Universal Design for Learning


SFU students reflect a diverse, engaged, and global student body with a wide range of goals, both academic and beyond. In addition to your discipline’s teaching context, this diversity, has implications for how you design, plan, and implement your course in ways that will best fit the needs of all your students.

What is UDL and why is it important?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a pedagogical framework that aims to optimize inclusivity and accessibility to accommodate the diverse needs, backgrounds, interests, and learning styles of all learners by minimizing learning barriers for students (CAST, 2018). It guides instructors to use a variety of methods to engage and motivate students, present course content in multiple modes and formats, and provide options for assessment types so that students have multiple ways of demonstrating what they have learned. UDL is a proactive approach to curriculum design which takes into consideration the variability of learner needs and considers how instructors may mitigate or remove barriers that interfere with accessibility and achievement of learning goals. 

UDL principles are based on a three-pillar model of learning:

  • Engagement
  • Representation
  • Action and expression 

These three pillars guide the design of learning environments that give all learners equal opportunity to learn. The framework also provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone without lowering the integrity or the expectations of the course. UDL is not a ‘one-size fits all’ solution, but rather, a framework offering flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

Try This

Here are some ideas to consider implementing when planning your teaching:  
(See chart below for further strategies to consider when time availability is limited, moderate, or good)


To mitigate these potential experiences...

  • Not enough time for some students to think and reflect, especially in intro courses where concepts and terminology are still unfamiliar.
  • Too much one-way talking.
  • Content can sometimes be disconnected from students’ own experiences. 
  • Some students feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and performance expectations.

...consider these ideas.

  • Chunk lectures into smaller portions, adding interactive elements for students to respond, reflect, and practice. For example, give opportunities to repeat muddy points, use a think-pair-share activity, or a short check-in comprehension question. 
  • Consider recording the lecture portion and using the in-person class time for synthesis, discussion, and practice. 
  • Draw on high-interest examples and invite students to make connections to their own real-world experiences and contexts. 
  • Set clear, manageable learning goals at the course and class level and refer to them throughout so that students can check progress and understand purpose of activities.
  • Provide regular opportunities for feedback.


To mitigate these potential experiences...

  • Some students struggle with and are overwhelmed by a lot of text—in slides and reading materials, for example. 
  • Some students vary in background knowledge (and first language), experience in the discipline, and ability to synthesize and summarize material.

...consider these ideas.

  • Replace excess text in slides with visual representations of material (charts, images, audio clips) and allow time for students to absorb the information (e.g. try not to give new information orally while students are reading different information on a slide). 
  • Make slides available in advance where possible so students can preview, take notes, draw on their prior knowledge and prepare themselves for the lesson. 
  • Create levels of knowledge where students can build on their own comprehension; for example, explain new terms and concepts the first time you use them and encourage students to build their own bank or glossary.
  • Model comprehension strategies such as note-taking, asking key questions, and summarizing. 


To mitigate these potential experiences...

  • Some students struggle with traditional high-stakes assessments such as tests and exams.
  • Some students struggle with sitting still and focussing for long periods of time.
  • It can be challenging for some students to participate by asking questions or contributing to discussions.

...consider these ideas.

  • Give students choices in expressing what they know.  For example, consider smaller assessment pieces such as projects, journals or other assignments. 
  • Invite students to use a space where they might stand up and stretch without disturbing others. 
  • Offer tools such as back channels, polls or asynchronous forums where students can contribute comfortably.

Adapted from UDL Navigators in Higher Education: A Field Guide (pp.34-41), by Black, J. & Moore, E. J. (2019). CAST.

  • For examples of the UDL pillars in practice guidelines click here
  • For downloadable graphic representations of the guidelines, click here

The UDL model of learning considers the variability of all learners—those with different experiences, backgrounds, cultures, interests, viewpoints and abilities— including those who were formerly relegated to the margins of our educational systems. 

How do instructors design and implement UDL?

You may already be designing and implementing with inclusive teaching strategies in your considerations of course design and delivery, learning experiences, assessment and the learning environment. Wherever your starting point, taking time to reflect on your current practices with the three UDL principles in mind can be a good place to start. Take a moment to reflect: 

  • How are you currently designing and teaching using multiple means of engagement, representation and action and expression?
  • What is it that you would like to change and why?
  • How much time do you have to invest? 

Here are some examples of strategies to implement UDL in your course, depending on how much time you have:

From Universal design for learning in higher education, La, Dyjur & Bair. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Calgary: University of Calgary. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

What key considerations will make a difference to students and instructors?

Some key questions to consider when planning your teaching:

  • How will learners engage with you, with each other and with the content? 
    Are there options that can help all learners self-regulate their own learning, sustain effort and persistence and stimulate interest and motivation? 
  • How will information be presented to the learners? 
    Does the information provide options for all learners to understand the language and symbols used, to perceive what needs to be learned, and to comprehend and understand? 
  • How are the learners expected to act strategically and express themselves? 
    Do the learning activities provide options for all learners to express themselves fluently, and act strategically in the way they respond and respond physically?

You can further consider how you do/can do each of the following in your own context:

  • Create clear, specific goals
  • Minimize distractions
  • Present flexible assessment options
  • Provide frequent formative feedback
  • Incorporate authentic and relevant examples
  • Ensure resources and supports meet the demands of the tasks
  • Increase opportunities for collaboration
  • Share examples
  • Offer time for active reflection on learning and engagement
  • Support risk-taking

(adapted from Top 10 UDL Tips for Designing Engaging Learning Environments (

Examples and Resources (suitable for different disciplines) 

Further Reading

            This is a BCcampus open source collection of three UDL Workbooks:  
               - Universal Design for Learning: A Practical Guide 
               - Universal Design for Learning: Strategies for Blended and Online Learning 
               - Assessment Design: Perspectives and Examples Informed by Universal Design for Learning


CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: National Centre on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from

La, H., Dyjur, P., & Bair, H. (2018). Universal design for learning in higher education. Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. Calgary: University of Calgary. Retrieved from Introduction to Curriculum Review (

Connect With Us

If you would like to explore applying UDL principles in your teaching, but you are not sure where to start, book a consultation with us, and we can help adapt these practices to your course and teaching context.

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