Universal Design for Learning

Several models of Universal Design are currently used in Higher Education. In CTSI, we promote the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework that allows for multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. UDL promotes inclusive practices that work to increase accessibility by reducing barriers (physical and cognitive) and build sustaining and evolving learning environments for all learners. Explore some of our resources and programming to adapt UDL practices in your teaching:

If you would like to consult with a CTSI staff member about UDL, please submit a consultation request. Any questions can be directed to CTSI at ctsi.teaching@utoronto.ca.

If you have any questions about the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the University of Toronto, please contact U of T’s AODA office.

UDL Guidelines

UDL guidelines are a framework to assist in the design and delivery of course content. “UDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner. When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers, all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning.” (from CAST)

At the University of Toronto, which has a diverse student population, we continuously strive to respond to the range of needs and challenges of those students. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning offers a detailed exploration of the three key principles of UDL as well as many different resources and tools.

  • Provide options for self-regulation
    • Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation
    • Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies
    • Develop self-assessment and reflection
  • Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
    • Heighten salience of goals and objectives
    • Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge
    • Foster collaboration and community
    • Increase mastery-oriented feedback
  • Provide options for recruiting interest
    • Optimize individual choice and autonomy
    • Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity
    • Minimize threats and distractions
  • Provide options for comprehension
    • Activate or supply background knowledge
    • Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships
    • Guide information processing, visualization, and manipulation + Maximize transfer and generalization
  • Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols
    • Clarify vocabulary and symbols
    • Clarify syntax and structure
    • Support decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols
    • Promote understanding across languages
    • Illustrate through multiple media
  • Provide options for perception
    • Offer ways of customizing the display of information
    • Offer alternatives for auditory information
    • Offer alternatives for visual information
  • Provide options for executive functions
    • Guide appropriate goal-setting
    • Support planning and strategy development
    • Enhance capacity for monitoring progress
  • Provide options for expression and communication
    • Use multiple media for communication
    • Use multiple tools for construction and composition
    • Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance
  • Provide options for physical action
    • Vary the methods for response and navigation
    • Optimize access to tools and assistive technologies

For a comprehensive exploration of the UDL guidelines, visit the CAST website. Explore the Graphic Organizer to get an understanding of the key features of the UDL guidelines and how they connect to the three large brain networks that comprise the vast majority of the human brain and play a central role in learning, and how they relate to specific strategies that help students become expert learners. Don’t forget to check out the CAST blog – UDL Chat.

  • Bracken, S., and Novak, K., eds. (2019). Transforming Higher Education through Universal Design for Learning: An International Perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Hall, T.E., Meyer, A., and Rose, D.H. (2012). Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications (What Works for Special-Needs Learners). The Guilford Press.
  • Katz, J. (2012). Teaching to Diversity: The Three-block Model of Universal Design for Learning. Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press.
  • Kieran, L., & Anderson, C. (2019). Connecting Universal Design for Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching. Education and urban Society, 51(9), 1202-1216.
  • Meyer, A., rose, D.H., and Gordon, D. (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory & Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
  • Murawski, W.W., and Scott, K.L. (2019). What Really Works with Universal Design for Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Novak, K. (2016). UDL Now!: A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
  • Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G., Daley, S.G., and Rose, L.T., eds. (2012). A Research Reader in Universal Design for Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Schreiber, J. (2017). Universal Design for Learning: A Student-Centered Curriculum Perspective. Curriculum and Teaching, 32(2), 89-98.
  • Tobin, T.J. and Behling, K.T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal Design for Learning in higher education. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
  • Van Munster, M.A., Lieberman, L.J., and Grenier, M.A. (2019). Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction in Physical Education. Physical Activity Quarterly, 36(3), 359-377.

Models of Universal Design

UDL principles and guidelines are based on Universal Design theories that emerged over the last few decades. To learn more about Universal Design and other UD models, explore the following topics:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University. The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. According to the Center for Universal Design in NCSU, the Principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.”

This approach makes learning not only equitable and accessible, but also creates an inclusive and community-building environment for all diverse learners in our classrooms. It assumes that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special—diversity is the norm! This framework helps us appreciate the varied abilities of every student. Rather than focusing on accommodation, the UD design process allows use to apply design principles in such a way that the resulting learning applies to everyone regardless of ability or disability.

(Connell, et al., 1997)

Helpful links:

(Goff & Higbee, 2008)

  1. Creating welcoming classrooms
  2. Determining essential components of a course
  3. Communicating clear expectations
  4. Providing timely and constructive feedback
  5. Exploring Use of natural supports for learning, including technology
  6. Designing teaching methods that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing and previous experience and background knowledge
  7. Creating multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge
  8. Promoting interaction among and between faculty and students

Helpful links:

(Burgstahler, 2008)

  1. Class climate
  2. Interaction
  3. Physical environments and products
  4. Delivery methods
  5. Information resources and technology
  6. Feedback
  7. Assessment
  8. Accommodation

Helpful links:

Teaching Assistants' Training Program

For information on graduate student and Teaching Assistant professional development and job training, please visit the TATP for resources, events and more.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Enroll in the SoTL Hub to access resources, share ideas and engage with your U of T community.

Back to Top