Universal Design for Learning Research Paper Starter

Universal Design for Learning

(Research Starters)

This article presents information on the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is based on knowledge gained from the field of architecture as well as from recent advances in cognitive neuroscience. It capitalizes on the inherent flexibility of technology to meet the needs of diverse learners. The term Universal does not mean a single solution; instead, it implies recognition of each learner’s unique differences and creating learning experiences that support learners, maximizing their ability to progress (Meyer & Rose, 1998; Rose & Meyer, 2002). Recent national legislation calls for an emphasis on Universal Design (UD) in special education.

Keywords Access to the General Curriculum; Assistive Technologies; Curriculum Accommodation; Disabilities; Special Education; Universal Design; Universal Design for Learning


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has its roots in the field of architecture and cognitive neuroscience. It recognizes the promise of technology to meet the needs of individual learners because of the inherent and nearly limitless flexibility of technology itself. National legislation requires attention to Universal Design (UD) in curriculum and assessment development.

UDL principles guide educators in finding innovative ways to make curricula accessible and appropriate for individuals with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities in various learning situations and contexts (Rose & Meyer, 2002). This paradigm for teaching, learning, assessment, and curriculum development focuses on adapting the curriculum to suit the learner rather than the other way around. UDL guides teachers and curriculum developers toward creating flexible materials and methods before they are put in students' hands, rather than waiting until students arrive and trying to retrofit inflexible materials to each learner.


The UDL movement in education has roots in the field of architecture. Over 40 years ago, architect Ronald Mace introduced the novel idea that physical environments could be designed from the start to meet the diverse needs of all the individuals who access such spaces. At the time, disability was not considered in design practice and aesthetics. A wheelchair user himself, Mace suggested that “designers examine the needs of diverse consumers (e.g., young people, elderly people, and those with temporary and permanent disabilities) and use this enhanced awareness to inform product design that is more functional to a broader range of people” (McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006, p. 167). The term “Universal Design” (UD) reflected this approach of “proactively incorporating inclusive design features while minimizing the need for individual, retrofitted accommodations” (McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006, p. 167).

Universally designed products and environments provide a more functional environment or product for everyone, not just the disabled. Universally designed products and settings are increasingly common in all our lives. For example, TV captioning, which is necessary for individuals with hearing impairments, is also helpful to people in noisy settings such as airports or restaurants, and curb cuts which are required for wheelchair users are handy for kids on bicycles, parents with strollers and travelers pulling wheeled luggage (McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006). According to Welch (1995),

“The concept of UD goes beyond the mere provision of special features for various segments of the population; instead it emphasizes a creative approach that is more inclusive, one that asks at the outset of the design process how a product, building or public space can be made both aesthetically pleasing and functional for the greatest number of users” (as cited in McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006, p. 168).

In UD, the new paradigm in education for addressing the instructional needs of students with disabilities and those at risk for learning difficulties, “disability” is accepted as a normal phenomenon of human diversity rather than as an aberration.

The Center of Universal Design at North Carolina State University defines UD as a way to design, create and manufacture products and environments that are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. The Center outlines seven basic principles:

• Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

• Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

• Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.

• Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

• Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

• Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

• Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility. (Center for Universal Design, 1997)

According to Hitchcock and Stahl (2003), attempts have been made to apply these seven UD principles to learning and assessment, but they aren’t a perfect fit. Like curricula and tests that are designed “without consideration for the needs of individuals with disabilities in mind, the foundational UD principles appropriate for architecture and for computer hardware, software, media, and communication devices do not always work well when applied to learning because they were not specifically developed with learning in mind” (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003, p. 45). A review of the current literature that pertains to UD in educational settings reveals a jumble of acronyms, such as UDI (Universal Design for Instruction), UID (Universal Instructional Design), UDE (Universal Design in Education) and UDL (Universal Design for Learning). UDL has risen to the top of the alphabet soup in educational settings because it is based on recent developments in cognitive neuroscience that are becoming widely accepted views of how the human brain learns.

Cognitive Neuroscience

In addition to its architectural underpinnings, UDL theory stems from the field of cognitive neuroscience, which aims to understand how humans actually learn by using brain scanning technology (i.e., PET scans and MRIs). Individual differences in the brain shed light on the incredible diversity of learning styles and preferences. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Wakefield, MA focuses its research and development agenda on understanding individual differences in terms of three brain networks: recognition, strategic and affective (Meyer & Rose, 1998; Rose & Meyer, 2002).

The Recognition Network of Learning

According to Meyer and Rose (2002), the recognition network is the “what” of learning. The question, “What is it?” is associated with recognition. Located in the back of the brain, recognition networks “enable us to identify and interpret patterns of sound, light, taste, smell and touch. These networks allow us to recognize voices, faces, letters, and words, as well as more complex patterns, such as an author's style and nuance and abstract concepts like justice” (Chap. 2). Even though human brains all have the same basic recognition architecture and recognize things basically the same way, our recognition networks can be very different. Each of us has a brain that is slightly different from everyone else's. Meyer and Rose explain that most people, when visually recognizing an object, show

“increased activity in the back part of their brains; however, the exact magnitude, location, and distribution of that increased activity varies quite a bit. The active area of the cortex may be larger or smaller, more localized to the right or left hemisphere, or more widely or closely distributed. These variations manifest in the way people recognize things in the world—their recognition strengths, weaknesses, and preferences” (2002, Chapter 2).

A UDL curriculum activates diverse learners' recognition networks by offering multiple means of representation (e.g., supplement an oral lecture with visuals) to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.

The Strategic Network of Learning

The strategic network is the “how” of learning. A classic strategic question is, “How do I do it?” These neural networks are located primarily in the front part of the brain called the frontal lobe. We use strategic networks to “plan, execute, and monitor our internally generated mental and motor patterns—actions and skills as diverse as sweeping the floor, deciding a chess move, or choosing a college” (Meyer & Rose, 2002, Chapter 2). During some activities we may be aware that we are applying a strategy. However, conscious or not, we use strategy in essentially everything we do. Strategic brain networks vary widely between individuals....

(The entire section is 4170 words.)