Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by Design: Getting Started with Universal Design for Learning

Patricia Marsteller
Emory University
Patricia Marsteller, Emory University

published Mar 27, 2023 7:03am

"Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them.For example, those with sensory disabilities...; 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." 

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

Readers of this blog series are already committed to inclusive teaching practices.  However, not all have explored the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to their own courses. Many people think that UDL applies only to people with sight or hearing impairments, but this is not accurate.

Adapted from the philosophy of Universal Design for accessibility in architecture, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a pedagogical approach that seeks to ensure that instructional design, materials, and delivery are equally accessible to all learners.  UDL focuses on three areas: (1) Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, (2) Multiple means of action and expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know, and (3) Multiple means of engagemento tap into learners' interests and cultural contexts, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn (CAST, 2011). The ultimate goal of the guidelines isto develop "expert learners"  who are, each in their own way, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, purposeful and motivated.

"To look at the importance of UDL another way, imagine going to a restaurant, opening the menu and finding only a single entrée with the faded words on the bottom that said no substitutions." 

Equity by Design, Chardin and Novak. 2020. p73

Many faculty would agree that they want their courses to develop student's ability to be expert learners, but resist calls for differential learning strategies, in part because they think of equality not equity. Although few remain that say "Look to your left, look to your right, those two people won't survive this class", as one of my undergraduate instructors said on the first day of class, some faculty think that courses are not rigorous if there are options or if students earn too many high grades. Another rationale may be that my class is too big to create options, all of these changes require too much time, limited assistance is available at my institution, etc. UDL is meant to be a strategy that can be started by identifying key areas to begin. UDL is meant to be iterative and you don't have to do everything at once. 

Our college classrooms often look like a one size fits all approach to learning, yet our students have diverse backgrounds and needs. So first I want you to take a few minutes to think about YOUR students.  Do you have people with different learning styles, different goals, different strengths and talents, different cultural backgrounds or different aspirations?  Are your students neurodiverse?  Do they have access to high speed internet? Do they access course materials on phones or computers? That may help you decide where to begin.  

Many colleges have resources to identify students with different needs and to support accommodations. While many such offices only provide recommendations for extended time, notetaking and environmental support, however many other supports may be available within your learning management system or within the tools you use to create slides, handouts, and exercises. For example Google provides instructions for checking and making documents and slides accessible. So does Microsoft 365Blackboard and Canvas have checkers and guidelines for creating accessible information. Blackboard's framework is based on UDL guidelines and includes detailed instructions. Common examples of implementing UDL in college science courses might include ensuring that all videos are closed-captioned, text sources are compatible with screen readers, and additional time is provided for assessments and activities for all students (Gin et al 2020).  You may wish to see what resources are available on your campus and advocate for more institutional support for implementing these strategies.

Another approach may be to take a look at your syllabus and outcomes.  Are there topics that students frequently get wrong? Do they ask for alternative explanations or approaches? Do they say they read the text, studied the notes but still don't get it? Maybe that's the place to start.

Alternatively, you might start with thinking about multiple modes of engagement.  Giving choices of ways to approach the material, as well as adding relevance is one way to ignite learning. If the students are not interested or don't understand the value of a topic, it will be harder for them to read the assigned work or study it in depth. Using videos, case studies, stories from the news, among others. Multiple approaches can also foster community as students share multiple approaches.

There are many resources available to help you think about getting started with UDL.  Here I summarize a few that might make it easier for you to identify your checkpoints and where you might begin. These activities can be completed independently but there is great benefit to sharing and discussing your responses, mappings, and ideas with others. 



Hasley, A. O., Orndorf, H. (2022). Getting Started with Universal Design for LearningUniversal Design for Learning, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/8EC1-V892

  • This module contains three resources for getting started with CAST's Universal Design for Learning framework. We suggest moving through the resources in order: 
    • Introduction to the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines
    • UDL Mapping Activity
    • Applying UDL to Existing Materials

Hasley, A. O., Orndorf, H. (2021). UDL Mapping ActivityUniversal Design for Learning, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/E9D6-YE29

  • Using the UDL Guidelines as an analysis tool promotes a deeper understanding of UDL checkpoints, provides practice in recognizing alignment between UDL checkpoints and instructional strategies, and yields a result that highlights patterns and areas of improvement within the material. In this activity, faculty select a short, modular resource, either one they developed or something they use regularly, identify the learning objectives, and then conduct a UDL Mapping. Examples and templates for conducting a mapping are included. 

10 Strategies for Engaging Learners with Universal Design for Learning
and Antiracism. Jess Schomberg & Elizabeth Harsma. This book chapter provides great ideas for getting started.   I especially like their suggestions for starting small and engaging in reflection.

  • "Start small: Engage in critical reflection. Choose one strategy, apply it to one learning activity or one assessment. Observe the results and engage in critical reflection to determine next steps. 
  • Keep going: Continue to update, refine, and apply additional strategies to your course design and delivery. Be curious, be compassionate, be critical. 
  • Let students lead: Get regular and ongoing feedback from students about their learning experiences to inform changes and updates. Remember that students accustomed to white supremacy may have a hard time letting go of that internalized dominance and their feedback may be a sign that they need additional interventions, while at the same time they may be creating an unsafe learning environment for students of color." 

In our next post, we will provide some suggestions that you might think about for each of the standards. In the meantime, we provide three books to inspire you to begin your UDL journey. 

Three books to inspire you

Novak, K., & Chardin, M. (2021). Equity by Design: delivering on the power and promise of UDL. Thousand Oaks, California, Corwin Press, Inc.

  • This book provides real exercises and ways to start using the power of equity to address social and racial justice.

Fritzgerald, Andratesha. 2020. CAST: Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to SuccessCAST publications. available in paperback ($29.99, 192 pages, ISBN: 9781930583702) and accessible EPUB ($29.99, ISBN: 9781930583719) format.

  • This book, written for K12 educators provides powerful analogies and thoughtful approaches to help all students succeed.

Tobin, & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press. This book, written for educators, faculty, administrators etc. provides many approaches to advancing systemic change at your institution. Extensive resources to help educators apply UDL concepts in college contexts, covering 1) UDL in Higher Education, 2) Course Design, 3) Media and Materials, and 4) Accessibility and Policy.

  • Aimed at faculty members, faculty-service staff, disability support providers, student-service staff, campus leaders, and graduate students who want to strengthen the engagement, interaction, and performance of all college students. It includes resources for readers who want to become Universal Design for Learning experts and advocates: real-world case studies, active-learning techniques, UDL coaching skills, micro and macro-level UDL-adoption guidance, and "use-them now" resources.

Other Helpful Resources



Anthology Inc. (2022). Accessibility at blackboard.  https://help.blackboard.com/Accessibility

Anthology Inc. (2022). Inclusive classrooms: A strategy and framework. https://help.blackboard.com/Accessibility/Inclusive_Classrooms

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

Fritzgerald, A. (2020) Antiracism and universal design for learning. Cast Publishing, https://www.cast.org/products-services/resources/cast-publishing/antiracism-universal-design-for-learning-fritzgerald 

Gin, L.E., Guerro, F.A., & Brownells, S.E. (2020). Is Active learning accessible? Exploring the process of providing accommodations to students with disabilities.  CBE—Life Sciences Education 19 (4), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-03-0049  

Google (2023). Accessibility for Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, & Drawings. Google Docs Editor Help.https://support.google.com/docs/answer/6282736?hl=en&co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop 

Hasley, A. O., Orndorf, H. (2021). Introduction to the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. Universal Design for Learning, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/3MJJ-4D08

Hasley, A. O., Orndorf, H. (2021). UDL Guidelines Workbook. Universal Design for Learning, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/FJDE-KT82

Instructure. (2022). What are Canvas Accessibility Standards? https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Canvas-Basics-Guide/What-are-the-Canvas-accessibility-standards/ta-p/1564

Microsoft (2023). Make your content accessible to everyone. Microsoft Help.  https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/make-your-content-accessible-to-everyone-ecab0fcf-d143-4fe8-a2ff-6cd596bddc6d

Schomberg, J. and Harsma, E. (2022). 10 Strategies for Engaging Learners with Universal Design for Learning and Antiracism. In E. Harsma, M. Manderfeld, C.L. Miller (Eds.) Maverick Learning and Educational Applied Research Nexus (chapter 22). Minnesota Library Publishing Project. https://mlpp.pressbooks.pub/mavlearn/chapter/10-strategies-for-engaging-learners-with-universal-design-for-learning-and-antiracism/ 

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