Design for Each and Every Learner: Universal Design for Learning Modules

Module 1

The “why” of UDL

Let’s get started by exploring the key concepts of UDL that make it unique to any other approach. After you complete this module you will know why UDL is a framework that supports educators to intentionally design learning experiences that are inclusive for each and every learner.

This module includes four 4 key concepts to understand, including:

  • the vision of UDL is about designing for all learners from the start;

  • the goal of UDL is to foster the development of expert learning;

  • there is learner variability in every context; and

  • clear goals are critical to developing flexible learning pathways.

Part 1: Build background

Vision of UDL

Key ideas to know about the vision of UDL:

The vision of UDL is for environments to be designed from the onset to be inclusive for all learners. Universal Design (UD) in architecture seeks to have all physical spaces designed so any individual can access and use them. Similarly, UDL supports the development of flexible learning environments, including the goals, assessments, methods, materials, and physical environments. These can be designed from the start of a learning experience to be accessible, flexible, and robust. We know from brain science that each learner is unique - our brains are as unique as our fingerprints. Therefore, instruction needs to be flexible enough to meet this variability. The UDL framework encourages educators to identify barriers to learning in the design of the environment, not in the student. What is necessary for some students can benefit all.

Video from the Web version of this publication:

UDL Video1:

Explore these foundational slides and audio about UDL (8 slides). Then, choose 2-3 options to build background about the vision of UDL.  

As you build your background about the vision of UDL, be able to demonstrate understanding of the following: What is the vision of UDL? How does UDL align with or differ from traditional instruction?

Expert Learning

Key ideas to know about expert learning:

The goal of using the UDL framework is to support the development of "expert learners" who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed. A UDL environment is student-centered learning, where students are sharing in the design, participation, and ownership of their learning (autonomy). 

Here is a quick video about expert learning (~3 min). After reviewing the video, choose 2-3 options to build additional background about expert learning.

As you build your background about expert learning, be able to demonstrate understanding of the following: How does UDL define expert learning? What does expert learning look, sound, and feel like in a classroom? How is expert learning a goal for each and every student, including students with significant cognitive disabilities?

Learner Variability

Every human brain is unique - variability is the norm. However, we can design for this variability because it is predictable. In any learning experience, there will be variability in student engagement: what fires up one student differs from what interests another student. Each student will have unique background experiences and will express and communicate what they know differently. The UDL Guidelines are a tool to design for this variability. The UDL Guidelines align with the predictable variability of the brain. There will be variability in affective, recognition, and strategic networks of the brain. There are three UDL Principles: engagement, representation, and action and expression that align to this variability.

Here is a video that highlights learner variability and the jagged learning profile: End of Average (~8 min). Then, After reviewing the video, choose 2-3 options to build additional background about learner variability.

As you build your background about learner variability for each and every learner, be able to demonstrate understanding of the following: What is variability? How is it different from learning styles? How does the context, or design of the environment, impact variability?

Clear goals, flexible pathways

It is critical to know the learning goal or objective as you begin to design lessons to meet the needs of all learners. Standards, content, skills, or IEP goals could drive the development of learning goals. When you know the goal, then you can share a clear vision of the success criteria. You can have a better understanding of how to be flexible in the instruction.

Students should know the learning goal for any part of the lesson, such as the purpose of a discussion, activity, video, homework assignment, or more. Knowing the goal helps focus attention on the pertinent information or skills. It will help us provide supportive tools and resources so all learners can progress toward the goal. Students can set their own learning goals and develop plans to achieve them.

Here is an article to build your background: UDL: Start with the goal (3 pages). After reviewing the article, choose 2-3 options to build additional background about clear goals, flexible pathways.

As you build your background about clear goals and flexible pathways, be able to demonstrate understanding: of how you can you develop clear goals and flexible pathways in your instruction.? How can you work with students to develop flexible pathways that support their learning?

Part 2: Try it

Now that you have built some background, it is time to implement an idea in your work. Record what you observe in student learning in Your UDL Journal. Share ideas and observations with colleagues.

Option 1:

If your goal is to support adult collaboration to increase instructional effectiveness for each and every learner: Focus on the language that is used in your site.

  • How do you use language that aligns to variability, and not fixed learning styles? Are some students still labeled, identified, or grouped by a dis/ability?
  • How do you frame barriers in the environment, not the student?

Start to shift the language used in your site to frame barriers in the design. For example, instead of saying “my student cannot read the grade level text” reframe to “how does the design support all of my students to read the grade level text? Optional support: UDL Language Reflection Organizer. .

Want an example to get started? Lougena Thome is a 4th-grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary in Lake Washington School District. In this video, compare Gena’s language to the language used at your site or school, including framing of barriers, students, and goals.

Video from the Web version of this publication:

UDL in Action 1: Gena Thome 1:

Option 2:

If your goal is to improve your classroom practices:, Observe for expert learning. On your own or with a colleague, use the expert learner table to find evidence of expert learning in your classroom or site.Notice what students are communicating, sharing, and doing that aligns with expert learning.

  • How is the design of the learning environment providing options for each and every student to develop as an expert learner, including students with significant cognitive disabilities?
  • How are there high expectations for the learning for each and every student?

Start to brainstorm how there are rigorous goals and options to achieve those goals for all students.

Need some inspiration? In this video, Gena Thome, 4th-grade teacher at Rockwell Elementary in Lake Washington School District discusses a lesson on measuring. Notice what excites Gena about her early application of UDL to support expert learners.

Video from the Web version of this publication:

UDL in Action 2: Gena Thome 2:

Part 3: Reflect and Connect

Document what you tried using an option that is best for you (i.e., using video, text, or audio options). Share with a collaborative partner: what did you learn, and how did your Try It impact student learning, especially for a student with significant cognitive disabilities? 

Reflect on what you learned: What key concept or resource most resonated with your practice as a teacher to support each and every learner, including students with significant cognitive disabilities?

Recognize and consider equity: What barriers were there in the instruction or curriculum (goals, assessments, methods, materials)? What are some systemic barriers to learning that are present in your context?  How does designing for one student provide the opportunity to benefit all students?

Part 4: Dive deeper

Do you still want to learn more? Here are some suggestions:

For the Record

Do you need to share how you spent your time? Here is a Self-check sheet with space to document and share your time and your learning.

The information in this module is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this module are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

All rights reserved.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

TIES Center

University of Minnesota

Institute on Community Integration

2025 East River Parkway

Minneapolis, MN 55414

Phone: 612-626-1530

This document is available in alternate formats upon request.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.

TIES TIPS partner organization logos: Arizona Dept. of Education, CAST, UNC Charlotte, NCEO, University of Kentucky, The University of North Carolina Greensboro, IDEAs that Work