What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for learning design. It is based on research in the learning sciences that each individual is unique in how they learn, and within that variability are patterns that are systematic and predictable based on three neural networks that govern the learning process in the brain (Meyer et al., 2014). Knowing the sources and ranges of this variability helps learning designers proactively design to address it. UDL reflects a paradigm shift from curriculum-centered classrooms to learner-centered classrooms that allow for flexibility in learning. The goal of UDL is for all students to have access to learning and for all students to have agency as learners. There are three main principles of UDL, each based on a set of neural networks in the brain that scientists have identified as essential for learning:

  • Affective Networks: the “why” of learning: These neural networks control our interests and motivations and call on educators to provide multiple means of engagement.
  • Recognition Networks: the “what” of learning: These neural networks control how we perceive, identify, and interpret information through our senses. Providing multiple means of representation helps students process new information.
  • Strategic Networks: the “how” of learning: These neural networks control how we set goals, plan, and perform tasks and projects. Students have different strengths and preferences when it comes to expressing their learning so it is important to provide multiple means of action and expression.
Why does it matter?

What we discovered is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning design doesn’t work. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework supports educators to design differently. When educators use UDL, learning is designed with options so that it is accessible for all learners. UDL is asset-based, valuing each learner’s uniqueness and honoring them as experts at the art of learning itself. Similar to our definition of learner variability (link to paper), a UDL approach finds barriers in designs, not learners, and responds by making those designs more flexible. A UDL approach supports equity for every learner by calling on educators to understand and reflect on their context, identify barriers, and embrace the full diversity of learners. 

What do teachers need to know?

In order to put UDL principles into practice, teachers and learning designers must first set clear goals that embrace an understanding of learner variability within their given context and/or invite learners to set goals of their own. These goals should not dictate the “how” of learning, but instead leave room for multiple pathways. With a clear goal, the designer is able to plan multiple routes—considering scaffolds and strategies—that make reaching the goal possible for all learners. The UDL Guidelines help educators know what to pay attention to in their designs so that all learners have access and agency. 

How does it intersect with learner variability?

​​UDL helps us understand that learner variability is the rule, not the exception. Using frameworks like UDL help make the instructional planning process manageable and centered on student strengths. The Learner Variability Navigator (LVN) can help pinpoint factors that impact students as strengths or challenges. When considering different pathways for students, use the LVN to identify strategies that address the factors that may become barriers, and use the UDL Guidelines to support your thinking and planning.

Examples from the Field

Additional resources you can use to further your knowledge and practice.

Professional Learning

Go Further With this Topic


CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice.