By Dr Robert Jackson and Catia Malaquias

This is Part C of the fourth article in a series of short articles aimed at providing practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms.  You can read the earlier articles at SWJ IncludED and their respective titles and weblinks are also listed at the end of this article.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based upon an idea that was originally applied in architecture – that it is more efficient and effective for a building to be “universally designed” from the outset so that it can used by all people, to the greatest extent possible – rather than the building being designed for the “average” user, and subsequently adjusted or modified in design to cater for other users.

If we try to design a building so that it is accessible to the elderly and people with disability, then we achieve a design that is accessible to most, if not all. It will include ramps and elevators, extra space in bathrooms to allow wheelchair transfer, broader doorways for wheelchair access, lever door handles, hand support rails in showers etc. The building may look much the same as any other – but its design caters for the most marginalized – and therefore for all.

In education, teachers know all too well that all students are different and that they learn differently – this fact is recognized by the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, which underlies the Universal Design for Learning framework.

Some students love to write, some hate reading, some need to visualize key concepts, some have no trouble coping with the normal classroom, whilst others feel anxious with the noise and unpredictability of the classroom or struggle to stay still at a desk.  It is not surprising that with such individual variation much of the teacher’s time is involved with “managing” the class rather than teaching – with trying to “engage” students that are not readily engaged by a lesson that is designed for and pitched to the “middle”.

In Universal Design for Learning these individual differences between students are acknowledged and class processes are developed from the outset to remove or minimize all barriers to learning (i.e. physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational barriers) and to cater for the wide range in individual difference.  A universally designed curriculum is designed to meet the needs of all students in the class, thereby avoiding or minimizing the need to subsequently differentiate the lesson for individual students.

On 26 August 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted General Comment (No.4) on the right to inclusive education, clarifying the obligations of ratifying countries (including Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada) under Article 24 (Inclusive Education) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In doing so, the Committee recommended that:

“… [Governments] apply the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. UDL is a set of principles, providing teachers and other staff with a structure to create adaptable learning environments and develop instruction to meet the diverse needs of all learners. It recognizes that each student learns in a unique manner and involves developing flexible ways to learn:

  • creating an engaging classroom environment;
  • maintaining high expectations for all students, while allowing multiple ways to meet expectations;
  • empowering teachers to think differently about their own teaching; and
  • focusing on educational outcomes for all, including those with disabilities.

Curricula must be conceived, designed and applied to meet and adjust to the requirements of every student, and providing appropriate educational responses. Standardised assessments must be replaced by multiple forms of assessments and recognition of individual progress towards broad goals that provide alternative routes for learning.” [para 25]

Universal Design for Learning is based upon three basic principles that correlate with and seek to engage the three primary brain networks (namely the recognition, skills and strategies and prioritizing networks) in delivering the curriculum.  Each principle is supported by flexible guidelines or strategies to help direct its implementation in the curriculum and the classroom.

(Principle 1)   REPRESENTATION – “The what of learning” – Teachers should provide multiple means of representation of the lesson material to give students various ways of acquiring the core concepts of the lesson.

(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:

  • perception;
  • language and symbols; and
  • comprehension.

Information can be expressed through visual, auditory or other sensory ways. So consider using multiple media to deliver the core concepts of the lesson.

What are the alternative ways that the students could be engaged by audio?  Audio approaches are essential for students with sight impairments.

Visually?  Might be essential for students with hearing impairments, but will usually also assist students with intellectual disabilities if drawings, pictures or videos and concrete information (e.g. guides, summaries and transcripts) are used to present lesson concepts.  Consider whether information can be presented through visual summaries (e.g. graphs and pie charts).

Can visual information (e.g. the structure of a cell or atom) be presented in a physical or tactile manner (e.g. through a 3-D physical model)?

Teachers should ask the following questions.

Could I provide background material so that all students can access the lesson topic immediately?  If a student with processing or learning difficulties has background material to take home the day before, they can be primed ready for the lesson the next day.

Could I provide a video of the lesson for students to replay in part if they did not understand the first time?  Is the reading material at an appropriate level (approximately 30% of the students in the first year of high school are reading at a level below the average text book level)?

Consider how comprehension can be assisted by integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization and memorization.

(Principle 2)   EXPRESSION – “The how of learning” – Teachers should provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:

  • physical action;
  • expressive skills; and
  • executive functions.

Teachers should ask the following questions.

Could I assist students to set their own goals and monitor their own learning?  International research has shown that student self-assessment is one of the most powerful means to increase learning outcomes for all students.

Could students demonstrate their learning physically (e.g. in a play or a film or by building a model)?

Could I have students demonstrate their learning cooperatively through a joint project?

Can I vary the level of support for individual students so that all can demonstrate mastery?  For example, a student with significant learning challenges may be set part of the task, or provided with extensive support structures such as simplified versions of the information under consideration.

Could students present the ‘essay’ in a different format (e.g. as a series of cartoons or drawings, as a poem, as a play, as a speech, by an app on an ipad?)

Can I provide a framework for students to sequentially provide the necessary information?  For example, a series of headings for students to follow when composing an essay? Or express direction as to how much time or written work should be allocated to different portions of the task. This will assist students with limited “organization” or executive functioning skills.

(Principle 3)   ENGAGEMENT – “The why of learning” – Teachers should provide multiple means for students to be engaged in, challenged by and motivated for the learning process.

(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:

  • recruiting interest;
  • sustaining effort and persistence; and
  • self-regulation.

Learning occurs when students are engaged in the process of learning, and there are multiple ways that we can hold the attention of students.  If we can allow different students alternative ways to engage with the learning process, then we can maximise the learning outcomes for all.

Often a key characteristic of an engaging lesson is the students having some choice and control of the learning process and the learning environment.  How could I optimize individual choice, responsibility and autonomy?  Can I teach students to set personal goals, to self-assess and reflect? How can I minimize threats and distractions?  Is the level of visual and sound stimulation in the classroom too high for one or more students?  Should I provide a short sensory or physical activity break for the class or a group of students?  These latter points may be critical for the successful engagement of autistic students.

Teachers should ask the following questions.

Can I foster collaboration and cooperation?  Can I utilize class-wide peer tutoring so all students move through the roles of teacher and learner?  International research indicates that this is a very powerful strategy for increasing student outcomes.

How can I maximize the relevance of the material taught to the lives and personal interests of the students?  Can I show the students how the material relates to them or an activity or experience of interest to them? Or can I motivate the students that mastering the material will allow them to undertake a task or experience of greater interest to them.


Universal Design for Learning is an approach to curriculum development and delivery that aims to minimize barriers to learning and thereby to maximize the accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness of learning for all students.  Its underlying principles compliment inclusionary practices in the classroom and the engagement of all students, including students with disability.

 Useful links on Universal Design for Learning:

“UDL at a glance” video

CAST website (for more detail on UDL and examples of classroom application see

Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

UN Committee Clarifies Right to Inclusive Education.

Previous articles in this series:

Creating An Inclusive Class Culture – Practical Tips For Teachers (N.o1)

Supporting Peer Connection in the Inclusive Class – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.2)

Less Is More: The Education Assistant – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.3)

Getting the “Big Idea”: Including All Students in the Same Curriculum – Practical Tips for Teachers (No. 4 Part A)

Making the “Big Idea” Achievable: Including All students in the Same Curriculum – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 part B)

*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include.  You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through

*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer and the Founder of Starting With Julius.  You can connect with Catia on Twitter @CatiaMalaquias or on Facebook

[Cover photo © Phil Roeder]

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