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Short Guide 6: Universal Design for Learning

a row of college students jumping

Universal Design for Learning

Short Guide #6, July 2020

1. What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn, including Students with Disabilities. This growing movement aims to improve the educational experience of all students by introducing more flexible methods of teaching, assessment and service provision to cater for different learners. This approach is underpinned by research in the field of neuroscience and is designed to improve the learning experience and outcomes for all students. The UDL guidelines provided by US organisation CAST are based on the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ or ‘average’ student, that all students learn differently and that to successfully teach for all students, we have to introduce greater flexibility in to teaching and learning practice. They say that educators should follow 3 core principles when designing learning experiences, building in:

  • Multiple Means of Engagement – the “Why of Learning”
  • Multiple Means of Representation – the “What of Learning”
  • Multiple Means of Action and Expression – the “How of Learning”

2. What UDL Is and Isn’t

What it is:

  • A research based quality teaching and learning framework.
  • A lens with which to examine your practice.
  • A guided opportunity for you to use your own experience and creativity to make a big positive impact on the learning experience of all of your students.

What it isn’t:

  • A checklist for you to tick things off of to be accessible.
  • A box ticking diversity exercise.
  • Something completely new that you have to do on top of your usual work. Instead, UDL should help you in the decisions you make every day/month/year as a practitioner in how you tweak and deliver your programmes.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines

Guideline 1: Multiple Means of Engagement

Learners come to courses with all kinds of different motivations for participating e.g. potential employability, curiosity about the subject, pressure from home, sent by employer. This principle highlights that there is no one way of engaging students that is optimal across all of the diversity that exists.

Practical Ideas for incorporating Multiple Means of Engagement

  • State the purpose of activities explicitly. Use the course description actively.
  • State the course usefulness and relevance explicitly, preferably through concrete examples.
  • Encourage collaborative projects across disciplines. This can raise students’ understanding of the subject.
  • Provide feedback throughout the year and vary what kind of media and channels you use to communicate with students.

Guideline 2: Multiple Means of Representation

Students differ in way they perceive and comprehend information presented to them. At the extreme are students with disabilities for whom some forms of presentation are completely inaccessible. More prevalent are students who, because of their particular profile of perceptual strengths and deficits, find information in some formats more accessible than others. Even more common are students with atypical backgrounds in the dominant language, cognitive strategies, culture, or history of the average classroom who face barriers in accessing information when presented in a manner that assumes a common background among students. There is no common optimal means of representing information to address these learner’s diverse needs. 

Practical Ideas for incorporating Multiple Means of Representation

  • Offer ways of customising the display of information e.g. provide slides in advance.
  • Make sure digital documents are accessible.
  • Ensure videos have captions.
  • Ensure images are described using alternative text.
  • Clarify new vocabulary and symbols.
  • Use alternative ways to present knowledge e.g. visuals, podcasts, mind maps.

Guideline 3: Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Students differ in the ways they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. Students with specific motor disabilities might have limited forms of physical action, some students may have adequate motor skills but lack the ability to integrate action into skills (e.g. students with spelling problems associated with dyslexia).  Still others are skilful within a domain but lack the strategic and organisational abilities to achieve long-term goals. Moreover, many students are able to express themselves more much skilfully in one medium than in another

Practical Ideas for incorporating Multiple Means of Action and Expression

  • Choose an assessment method based on what skills and characteristics you want your graduates to have. The targeted skills and knowledge should be those used to make decisions about a student’s performance/achievement.
  • Vary assessment methods and provide alternative ways to demonstrate knowledge, all the while aligning your assessment with your learning outcomes. There is a distinction between offering choice within an assessment and offering different assessments! The former is what UDL encourages.
  • State the purpose and criteria for goal achievement.
  • Ensure a close connection between students’ achievement, your chosen assessment method, and the feedback you provide to the student.

Further resources

Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Classes:

Short video on transforming a PowerPoint presentation to a more accessible form:

Short video on transforming a Word document to a more accessible form:

6 x 10 min videos from FET and HE practitioners on their UDL implementations:

Further information on UDL (Theory and Practice):

Preparing for September

This section includes reflections from staff across the University on what worked well in the past and what they are planning in their future teaching:


My teaching experience in the direct and graduate entry to medicine programs in UCC has provided me with the opportunity to engage with students coming from diverse cultures, age groups and backgrounds. Most importantly, students exhibit different ways of learning and multiple intelligences. To address these differences, I utilised the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) with specific focus on Teaching for Understanding (TfU) which emerged from my studies in the Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CITRL) in UCC. The framework for UDL that I adapted (see below) reflects the design and techniques I used for teaching physiology to medical students. The map is centred around the three UDL principles by providing multiple ways of engagement, representation and, actions and expressions. While the map was designed for face-to-face teaching, there are a number of UDL aspects that are still applicable to remote teaching especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Engagement which was facilitated during on campus lectures and tutorials can still be facilitated through the use of technology such as virtual discussion rooms. Representation on another hand includes but not limited to video, animated figure, image and text. Students can express learning through text, drawing and using self-assessment case studies, or they can be presented with questions in the form of a video or a picture accompanied with a question. Indeed, technology can provide multiple means of interaction and feedback an example would be the use of an online response system such as Socrative within an e-meeting platform such as MS Teams. I learned from implementing the concepts of UDL and TfU that an inclusive learning environment can indeed be created whether face-to-face or remotely. Although utilising all UDL principles can prove difficult in some disciplines, instructors in these disciplines should at least try to incorporate some of UDL aspects in their teaching activities as they can see fit.


Mohammed Abdulla, PhD, MA TLHed

Lecturer, Department of Physiology,

CIRTL teaching fellow

University College Cork


A graphic outlining the principles of UDL, the multiple means of engagement for students and representation for lecturers

Training and Support

Getting Started webpage

This webpage introduces both academic and professional staff to the first steps in preparing to teach (and support teaching) remotely in September. Guidance is provided on how to teach remotely, the importance of Canvas, what tools to use and when, and signposting you to the relevant training and resources available in this regard.

Teach Digi Summer Training

Learn from academic and instructional designer Dr. Sarah Thelen as she delivers weekly asynchronous recordings structured around Think, Plan, and Teach and supported by Live Q&As. A great entry point for those who have their curriculum and learning activities already prepared.

Canvas training

Do you want to learn how to use UCC's virtual learning environment more effectively? Look no further. Sophie Gahan of the CDE is delivering weekly Canvas training over the summer.

CIRTL Learning Design workshops

Are you thinking about how you will teach in September, January, and beyond? The Learning Design workshop guides you through some collaborative structured exercises to provide a robust framework for curriculum and learning design. Patrick Kiely of CIRTL will host these workshops throughout the summer.

AVMS Guide to online video and collaboration

Panopto is not just about lecture capture you know? MS Teams is not just for meetings. Get oriented to the full capability of the UCC's video tools. A great starting point before pressing the record button!

ITS Teaching and Working remotely (tools)

Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite for Education, and everything else. A great resource for those who want to review and learn about all of the tools we have available in UCC. 

UCC Skills Centre

Supporting students through the closure and now a comprehensive resource for September and beyond. See where you can direct your students to help them reach their potential.

Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

West Lodge, Main Campus,