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Universal Design

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Universal Design (UD) developed to address the needs of students with disabilities. The National Center for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) defines UDL as "a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn."  It means designing a course that serves all students. A UD course builds as many disability accommodations as possible into the design of the course so that students encounter options as natural to the learning experience, and students with disabilities find their needs already met without having to request accommodations.  The idea has expanded and now sometimes includes culturally relevant strategies as well. This page will focus on UD (or UDL) for students with disabilities.

Many instructors still view universal design strategies as primarily architectural, such as powered door-openers and ramps, or technological, such as close-captioned video that instructors always screen with the captioning on.  But UD also advocates offering multiple modes for engaging course materials (e.g. recorded word as well as written texts) and multiple mode options for evaluating student learning. This last area is the least studied and thus biggest opportunity for UD practitioners.

Brief Summary of Research

The benefit of accommodations to students with disabilities has a long- and well-documented history. It is also, of course, required by law. Most campuses still provide accommodations to students with disabilities through a special office such as UWL's ACCESS Center. Such offices sometimes also become student centers where students with disabilities hang out because they feel most comfortable and understood there.  Many service offices are not designed to also serve as student centers.

The benefit of mainstreaming accommodations into a student's daily life is evident in climate studies in which students on UD campuses report feeling included in the course. At UWL, we have at least anecdotal evidence that the accommodations built into newer buildings like Centennial Hall have helped students who use a wheelchair feel like members of the class rather than like bystanders on the edge of the room.

When the now-debunked theory of "learning styles" (see Teshia Marshik's TED Talk cited below) was still in its heyday, UD advocates argued that UD naturally fit with then-current educational best practices.  UD advocates today may note that UD approaches can still benefit other students, such as English language learners. Little research exploring this exists to date. But disability rights advocates note that UD is still the right thing to do for students with disabilities, and many also note that UD can help reduce the strain on disabilities services providers, given that the number of students applying for accommodations on non-UD campuses typically rises (and sometimes explodes) over the course of the school year.

Despite its continued emphasis on learning styles and the flawed studies behind them, arguably the best resource for understanding how universal design applies to learning remains the website of the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.  The best summary of the UD Principals and Guidelines is NCUDL's graphic organizer:

The three UDL principles as identified by NCUDL are:

  1. Provide multiple means of representation focuses on methods of presenting information, concepts, and learning materials to students.
  2. Provide multiple means of action and expression focuses on providing students with options to present or demonstrate what they know.
  3. Provide multiple means of engagement focuses on providing students with some autonomy, making courses and assignments relevant, developing students' metacognitive skills.  This is also the area where connections to culturally relevant teaching are most obvious.

To learn more about the research that backs up each of the principles and checkpoints, read here:


The National Center on Universal Design for Learning has an excellent website that explains the principles and the research behind them.  Their Implementation Examples page is particularly useful, as are their downloadable guideline forms in various formats.

"Accommodating Students with Disabilities" from Fort Hays University provides a good summary of methods instructors might use to make courses more inclusive.

UDI Online Project. (2010). Students with disabilities and online learning (Technical Brief # 04). Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability. Addresses issues specifically in the online environment.

The most difficult problem in designing a UD course lies in designing multiple evaluation instruments that accommodate a range of disabilities but are still equivalent to each other in terms of the learning outcomes defined by the instructor.  This is an area where experimentation and research are needed, and where collaboration among students, disabilities accommodations experts, and instructors would be especially valuable both to students and to higher education.


National Center on Universal Design for Learning

On learning styles (and what to do instead of trying to teach to learning styles), watch Tesia Marshik (2015). Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection. TEDxUWLaCrosse.

Tobin, Thomas J., and Behling, Kirsten T., Reach everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018). Learn more about this recent publication in this podcast interview with one of the authors.

Hoskins, D. (2017). Designing Inclusive Courses: Universal Design. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from