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What is UDL?

What is UDL?

Author: Jody Waltman

In this lesson, you will learn what Universal Design for Learning is and how it helps all learners.

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In this tutorial, you'll learn about universal design for learning. We'll begin with an introduction to UDL. And we'll examine some of the possible reasons for implementing it. Finally, we'll identify some of the benefits of UDL for both students and teachers. Let's get started. So what is UDL? UDL, or universal design for learning, is a set of principles that can be used for designing both curriculum and instruction. The purpose of UDL is to level the playing field in order to provide all students with equal access to learning.

Rather than using a one size fits all approach, UDL helps teachers to plan for accommodations at the front end of instruction, instead of tacking them on at the back end after students have potentially already begun to struggle or even fail. The philosophy behind UDL actually is inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, as it applies in the field of architecture. The accommodations that are required by ADA have the potential to help everyone, not just those people for whom the accommodations are originally designed.

Here's a great real life example. I had to take a package to the post office when both my children were very young, in fact my youngest was an infant in a stroller. I had a brief moment of panic as I tried to figure out how I was going to get my two children, myself, and the aforementioned package into the post office. And then it occurred to me that I could simply go around the corner and use the ramp on the side of the building. That ramp was not added specifically for people like me pushing a stroller, however, I was able to take advantage of that accommodation in order to make my access to the building easier.

Using UDL in the classroom is similar to this. When a teacher uses inflexible design approaches for curriculum and instruction, this can put up barriers to access for many learners including English language learners, gifted and talented students, and students with disabilities. Using a more flexible approach to curriculum and instruction design, like UDL, prevents these barriers to learning. It moves the focus away from just the students who are in the middle of the pack, and instead, curriculum and instruction are designed to address diversity in learning needs and learning styles.

This helps to ensure that an equitable education is provided for all students, not just those middle of the pack learners. What makes UDL necessary? And what are some of the reasons why you might consider implementing UDL principles? Well, if you think about it, one of the few norms present in all K-12 classrooms is diversity in students. Our students bring to us a variety of skill levels and instructional needs, no matter where our classrooms are located or what subject areas or grade levels we teach.

In fact, research in neuroscience tells us that these differences in skill levels and instructional needs can be as varied among students as fingerprints and other biological characteristics. This neurological research also tells us that three primary brain networks are identified as especially important during the learning process. The first of these is the recognition networks. These networks in the brain address the what of learning.

When material is presented to us through hearing reading or seeing, these recognition networks help us to recognize and organize the information. Since many of the tasks that students are expected to accomplish in a classroom are recognition type tasks, these recognition networks are used very commonly in the classroom. Some examples of recognition tasks include identifying letters or numbers, recalling dates, or identifying a time period or artistic movement associated with a painting.

Strategic networks in the brain address the how of learning. In tasks like writing and delivering an informative speech or translating a word problem into a mathematical formula, the strategic networks help us organize our ideas in our minds and express them on paper or verbally. Finally the affective networks address the why of learning. These complex networks influence the ways in which learners are motivated and engaged to learn. Teachers are always trying to find ways to raise student interest and to find challenges that motivate students.

So how does universal design for learning benefit students and teachers? First, UDL helps teachers to meet diverse student needs. These design principles help teachers to create flexible goals, to use a wide variety of teaching methods and materials, and to implement assessments and other opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding. And remember that teachers are designing these flexible approaches to accommodations and modifications during the planning period of instruction.

This can reduce, or even eliminate, the time that needs to be spent catching up after the fact when students have begun to struggle. Finally, this flexible approach to the design of curriculum and instruction helps teachers to provide effective instruction to all students with individualization built in to meet the needs of all learners. This results in teachers meeting students where they are instead of where they theoretically should be based only on grade level curricular expectations.

In this tutorial, we introduced universal design for learning, or UDL. We examined some of the possible reasons for implementing UDL. And we identified several benefits of UDL for both students and teachers. Now it's your turn to stop and reflect. Can you think of an instance, like my experience at the post office, where a modification or accommodation that wasn't initially meant for you still ended up being of benefit to you? Can you see how using UDL to design your curriculum and instruction can benefit all of your students?

To dive a little deeper and learn how to apply this information, be sure to check out the additional resources section associated with this video. This is where you'll find links targeted toward helping you discover more ways to apply this course material. Thanks for joining me today. Have a great day.

Notes on "What is UDL?"

(00:00 - 00:18) Introduction

(00:19 - 02:21) Introduction to UDL

(02:22 - 04:14) Reasons for Implementing UDL

(04:15 - 05:14) Benefits for Students and Teachers

(05:15 - 05:28) Review

(05:29 - 06:07) Stop and Reflect

Additional Resources 

This is a comprehensive and research based site on Universal Design for Learning. In addition, there are how-to modules for teachers to follow to learn more about applying UDL in their practice.

National Center for Universal Design for Learning Implementation

This site provides a series of interactive modules for teachers to learn about UDL. It provides both a great overview of UDL and a complete series of lessons on how to use UDL.