over the course of several days would also work.


Principle 2 - Provide Multiple Modes of Action and Expression

Provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.


Principle 2 addresses the Strategic Networks or the “how” of learning. The planning and execution of tasks happens here.

Strategic Tasks:

What this looks like in the classroom:

Principle 2

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Ms. Darcy provides options for her students as frequently as possible so that they can work in a way that suits their learning styles, physical needs, interests, and abilities. Creating a video on YouTube, creating a comic on Storyboard That, writing an essay, or creating a diagram are some of the options students have in MS. Darcy’s class. Although there is flexibility, the students are held accountable for their learning and able to demonstrate what they have learned. In addition to providing options in how they work and the format in which they express themselves, Ms. Darcy provides scaffolding for the completion of tasks, rubrics that identify the criteria and learning outcomes, and checklists and individual support for those who need it in the planning and execution of tasks.


Principle 3 - Provide Multiple Modes of Engagement

Access learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation


Principle 3 addresses the Affective Networks, or the “why” of learning. These networks are responsible for what engages and motivates students.

Affective dimensions:

What this looks like in the classroom:

Principle 3

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Ms. Darcy recognizes that motivation is an integral part of learning. Although receiving an “A” is motivation enough for some students, others require more significant, outlined support to keep them on task. Conditions such as ADHD, Executive Function Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury can greatly impact a student’s ability, desire, interest, and motivation to succeed. By providing students with behavioral checklists, point sheets, or social stories Ms. Darcy created on Storyboard That, all students can be reminded of what appropriate reactions to stimuli look like, how to handle frustration and what to do when they are off task.

Ms. Darcy has also had some success rewarding students for the successful completion of tasks. Providing grading rubrics, examples of high quality work, and checklists set specific goals for students, provide a preview of the grading process, and address expectations for final products. Self-assessment also leads to increased autonomy and a greater investment in learning for some students. Other students are motivated by challenge, independent tasks, or reinforcing comments from Ms. Darcy. She checks in regularly with her students to provide feedback, to offer support and encouragement and to ensure that all students are making progress. While planning her lessons, Ms. Darcy takes into account all of the needs of her students - past, present and future - to eliminate the need for modifications down the road. Ms. Darcy understands that motivation fluctuates day to day and task to task, so some students may require more or less support depending on the day or activity.


UDL Guidelines

The Three Principles are the the underlying framework of the UDL Guidelines. Each Principle is broken down into three guidelines and each guideline has checkpoints which provide a more in-depth explanation of the principle. The UDL Guidelines are intended to be used as a guide in planning all aspects of the curriculum, from development of goals to assessment. The complete UDL Guidelines can be found at http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines.


References and Further Reading



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•   (English) Universal Design for Learning   •   (Español) Prueba de Anna   •   (Français) Conception Universelle Pour L'apprentissage   •   (Deutsch) Universal Design für das Lernen   •   (Italiana) Universal Design per L'apprendimento   •   (Nederlands) Universal Design for Learning   •   (Português) Design Universal Para Aprendizagem   •   (עברית) עיצוב אוניברסלי עבור למידה   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) تصميم عالمي للتعلم   •   (हिन्दी) लर्निंग के लिए यूनिवर्सल डिजाइन   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Универсальный Дизайн для Обучения   •   (Dansk) Universal Design for Learning   •   (Svenska) Universell Design för Lärande   •   (Suomi) Universal Design for Learning   •   (Norsk) Universell Utforming for Læring   •   (Türkçe) Öğrenme İçin Evrensel Tasarım   •   (Polski) Uniwersalny Wzór do Nauki   •   (Româna) Design Universal Pentru Învățare   •   (Ceština) Universal Design for Learning