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Universal Design for Learning, Neurodiversity, and Asset-Based Instruction


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs. UDL is a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

  • provides flexibility in the ways: information is presented, students are engaged, and students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills
  • reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all stuents, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.
    Provided by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA).

The concept of Universal Design originated in the field of architecture, with the goal of creating places and things that were accessible to as many people as possible. For example, curb cuts were originally designed to enable people with wheelchairs to move more smoothly about their community. Yet, as we know, curb cuts not only accomplished that, but also improved access for people with strollers, bikes, and skateboards. Hence, the term “universal.”

In a sense, Universal Design for Learning is a curb cut for the classroom. That is, UDL is an approach to designing educational environments and products so they can be used by the widest range of students without adaptation. This flexible design of curriculum anticipates the full range of diversity found in American classrooms and puts supports in place before they are needed. With flexible curriculum, all students can succeed.


While this video depicts a universal design scenario from an architecture point of view, the ideas presented can be applied to the classroom.

The video depicts some of the obstacles that the Normals encounter in their trip to get pizza. The steps illuminated in the video used to address the obstacles can be leveraged to think about all facets of the learning environment. Lets look at each.

  • Discover - In this step the design team talked with the family and others to identify obstacles and collect as much data and feedback as possible about the situation. In a classroom setting, this important step makes the student a collaborator in the learning process, gives them a voice, allowing them to share their experience. 
  • Define - In this phase the designers decide what they want the design to do. In a classroom setting, this is akin to the learning objectives. What is it that you (the instructor) want the students to learn through your course, module, or activity? This instructor develops their learning objectives taking into account what was discovered in the last phase, keeps in mind who the students are in the learning process, and considers what they bring to the learning environment
  • Develop - This is where the instructor takes all the data they have gathered and creates the activities, assessments, and gathers materials that will be part of the learning experience. This is also where the instructor may identify multiple means of communicating the data to students and options for how the students may demonstrate what they know.  
  • Deliver - This is the step where the plans are put into practice. The instructor presents the class and facilitates the learning experience based on the data and feedback they have received. They then have the opportunity to gather further data to measure how successful the endeavor was. This is an iterative process - gathering and using feedback from the learners to adjust the learning environment to best meet the needs of the learners.

A graphic showing the cycle through a universal design project moving through the four steps of discover, define, develop and deliver.


Individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning. Neuroscience reveals that these differences are as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints. Three primary brain networks come into play:


Recognition Networks Strategic Networks Affective Networks
The "what" of learning The "how" of learning The "why" of learning
Image of a brain with recognition network shown in purple Image of a brain with strategic network shown in blue Image of a brain with affective network shown in green
How we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear, and read. Identifying letters, words, or an author's style are recognition tasks. Planning and performing tasks. How we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay or solving a math problem are strategic tasks. How learners get engaged and stay motivated. How they are challenged, excited, or interested. These are affective dimensions.
Present information and content in different ways Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know Stimulate interest and motivation for learning
More ways to provide Multiple Means of Representation More ways to provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression More ways to provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Source: CAST - What is UDL? (

The UDL Guidelines are a framework for thinking about how to develop learning experiences that are accessible and inclusive to all learners. You can find them on this website. The viedo below is a helpful introduction about the guidelines.

Todd Rose: The Myth of Average TEDx Sonoma County


Todd Rose: Variability Matters


Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover