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Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information quicker or more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Also learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because they allow students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential.
Learning is impossible if information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance. To reduce barriers to learning, it is important to ensure that key information is equally perceptible to all learners by: 1) providing the same information through different modalities (e.g., through vision, hearing, or touch); 2) providing information in a format that will allow for adjustability by the user (e.g., text that can be enlarged, sounds that can be amplified). Such multiple representations not only ensure that information is accessible to learners with particular sensory and perceptual disabilities, but also easier to access and comprehend for many others.
In print materials, the display of information is fixed and permanent. In properly prepared digital materials, the display of the same information is very malleable and customizable. For example, a call-out box of background information may be displayed in a different location, or enlarged, or emphasized by the use of color, or deleted entirely. Such malleability provides options for increasing the perceptual clarity and salience of information for a wide range of learners and adjustments for preferences of others. While these customizations are difficult with print materials. They are commonly available automatically in digital materials, though it cannot be assumed that because it is digital it is accessible as many digital materials are equally inaccessible. Educators and learners should work together to attain the best match of features to learning needs.
Sound is a particularly effective way to convey the impact of information, which is why sound design is so important in movies and why the human voice is particularly effective for conveying emotion and significance. However, information conveyed solely through sound is not equally accessible to all learners and is especially inaccessible for learners with hearing disabilities, for learners who need more time to process information, or for learners who have memory difficulties. In addition, listening itself is a complex strategic skill that must be learned. To ensure that all learners have access to learning, options should be available for any information, including emphasis, presented aurally.
Images, Graphics, Animations, Video, or Text (see below) are often the optimal way to present information, especially when the information is about the relationships between objects, actions, numbers, or events. But such visual representations are not equally accessible to all learners, especially learners with visual disabilities or those who are not familiar with the type of graphic being used. Visual information can be quite dense, particularly with visual art, which can have multiple complex meanings and interpretations depending on contextual factors and the viewer’s knowledge base. To ensure that all learners have equal access to information, it is essential to provide non-visual alternatives.
Text is a special case of visual information. The transformation from text into audio is among the most easily accomplished methods for increasing accessibility. The advantage of text over audio is its permanence, but providing text that is easily transformable into audio accomplishes that permanence without sacrificing the advantages of audio. Digital synthetic Text-To-Speech is increasingly effective but still disappoints in its ability to carry the valuable information in prosody.
Learners vary in their facility with different forms of representation – both linguistic and non-linguistic. Vocabulary that may sharpen and clarify concepts for one learner may be opaque and foreign to another. An equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means. A graph that illustrates the relationship between two variables may be informative to one learner and inaccessible or puzzling to another. A picture or image that carries meaning for some learners may carry very different meanings for learners from differing cultural or familial backgrounds. As a result, inequalities arise when information is presented to all learners through a single form of representation. An important instructional strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided not only for accessibility, but for clarity and comprehensibility across all learners.
The semantic elements through which information is presented – the words, symbols, numbers, and icons – are differentially accessible to learners with varying backgrounds, languages, and lexical knowledge. To ensure accessibility for all, key vocabulary, labels, icons, and symbols should be linked to, or associated with, alternate representations of their meaning (e.g., an embedded glossary or definition, a graphic equivalent, a chart or map). Idioms, archaic expressions, culturally exclusive phrases, and slang, should be translated.
Single elements of meaning (like words or numbers) can be combined to make new meanings. Those new meanings, however, depend upon understanding the rules or structures (like syntax in a sentence or the properties of equations) of how those elements are combined. When the syntax of a sentence or the structure of a graphical representation is not obvious or familiar to learners, comprehension suffers. To ensure that all learners have equal access to information, provide alternative representations that clarify, or make more explicit, the syntactic or structural relationships between elements of meaning.
The ability to fluently decode words, numbers or symbols that have been presented in an encoded format (e.g., visual symbols for text, haptic symbols for Braille, algebraic expressions for relationships) takes practice for any learner, but some learners will reach automaticity more quickly than others. Learners need consistent and meaningful exposure to symbols so that they can comprehend and use them effectively. Lack of fluency or automaticity greatly increases the cognitive load of decoding, thereby reducing the capacity for information processing and comprehension. To ensure that all learners have equal access to knowledge, at least when the ability to decode is not the focus of instruction, it is important to provide options that reduce the barriers that decoding raises for learners who are unfamiliar or dysfluent with the symbols.
The language of curricular materials is usually monolingual, but often the learners in the classroom are not, so the promotion of cross-linguistic understanding is especially important. For new learners of the dominant language (e.g., English in American schools) or for learners of academic language (the dominate discourse in school), the accessibility of information is greatly reduced when no linguistic alternatives are available. Providing alternatives, especially for key information or vocabulary is an important aspect of accessibility.
Classroom materials are often dominated by information in text. But text is a weak format for presenting many concepts and for explicating most processes. Furthermore, text is a particularly weak form of presentation for learners who have text- or language-related disabilities. Providing alternatives - especially illustrations, simulations, images or interactive graphics – can make the information in text more comprehensible for any learner and accessible for some who would find it completely inaccessible in text.
The purpose of education is not to make information accessible, but rather to teach learners how to transform accessible information into useable knowledge. Decades of cognitive science research have demonstrated that the capability to transform accessible information into useable knowledge is not a passive process but an active one. Constructing useable knowledge, knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making, depends not upon merely perceiving information, but upon active “information processing skills” like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization. Individuals differ greatly in their skills in information processing and in their access to prior knowledge through which they can assimilate new information. Proper design and presentation of information – the responsibility of any curriculum or instructional methodology - can provide the scaffolds necessary to ensure that all learners have access to knowledge.
Information is more accessible and likely to be assimilated by learners when it is presented in a way that primes, activates, or provides any pre-requisite knowledge. Barriers and inequities exist when some learners lack the background knowledge that is critical to assimilating or using new information. However, there are also barriers for learners who have the necessary background knowledge, but might not know it is relevant. Those barriers can be reduced when options are available that supply or activate relevant prior knowledge, or link to the pre-requisite information elsewhere.
One of the big differences between experts and novices in any domain is the facility with which they distinguish what is critical from what is unimportant or irrelevant. Since experts quickly recognize the most important features in information, they allocate their time efficiently, quickly identifying what is valuable and finding the right “hooks” with which to assimilate the most valuable information into existing knowledge. As a consequence, one of the most effective ways to make information more accessible is to provide explicit cues or prompts that assist individuals in attending to those features that matter most while avoiding those that matter least.
Successful transformation of information into useable knowledge often requires the application of mental strategies and skills for “processing” information. These cognitive, or meta-cognitive, strategies involve the selection and manipulation of information so that it can be better summarized, categorized, prioritized, contextualized and remembered. While some learners in any classroom may have a full repertoire of these strategies, along with the knowledge of when to apply them, most learners do not. Well-designed materials can provide customized and embedded models, scaffolds, and feedback to assist learners who have very diverse abilities in using those strategies effectively.
All learners need to be able to generalize and transfer their learning to new contexts. Students vary in the amount of scaffolding they need for memory and transfer in order to improve their ability to access their prior learning. Of course, all learners can benefit from assistance in how to transfer the information they have to other situations, as learning is not about individual facts in isolation, and students need multiple representations for this to occur. Without this support and the use of multiple representations, information might be learned, but is inaccessible in new situations. Supports for memory, generalization, and transfer include techniques that are designed to heighten the memorability of the information, as well as those that prompt and guide learners to employ explicit strategies.
CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
The UDL Guidelines began as a project of the National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC), a cooperative agreement between the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), Cooperative Agreement No. h424H990004. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, nor does this acknowledgement imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
The UDL Guidelines were compiled by David H. Rose, Ed.D., Co-Founder and Chief Education Officer at CAST, and Jenna Gravel, M.Ed., doctoral student at Harvard. They have received extensive review and comments from: colleagues at CAST; teachers at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels; researchers; and other practitioners. As with Guidelines 1.0 we will be inviting peer review and comments from individuals throughout the field.
Last Updated: 03/07/2014