Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way to structure your course so it is fully accessible to as many students as possible without a need for modifications or accommodations. It draws from universal design principles in architecture that, when practiced, can create built environments that are elegantly accessible, with no need for retrofits after the fact. Pedagogy, assignments, learning materials, assessments, and everything else that goes into constructing your course can benefit from universal design principles. 

Benefits of Universal Design

Many people benefit from universal design in architecture who do not identify as disabled. Curb cuts and building entrances that do not have steps are commonly referred to examples of features that make it is easier for all of us to access a sidewalk or a building. Those pushing carts or strollers and those in wheelchairs, however, require this design for access. Who benefits from a course designed with universal design principles?

  • Students with disabilities who have not identified to Disability Resources to request formal accommodations. A high proportion of students with disabilities never request accommodations. They may feel a sense of shame or stigma in doing so, do not wish to go through the process, or do not realize that they can do so. 
  • Students struggling with their mental health. A large portion of the above students who do not identify to Disability Resources are in this category. There are also many students who do not identify or qualify as disabled but who face mental health challenges either routinely or from time to time.
  • Students with formal academic accommodations. Research indicates that students often take on a deficit mindset when they have to ask their instructors for "special" assistance at the beginning of each semester. They also often back down from asserting their rights when faculty make even seemingly neutral statements in face-to-face discussions about accommodations. UDL allows these students to get equal access to a course without having to ask for something different than what the rest of the class receives. See Freedman, Justin E., "“Is that OK with you?”: Examining a simulated discussion about accommodations between university students identified as having a disability and a standardized faculty member" (2018). Dissertations - ALL. 972.
  • Students who face emergencies, illnesses, or injuries. Many students need to handle one or more of these in any given semester.
  • Students who are also parents, athletes, or need to work to afford college. Such students often require academic flexibility to meet all of their responsibilities.

Examples of Universal Design Principles at Work

How can you begin to employ UDL in your courses? Pick one or two of the below ideas to try in a course. All of these examples will certainly not fit every professor's teaching style or learning outcomes. Please let us know if you have others you would like to share. 

Accessibility Barriers

Universal Design Solutions

Timed proctored assessments create barriers for those with slower processing speed, attention deficits, and reading disabilities. Students who have emergencies or are ill at the time of a test can be at a disadvantage. Students with high levels of anxiety often perform worse in such assessments. Assess students with take home exams or other assignments. If giving timed exams, offer all students the opportunity to receive extended time and a separate testing location.
Lectures with lots of information can make it difficult for students with a variety of disabilities to take adequate notes. Students who face an emergency or illness and cannot make class miss out on both the learning experience of attending class and a record of what happened in class that day. Assign two students the responsibility of taking and posting notes to Blackboard for each class. This responsibility rotates between every student over the course of the semester. Students can be graded on the quality of their notes by you or their peers.
Videos without captions can be hard for many viewers to follow and impossible for someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing to understand. If you always assign videos with captions and turn them on when showing in class, more students have equal access. It will also be easier for all students to search for particular terms and navigate to important parts of the video.
Many online learning and homework products created by textbook publishers are inaccessible to those who are blind or dyslexic. Check with Information Resources or Disability Resources before requiring students to purchase a particular online product to ensure it is designed for all learners.
Course readings handed out in class or posted as image PDFs on Blackboard cannot be read by those who are blind or dyslexic. If these readings have been through multiple generations of copying and/or have underlining or marginalia included, they can be hard for all to read. Post clean, accessible electronic readings on Blackboard.
Hard and fast deadlines may cause undue stress for students, especially when they coincide with deadlines in other courses. They are especially burdensome when an illness, injury, or other emergency crops up at the same time. Offer flexible deadlines to students whenever possible. 
Assessing students the same way throughout the semester can result in you learning more about how well a particular student writes, presents, takes exams, etc. than how well they understand the content of the course. This can cause stress and poor grades for students who are weaker in that type of assessment. Assess students in multiple ways throughout the semester and, if possible, offer students flexibility and choices for how to be assessed.
Requiring only one mode of class participation can discourage students who could better share their knowledge and ask questions in other ways. Provide multiple ways for students to participate in class - whole class verbal comments, small group and paired discussions, Blackboard discussion boards, and other types of online participation.


Universal Design for Learning at SUNY offers workshops, online courses, and webinars for faculty.

Kumar, Kari L & Wideman, Maureen. "Accessible by design: Applying UDL principles in a first year undergraduate course.Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 44: 1, pp 125-147. 2014.

Burgstahler, Sheryl E. Universal Design in Higher Education: Promising Practices. University of Washington. DO-IT.

UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. CAST.