overhead view of five students' hands using different tools to learn, including a tablet, laptop, notebook and pen, and printed notes

Week Five
Incorporating Universal Design for Learning

Our students are diverse, and they have individualized learning needs. It would be impossible to address those individually, which is why we introduce Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The UDL framework combined with what you have learned about your students, like their areas of interest or challenges that they experience when learning complex concepts in your field, helps you to design effective teaching and learning experiences that are flexible to support the needs of all learners.

The CAST Organization has curated an extensive library of research and evidence-based applications of UDL principles for teaching and learning. UDL is guided by “the most widely replicated finding in educational research: learners are highly variable in their response to instruction. In virtually every report of research on instruction or intervention, individual differences are not only evident in the results; they are prominent” (cast.org). Rather than treat the individual differences as annoyances or distractions, UDL considers differences a key factor to address when designing effective instruction.


The UDL framework includes three areas of focus: engagement, representation, action and expression. The three areas should be addressed when designing and teaching every course. Providing multiple approaches that address the “why,” “what,” and “how” of learning will build a strong course that meets the diverse needs of individual students.

outline of brain with engagement centers highlighted

Engagement: The "Why" of Learning

Effective instruction requires intentional effort to gain interest and engage the cognition of students. “Information that is not attended to...is in fact inaccessible…because relevant information goes unnoticed and unprocessed” (cast.org). Using a variety of methods to attract learners’ interest and stimulate cognition addresses the “why” of learning.

Multiple Means of Engagement [VIDEO]

outline of brain with representation centers highlighted

Representation: The "What" of Learning 

Presenting course content in multiple formats improves the way students perceive and understand information. No single approach to presenting content to learners addresses all students’ needs. Consequently, using several methods to share content is critical for supporting the needs of all learners.

Multiple Means of Representation [VIDEO]

outline of a brain with the action and expression centers highlighted

Action & Expression: The "How" of Learning

Students use a variety of approaches to navigate and share their knowledge in the classroom. Offering options for ways that students can navigate the classroom and demonstrate their understanding of content is critical to support the success of all students in the classroom.

Multiple Means of Action & Expression [VIDEO]

Recommended Strategies

Choose one of the following strategies to implement

Focus on Relevance and Value

Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity by varying activities and sources of information to connect with students’ lives. Include culturally and socially relevant and responsive material appropriate for diverse racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups.

Video Captions Are for Everyone

Video captions are essential for students with disabilities, but they are beneficial to all students. In the classroom, captions have been found to increase student understanding of video content (Jae, 2019). For online materials, students use captions to help them focus, increase comprehension, increase retention, and when their learning environment requires them to reduce or mute the volume (Linder, 2016). Try enabling captions the next time you show a video in your classroom (if in person). If your video doesn’t have captions, you can use Kaltura’s automated captions and edit any inaccuracies for a quicker method than transcribing.

Enable Live Captions

If you are using PowerPoint in the classroom, and your classroom has technology for streaming (i.e., has an integrated microphone, webcam, J5 360 camera, or a Meeting Owl), you can enable live captions in PowerPoint. For web conferencing, try enabling automatic captioning in Zoom or encourage students to use the automatic transcription in Teams. While automatic captions will include errors and are not sufficient for a student who has a disability, they may be helpful for other students. The Disability Resource Center will provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities.

Provide Students with Choice

When possible, provide students with some flexibility and choice for how they demonstrate what they have learned. For example, instead of a written paper or a PowerPoint presentation, allow students to select the format and media they would prefer, such as text, speech, drawing, illustrations, comics, storyboards, film, music, podcasts, websites, social media, etc. Clearly, there are times when the learning objectives necessitate a specific format (such as in a writing-intensive course, or one that focuses on creating the types of documents used in the field), but providing choice when you can do so will allow students to use a format best suited to their skills and interest.

Promote the Use of Alternative Formats

One of the common practices in support of UDL is to use multiple formats for materials, including text, visualizations, videos, audio, and multimedia formats that combine all of the above. You can also promote the use of Ally Alternative Formats for students. This allows students to access text-based information in formats that better meet their needs, such as audio, HTML or ePub (great for mobile views). Alternative Formats also include tools that support deeper and more productive reading, including the BeeLine Reader and Microsoft Immersive Reader. Feel free to adapt any of the statements in our Communication Toolkit to introduce Ally Alternative Formats to your students (and, complete the second requirement for the Fight for Good Ally Hero Badge).

Selected Additional Resources

There are so many resources on Universal Design for Learning that we wanted to share – here are some additional resources for further reading, if this is a topic that interests you!

Next Steps

Please review the resources and select at least one of the recommended strategies to implement. Make a note to yourself about the strategy you used and the impact that it had.

Next week, we will share resources on Connecting Students with Institutional Support Resources. If you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, feel free to let us know at citl@niu.edu.

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Contact Us

Center for Innovative
Teaching and Learning

Phone: 815-753-0595
Email: citl@niu.edu

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