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How Universal Design for Learning Helps Students Merge Onto the 'Learning Expressway'

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When Kate Smith’s second grade class finished their virtual field trip to a local farm, her students chose how they wanted to share what they had learned. Some kids created postcards or a poster with crayons. Some wrote a letter about the trip and sent it to a family member. Others scripted commercials and shot a video to present to the class. Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach where teachers seek to make learning accessible to all students regardless of their backgrounds, abilities, or learning preferences, is at the root of Smith’s lessons. “You’re getting to know your kids — their abilities, their skill levels, what they struggle with, where they excel, their interests, all those kinds of things. And you’re designing [lessons] with kids in mind,” said the teacher, who works in Westminster, Maryland.

Developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), UDL provides a framework for educators to create inclusive learning environments. “It really is about how we design instruction and recognizing that one-size-fits-all experiences, which have been perpetuated by the system forever, have been designed to exclude and oppress some learners,” said Katie Novak,  author of UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning

In UDL, teachers provide students with multiple representations of new information, multiple ways to engage with that information, and multiple avenues for expressing their learning. Andratesha Fritzgerald, an educator and author of Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning,  said UDL can be likened to a learning expressway with multiple means of representation, engagement and expression serving as on-ramps, traffic patterns and off-ramps.

On-ramp: Multiple means of representation

When teachers provide multiple means of representation, they introduce information in a variety of ways. They may use visual aids, graphic organizers, videos and audio to make information easier for students to understand. “The information that students are supposed to be taking in or learning needs an on ramp,” said Fritzgerald. “It needs something to connect from where you are to where it is that you want to go.”


For example, if students are learning about different plant types, a teacher could structure the lesson so students read seed packets, meet local gardeners and examine a variety of plant samples. “Multiple means of representation asks, ‘How can we design instruction so that all students can build understanding in ways that are linguistically appropriate and culturally responsive?’” said Novak. 

In her current role as an instructional coach, Smith, the Maryland educator, supports teachers in adapting lessons for students of all abilities. When educators try to make their curriculum more accessible, they’re often worried that changing the curriculum too much, will lower the quality, Smith said. For teachers who are new to UDL, it can be beneficial to connect with other UDL educators in person or online to share materials and ask any questions. With practice, Smith said, teachers get more comfortable identifying how to adapt core content so all students are learning important skills.

Traffic pattern: Multiple means of engagement

Multiple means of engagement is when a teacher gives students a variety of ways to participate in learning tasks, such as project-based learning, games or discussions. “Multiple means of engagement is providing options to build purpose and motivation and help students really commit to these incredibly rigorous learning tasks,” said Novak. 

If multiple means of representation are on-ramps, multiple means of engagement are how students navigate the traffic pattern. “Every time you merge onto an expressway of learning, the traffic pattern is going to be different. You’ll be surrounded by different cars,” said Fritzgerald. “What supports do you lean on? How do you set your GPS?”

Returning to the example of a lesson on plant types, a teacher could provide different options for students to have a deeper learning experience, such as participating in a community garden, starting a herb garden at home or observing a neighbor’s houseplants.

 “We provide all of these different options and say, ‘We want you to learn about this because we want you to apply it, and you can work alone or together,” said Novak. “And ultimately, we want you to find a purpose and motivation in this space.” Additionally, each learner is empowered to make decisions about what support they need to participate in classwork, including selecting activities that interest them, determining whether they work alone or in a group, and figuring out how they are physically set up in the classroom.

At Smith’s school, flexible seating gives students a variety of ways to position themselves so that they are ready to learn. “Instead of desks or tables, we have different choices of seats: wobble stools, cushions, balls, different things that make the room more comfortable for the students,” she said.

Off-ramp: Multiple means of expression

Teachers may offer options for different modes of expression, such as written assignments, oral presentations or art projects and allow students to choose the materials they use to present information. Multiple means of expression are off-ramps, said Fritzgerald: “That’s when I am ready to show you what I know so that I can arrive at the destination that I’ve chosen and then move on to the next destination.”

For instance, students who have completed activities for a unit about plants may share a series of photos or a video, while others might write a letter about their experience or bring in a physical plant to show the class. Even a student’s dead plant can present opportunities for further learning. “We want to make sure you have the tools and options to share with us your learning so that we can give you feedback and we can find out what barriers you’re facing so we can help you along on your journey,” said Novak.

Another way some teachers enable students to express what they have learned are communication boards – posters or devices with images and symbols that a person can point to to express themselves. “Communication boards have traditionally been used more with students who have complex communication needs,” said Smith. “But I think teachers are starting to see the value in using it with a broader population – kids who may have English as their second language, have processing problems, and might have behavior or focus issues.” 


By adopting UDL practices, teachers approach learning from a variety of angles. Providing multiple means of representation, engagement and expression enables teachers to meet a variety of learning needs. “Everyone is capable of working towards mastery of standards. If we get the conditions right we’re really honoring the learner and allowing them to co-create those conditions,” said Novak. 

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