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Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.
A textbook or workbook in a print format provides limited means of navigation or physical interaction (e.g., turning pages, handwriting in spaces provided). Many interactive pieces of educational software similarly provide only limited means of navigation or interaction (e.g., using a joystick or keyboard). Navigation and interaction in those limited ways will raise barriers for some learners – those with physical disabilities, blindness, dysgraphia, or who need various kinds of executive functioning supports. It is important to provide materials with which all learners can interact. Properly designed curricular materials provide a seamless interface with common assistive technologies through which individuals with movement impairments can navigate and express what they know – to allow navigation or interaction with a single switch, through voice activated switches, expanded keyboards and others.
Learners differ widely in their capacity to navigate their physical environment. To reduce barriers to learning that would be introduced by the motor demands of a task, provide alternative means for response, selection, and composition. In addition, learners differ widely in their optimal means for navigating through information and activities. To provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, an instructor must ensure that there are multiple means for navigation and control is accessible
Providing a child with a tool is often not enough. We need to provide the support to use the tool effectively. Many learners need help navigating through their environment (both in terms of physical space and the curriculum), and all learners should be given the opportunity to use tools that might help them meet the goal of full participation in the classroom. However, significant numbers of learners with disabilities have to use Assistive Technologies for navigation, interaction, and composition on a regular basis. It is critical that instructional technologies and curricula do not impose inadvertent barriers to the use of these assistive technologies. An important design consideration, for example, is to ensure that there are keyboard commands for any mouse action so that learners can use common assistive technologies that depend upon those commands. It is also important, however, to ensure that making a lesson physically accessible does not inadvertently remove its challenge to learning.
There is no medium of expression that is equally suited for all learners or for all kinds of communication. On the contrary, there are media, which seem poorly suited for some kinds of expression, and for some kinds of learning. While a learner with dyslexia may excel at story-telling in conversation, he may falter when telling that same story in writing. It is important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to the level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment.
Unless specific media and materials are critical to the goal (e.g., learning to paint specifically with oils, learning to handwrite with calligraphy) it is important to provide alternative media for expression. Such alternatives reduce media-specific barriers to expression among learners with a variety of special needs, but also increases the opportunities for all learners to develop a wider range of expression in a media-rich world. For example, it is important for all learners to learn composition, not just writing, and to learn the optimal medium for any particular content of expression and audience.
There is a tendency in schooling to focus on traditional tools rather than contemporary ones. This tendency has several liabilities: 1) it does not prepare learners for their future; 2) it limits the range of content and teaching methods that can be implemented; 3) it restricts learners ability to express knowledge about content (assessment); and, most importantly, 4) it constricts the kinds of learners who can be successful. Current media tools provide a more flexible and accessible toolkit with which learners can more successfully take part in their learning and articulate what they know. Unless a lesson is focused on learning to use a specific tool (e.g., learning to draw with a compass), curricula should allow many alternatives. Like any craftsman, learners should learn to use tools that are an optimal match between their abilities and the demands of the task.
Learners must develop a variety of fluencies (e.g., visual, audio, mathematical, reading, etc.). This means that they often need multiple scaffolds to assist them as they practice and develop independence. Curricula should offer alternatives in the degrees of freedom available, with highly scaffolded and supported opportunities provided for some and wide degrees of freedom for others who are ready for independence. Fluency is also built through many opportunities for performance, be it in the form of an essay or a dramatic production. Performance helps learners because it allows them to synthesize their learning in personally relevant ways. Overall, it is important to provide options that build learners’ fluencies.
At the highest level of the human capacity to act skillfully are the so-called “executive functions.” Associated with networks that include the prefrontal cortex, these capabilities allow humans to overcome impulsive, short-term reactions to their environment and instead to set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed. In short, they allow learners to take advantage of their environment. Of critical importance to educators is the fact that executive functions have very limited capacity due to working memory. This is true because executive capacity is sharply reduced when: 1) executive functioning capacity must be devoted to managing “lower level” skills and responses which are not automatic or fluent thus the capacity for “higher level” functions is taken; and 2) executive capacity itself is reduced due to some sort of higher level disability or to lack of fluency with executive strategies. The UDL framework typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed. Previous guidelines have addressed lower level scaffolding, this guideline addresses ways to provide scaffolding for executive functions themselves.
It cannot be assumed that learners will set appropriate goals to guide their work, but the answer should not be to provide goals for students. Such a short-term remedy does little to develop new skills or strategies in any learner. It is therefore important that learners develop the skill of effective goal setting. The UDL framework embeds graduated scaffolds for learning to set personal goals that are both challenging and realistic.
Once a goal is set, effective learners and problem-solvers plan a strategy, including the tools they will use, for reaching that goal. For young children in any domain, older learners in a new domain, or any learner with one of the disabilities that compromise executive functions (e.g., intellectual disabilities), the strategic planning step is often omitted, and trial and error attempts take its place. To help learners become more plan-full and strategic a variety of options are needed, such as cognitive “speed bumps” that prompt them to “stop and think;” graduated scaffolds that help them actually implement strategies; or engagement in decision-making with competent mentors.
One of the limits of executive function is that imposed by the limitations of so-called working memory. This “scratch pad” for maintaining chunks of information where they can be accessed as part of comprehension and problem-solving is very limited for any learner and even more severely limited for many learners with learning and cognitive disabilities. As a result, many such learners seem disorganized, forgetful, and unprepared. Wherever working memory capacity is not construct-relevant in a lesson, it is important to provide a variety of internal scaffolds and external organizational aids – exactly those kinds that executives use - to keep information organized and “in mind.”
Learning cannot happen without feedback, and that means learners need a clear picture of the progress that are (or are not) making. When assessments and feedback do not inform instruction or when they are not given to the students in a timely manner, learning cannot change because students do not know what to do differently. This lack of knowledge about what to improve can make some learners seem “perseverative,” careless, or unmotivated. For these learners all of the time, and for most learners some of the time, it is important to ensure that options can be customized to provide feedback that is more explicit, timely, informative, and accessible. Especially important is providing “formative” feedback that allows learners to monitor their own progress effectively and to use that information to guide their own effort and practice.
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: 07/16/2013