Universal Design for Learning: Critical Elements & Instructional Planning Process

In recent years, the instructional framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has received growing attention, yet many do not understand what UDL is or how to actually implement it in their learning environment.  In fact, a recent article in Education Week (May 22, 2012) noted that across the United States, many state and district leaders have embraced the idea of UDL, incorporating it into federal funding plans, yet lack the understanding for how to put it into practice.  As an instructional framework, UDL is teetering between being a wonderful “what if, idea” of intermixing what is known about the brain, teaching, and learning to a game changing practice for supporting all learners.  As someone who focuses much of his time on UDL, it’s a wonderful, at times frustrating, and even terrifying place.

What is UDL?  
Universal Design for Learning is a proactive instructional design framework focused on meeting the needs of every learner by purposefully designing the learning environment (including curriculum, instruction, materials, and assessment) to meet the needs of all learners. Specifically, UDL is focused on using multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to support the learner variability present in any given classroom (CAST, 2010).  The movie entitled UDL at a Glance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDvKnY0g6e4) provides a great overview of UDL.

At first glance UDL seems like a simple concept to implement. In fact, some even say UDL is basically differentiated instruction. Yet anyone who has studied the framework of UDL with a focus on implementation, then has attempted to implement UDL across a district, school, or single classroom recognizes that it’s more challenging than meets the eye.  They quickly realize UDL moves beyond the intent of differentiation. UDL focuses on proactively designing curriculum, instruction, tools, and assessments to support all learners. This approach moves beyond the idea of simply changing or modifying instruction to support a single-lesson or learning style.  Moreover, the focus on UDL is to promote learners to be become self-actualized or self-determined in their own learning. In reality, UDL and differentiation align very nicely and are complimentary to one another, however UDL is broader in scope.

As noted by Edyburn (2010) “Understanding the potential of UDL is seductively easy...However, it has proven far easier to help the various stakeholders understand the potential of UDL than it has been to implement UDL on a large scale.”

Bringing UDL to Scale: Establishing Critical Elements
In 2010, the UDL-Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN) (http://udl-irn.org/) was formed in collaboration with CAST and the National Center on UDL as a grassroots global network of educators, researchers, and developers focused on scaled implementation and research around UDL. Recognizing that UDL implementation will and should look different across different systems, it must also be acknowledged that a flexible fidelity of implementation is needed to support scaled practice. Based on this notion, members from the UDL-IRN undertook the task of developing a 1-page document that defined the Critical Elements of UDL-based instruction. Moreover, the goal was to develop a document that was user-friendly and meaningful to educators. After roughly a year of work with various groups, the UDL-IRN adopted and slightly modified version of a document developed in Michigan. The end document was established by educators and state-level personnel (reviewed and supported by CAST).  According to the UDL-IRN the critical elements are:

Element 1: Clear Goals
  • Goals and desired outcomes of the lesson/unit are aligned to the established content standards.
  • Goals are clearly defined and separate from means. They allow multiple paths/options for achievement.
  • Teachers have a clear understanding of the goal(s) of the lesson and specific learner outcomes.
  • Goals address the needs of every learner, are communicated in ways that are understandable to each learner, and can be expressed by them.
Element 2: Intentional Planning for Learner Variability
  • Intentional proactive planning that recognizes every learner is unique and that meeting the needs of learners in the margins- from challenged to most advanced- will likely benefit everyone.

  • Addressing learner strengths and weaknesses, considering variables such as perceptual ability, language ability, background knowledge, cognitive strategies, and motivation.
  • Anticipates the need for options, methods, materials, and other resources- including personnel- to provide adequate support and scaffolding.
  • Maintains the rigor of the lesson- for all learners- by planning efforts (1) that embed necessary supports and (2) reduce unnecessary barriers.
Element 3: Flexible Methods and Materials
  • Teachers use a variety of media and methods to present information and content
  • A variety of methods are used to engage learners (e.g., provide choice, address student interest) and promote their ability to monitor their own learning (e.g., goal setting, self-assessment, and reflection).
  • Learners use a variety of media and methods to demonstrate their knowledge.
Element 4: Timely Progress Monitoring
  • Formative assessments are frequent and timely enough to plan/redirect instruction and support intended outcomes.
  • A variety of formative and summative assessments (e.g., projects, oral tests, written tests) are used by the learner to demonstrate knowledge and skill.
  • Frequent opportunities exist for teacher reflection and new understandings.

It should be noted that while the Critical Elements were developed collaboratively through focus groups and committees of educators, state-level personnel, education leaders, researchers, and CAST. The UDL-IRN views the Critical Elements as a living document and welcomes empirical research to further validate or modify the elements.

Moving from Critical Elements to Instruction Planning.
The next step for the UDL-IRN was to move forward on developing guidance for the instructional planning process. Using the Critical Elements as a springboard, the UDL-IRN developed an instructional planning process that aligns with the notion of backwards planning.  This process has teachers establish clear goals, develop a plan for anticipated learner variability, develop a plan for how to measure outcomes, then plan instruction, and finally promotes a guided question for teacher reflection and understanding.  The UDL Instructional Planning Process understands the iterative design notion of UDL implementation. Specifically, as a teacher learns more about the learner variability within the environment, necessary adjustments will be incorporated into subsequent instructional opportunities.

The Instructional Planning Process is as follows:

Step 1: Establish Clear Outcomes
Establish a clear understanding of the goal(s) of the lesson (or unit) and specific learner outcomes relate to:
  • The desired outcomes and essential student understandings and performance for every learner. (What will learning look like? What will students be able to do or demonstrate?)
  • The desired big ideas and their alignment to the established standards within the program of study that learners should understand.
  • The potential misunderstandings, misconceptions, and areas where learners may meet barriers to learning.
  • How will goals be clearly communicated to the learners, in ways that are understandable to all learners.
Step 2: Anticipate Learner Variability
Prior to planning the instructional experience teachers should have a clear understanding of the barriers associated with the curriculum as it related to learner variability within their environment. Understandings should minimally include:
  • Curriculum barriers (e.g., physical, social, cultural, or ability-level) that could limit the accessibility to instruction and instructional materials.

  • Learner strengths and weaknesses specific to lesson/unit goals.
  • Learner background knowledge for scaffolding new learning.
  • Learner preferences for representation, expression, and engagement.
  • Learner language preferences.
  • Cultural relevance and understanding.
Step 3: Measurable Outcomes and Assessment Plan
Prior to planning the instructional experience, establish how learning is going to be measured.  Considerations should include:
  • Previously established lesson goals and learner needs.
  • Embedding checkpoints to ensure all learners are successfully meeting their desired outcomes.
  • Providing learners multiple ways and options to authentically engage in the process, take action, and demonstrate understanding.
  • Supporting higher-order skills and encouraging a deeper connection with the content.  

Step 4: Instructional Experience
Establish the instructional sequence of events. At minimal plans should include:
  • Intentional and proactive ways to address the established goals, learner variability, and the assessment plan.
  • Establish a plan for how instructional materials and strategies will be used to overcome barriers and support learner understanding.  

  • A plan that ensures high-expectations for all learners and that the needs of the learners in the margins (i.e., struggling and advanced), anticipating that a broader range of learners will benefit.
  • Integrate an assessment plan to provide necessary data.

Considerations should be made for how to support multiple means of..
  • Engagement: A variety of methods are used to engage students (e.g., provide choice, address student interest) and promote their ability to monitor their own learning (e.g., goal setting, self-assessment, and reflection)
  • Representation: Teacher purposefully uses a variety of strategies, instructional tools, and methods to present information and content to anticipate student needs and preferences
  • Expression & Action: Student uses a variety of strategies, instructional tools, and methods to demonstrate new understandings.

Step 5: Reflection and New Understandings
Establish checkpoints for teacher reflection and new understandings. Considerations should include:
  • Whether the learners obtained the big ideas and obtained the desired outcomes. (What data support your inference?)
  • What instructional strategies worked well? How can instructional strategies be improved?
  • What tools worked well? How could the use of tools be improved?
  • What strategies and tools provided for multiple means of representation, action/expression, and engagement?
  • What additional tools would have been beneficial to have access to and why?
  • Overall, how might you improve this lesson?

Becoming More Involved.
If you are interested in becoming more involved please consider joining the UDL-IRN (http://udl-irn.org/),  contributing to the conversation on this website, or jump into the dialogue occuring on UDL Connect (http://community.udlcenter.org/).

About the author:
James Basham, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. He along with Jeff Diedrich co-founded the UDL-IRN. Dr. Basham is also the President of ISTE’s SETSIG.  Contact information jbasham@ku.edu follow him on twitter at @jdbasham.  


CAST (2011) Universal Design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. To view the UDL Guidelines please see http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines/

Edyburn, D. L. (2010).  Would you recognize Universal Design for Learning if you saw it? Ten propositions for new directions in the second decade of UDL.  Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(1), 33-41

Shah, N. (2012) Study finds districts buying into universal design but many education leaders still aren't sure what UDL is. Education Week. Retrieved August 10, 2012 http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/05/23/32udl-2.h31.html.

UDL-IRN (2011) Critical Elements of UDL in Instruction (Version 1.2). Lawrence, KS: Author.    

UDL-IRN (2011) UDL in the Instructional Process. (Version 2.0). Lawrence, KS: Author.    

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Tags: UDL, Universal-Design-for-Learning


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