George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

4 Principles of a Universal Design for Learning Approach

Teachers can encourage high school students’ success by focusing on learner variability and creating customizable learning experiences.

February 4, 2022
High school student standing and speaking in class to teacher
Rawpixel Ltd / Alamy

If the TV soccer coach Ted Lasso were a teacher, he’d be all about Universal Design for Learning.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that guides educators in designing learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners. It helps teachers move from a one-size-fits-all approach toward one that adapts to learner variability. UDL embraces the idea that we should have firm goals for students—using flexible means to reach those goals. The result is more equitable and engaging classrooms.

How do I know Ted would embrace UDL?

At its core, UDL is a mindset, or set of beliefs, that guides educators in everything they do. And Ted has that mindset. It’s all about believing—in students and their potential; in the importance of the process as much as the result; and in the power of continual growth, reflection, and lifelong learning.

Begin by Embracing Four Beliefs

While we become teachers to positively impact students, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with day-to-day challenges, especially in these past few years. Still, ask any teacher, and they’ll say that the goal of education is more than just helping students acquire and regurgitate knowledge. Instead, we want to equip children with tools for success—show them how to reach their goals and prepare them for ever-changing jobs and a world we can’t quite imagine. So how can we do this?

I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it’s crucial to commit to the UDL mindset in order to have success. Embracing the following four beliefs is the first step in designing learning experiences that serve all students.

1. All students can reach the high expectations we set. When we set firm goals for all students, we’re sending the message that we believe they’re capable. We start by clearly identifying the goals we’re focusing on. Then, reflect honestly: Do we truly believe that every student can reach these goals?

As a teacher, I involved students in tracking and monitoring their goals by creating digital Data Notebooks where we tracked academic, behavioral, and other goals. We had frequent one-on-one check-ins and monitored these together. These opportunities to conference around goals made them more manageable and helped us all stay committed to them.

2. Barriers to success exist in the system, not in the students. After firm goals are set, we need to recognize that external barriers can prevent students from being successful. Therefore, we need to be flexible by providing multiple pathways for students to reach their goals. When planning, we can ask ourselves, “What barriers might arise within each of these factors: curriculum, teaching methods, resources, materials, and assessments?”

When teaching, I aimed to address many barriers before we began a unit. Sometimes students didn’t have background knowledge, so we’d cover relevant topics and skills at the start. Other times, content wasn’t academically interesting or culturally relevant, so we found ways to tie it to their lives. I realized that many students needed clearer directions, checklists, and check-ins, so I created systems within our classroom to address this.

3. Learner variability is the norm, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. We can empower students with choices and autonomy so that they can overcome those barriers and reach their goals. This belief allows us to embrace the three UDL principles that help us design more accessible, inclusive, and engaging learning experiences:

  • Multiple means of engagement: Learners vary in how they are motivated and want to engage in learning, so we can provide multiple options for engagement.
  • Multiple means of representation: Learners perceive and comprehend information differently, so we can provide multiple options for acquiring knowledge.
  • Multiple means of action and expression: Learners vary in how they navigate learning and express what they know, so we can provide multiple options for them to demonstrate learning.

We can put these principles into practice in many ways. Are there opportunities for students to have choice in what topic they study and how they take in information (reading, listening, watching)? Can we create scaffolds for students? Or offer choices in how they demonstrate their learning?

When I created units, I started by looking at our goals and brainstorming ways in which I could offer students autonomy that would still lead them to those goals. Sometimes, they chose their own text or topic. Other times, I offered materials in multiple modalities for them to choose from: reading, watching, and/or listening. Lastly, I saw so much creativity and engagement when students had a choice over how they demonstrated their learning—for example, choosing between a written response, a slide presentation, or a video.

4. Continual self-reflection leads to lifelong, expert learners. There’s a lot of uncertainty around the future of work and our world. We know that the ability to learn is crucial. The ultimate goal of UDL is to develop “expert learners” who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed. Even though this approach may make us nervous, when we show trust by giving students choices, when we teach them how to reflect on those choices and their work, and when we value growth as much as results, we are developing expert learners.

In my teaching, I focused on creating an environment where students felt safe and valued. To emphasize growth, I offered opportunities for revisions rather than only grading final work. I built reflection questions into both our end-of-unit review and our everyday work, mainly through exit tickets. Students practiced reflecting on their work and their choices: If they could do the assignment over again, would they have made the same choices? Why or why not?

Start Small

Of course there’s more to great teaching, preparing our students for the future, and applying UDL than these four beliefs, but it’s only if we hold these beliefs that the other pieces then fall into place.

With so much on their plates, many teachers are feeling overwhelmed right now. It’s OK to start small: Commit every day to having high expectations for all students. Believe in them. You can print out this 4 Beliefs poster and put it on your desk. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. While it may not seem like you’re doing much, you’ll be able to feel a difference. And better yet, so will your students. Over time, believing in your students can lead to their believing in themselves, which is a gift that’ll last a lifetime.

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  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • 9-12 High School

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