Universal Design for Learning: Examples for deep learning

Patricia Marsteller
Emory University
Patricia Marsteller, Emory University

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published Apr 26, 2023 2:19pm

Bryan Dewsbury introduced the concept of 'deep teaching' (Dewsbury, 2019). In essence, the model focuses on a sequential approach, beginning with reflection and self-awareness for the instructor and the development of knowledge and empathy for the students.  The model progresses to considerations of the classroom climate and the other support networks that can part of developing deep learning for students. The deep teaching model can be developed incrementally and is posited as a recurring model applied to each class since each class has different students with different backgrounds, hopes and cultures. Combined with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL, CAST and UDL blog post), Deep Teaching has the potential to reach all students and help them become deep learners. In this post, we will share examples of strategies for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression that, applied in conjunction with instructor self-reflection, can lead to inclusive and equitable STEM classrooms in higher education.

Schreffler et al. (2019) reviewed the literature on UDL in higher education, that has mostly focused on students with disabilities. However, all students learn in many different ways, whether they have a disability or not. Postsecondary courses designed with UDL often include technology applications that provide all students with multiple ways to access the curricular materials.  They provide evidence that students without disabilities also benefit from a UDL classroom the same way students with disabilities benefit. Langley-Turnbaugh et al. (2013) describe a faculty development program that impacted STEM courses. Most of the modifications cited present information in multiple formats. Applying UDL principles helps students become more engaged and motivated and have a greater interest in their education. UDL principles provide a framework that challenges the idea of a "one-size-fits-all" way of learning and showing what you have learned.

I'll start with some great simple examples from UC Santa Cruz Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. They suggest ways to present content, information, and ideas in multiple formats that are accessible. Starting by making all class materials accessible for many types of learners, they suggest, "Students should have many options for reading, including print, digital, text-to-speech and audiobooks. For digital text, there should be options for text enlargement, along with choices for screen color and contrast. Videos should have captions, and there should be transcripts for audio." They also suggest incorporating podcasts, films, interactive websites, and engaging activities.  Attention to using culturally diverse people and examples also engages students.

For multiple means of action and expression, one can use formative and summative assessments, but also include graphic organizers, concept maps, jigsaw activities and other ways for students to demonstrate their learning.  This can include in-class think-pair-share, minute papers, polls, clicker questions, and other ways to check student learning.  I like to use infographics, public service announcements, models, posters, websites and other materials that can be made public to demonstrate to students that their work can make a difference.  For example, Karen Klyczek and Amber Qureshi from the University of Wisconsin River Falls had students develop posters featuring diverse scientists and their data and posted them in the hallways of their building.  See this previous blog post for more examples. If you are interested in featuring diverse scientists and their data, I urge you to visit the BiographI site. Opportunities to reflect on exams and other summative assessments can also deepen student learning and help them develop an active role in their own learning. I like to encourage students to write exam questions and answer them as part of the class assignments.

Case-Based Learning

My favorite approach is case-based learning because, done well, it incorporates many UDL principles and promotes deep teaching and deep learning.  When cases incorporate identifying the big idea and then what you know about the topic, what you need to know, and how you will research the learning issues identified, they lead to increased motivation and to deeper learning.  Case studies incorporate individual choices and autonomy.  They are chosen topics to optimize relevance, value, and authentic decision-making. Often the topics are socially and culturally relevant, and the assignments, too, offer choices and options that play to different student strengths and interests.  Often case studies built around learning objectives and outcomes activate prior knowledge and promote planning and strategy development

Many cases have been created and published on case sites.  Almost all of them offer multiple forms of engagement and many options for learners to display what they have learned. However, very few of them fully meet access standards. I have suggested a few sites to visit below. In a faculty mentoring network, I collaborated with a group of faculty to adapt case studies using UDL principles. Each of us chose an existing case and applied the UDL mapping activity (Hasley and Ordorf, 2022).  We read a lot of material on neurodiverse learners, vocabulary complications for ESL students, and on different ways to display learning besides the multiple-choice "clicker" or 1-minute writing–consider how to use iconography, poster making, modeling with manipulatives.  We also created the beginning of a resource on UDL for faculty. To give you some ideas, here are a few of the projects we addressed: 

  • Denise Flaherty reformed the Patrick Paralyzed case study to include UDL principles.  The case itself involved understanding cell energy cycles and the importance of glycolysis and the citric acid cycle. This is for first-year undergraduate cell biology students and can be adapted for upper-level biochemistry students. She shows how to make simple changes in color, text, iconography, and scaffolding to support neurodiverse learners better.
  • Elaine Beaulieu redesigned a case study about persister cells and quorum sensing in P. aeruginosa infections. The case is built for a 3rd-year undergraduate course in general microbiology. She focused on the text and image accessibility. She also added timers indicating the time and difficulty for each activity within the case study. We all agreed that clicker studies could also be in word format, so that graphs can expanded, and also another format for flexibility for student preferences.
  • Lisa Rezende developed a case, Truth About Cancer? The learning outcomes for the case are to identify and evaluate the evidence for claims in popular/alternative health websites and use reputable sources to discuss these claims with a general audience.  She used the mapping exercise to make decision on restructuring the case for alternatives for instructors using the case for different classes or levels.  
  • Brian Bill focused on strategies to increase student engagement using multiple cases from a lab course. For this exercise, the students pick one of eight case study patients and receive a simulated patient sample (simulated wound exudate containing a mixed culture of unknown bacteria), a transcript of a medical interview, the patient's medical history, and a picture of the patient. Brian also initiated a choose your adventure version of the UDL guidelines that may be available by this summer.
  • Sue Gass developed strategies used for the redevelopment of the case study The Canadian Canola Controversy: The Role of Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture. This case introduces students to a court decision that took place in Saskatchewan, Canada, between a farmer, Percy Scmeisher, and a multinational seed production company, Monsanto. The case uses the jigsaw technique where students representing different stakeholder groups come together to make recommendations on how GM crops in Canada should be regulated. She focused on adding details in terms of classroom management using the principles of UDL. 

 We also talked about having students create course materials. Some suggestions included:

  • Ask students to create their own questions for each level of Bloom's taxonomy.
  • Have students create review questions and make them available to the class
  • Ask the students to create case study videos, problems, songs, etc. 
  • "Adopt-a-molecule"  exercises where students describe what can be produced from a single molecule
  • Have students create patient information materials (again another means of showing expression and understanding)

This Faculty Mentoring Network will be offered again next fall.  If you want to apply UDL principles to cases or other curriculum materials, watch for an invitation to join.

Meanwhile, here are a few of the many case sites for you to visit:

Case Sites


Dewsbury, Bryan. 2019. Deep teaching in a college STEM classroom. Cultural Studies of Science Education. Vol.:(0123456789). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-018-9891-z1 3

Schreffler, J., Vasquez III, E., Chini, J. et al. Universal Design for Learning in postsecondary STEM education for students with disabilities: a systematic literature review. IJ STEM Ed 6, 8 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0161-8

University of California, Santa Cruz. Equity-minded teaching resource downloaded from https://citl.ucsc.edu/resources/equity-minded-teaching/udl/

Langley-Turnbaugh S. J., Blair, M., & Whitney, J. (2013). Increasing accessibility of college STEM courses through faculty development in UDL. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE-promising-practices/college_stem.html

Robertson SD, Bixler A, Eslinger MR, Gaudier-Diaz MM, Kleinschmit AJ, Marsteller P, O'Toole KK, Sankar U and Goller CC. 2021. HITS: Harnessing a Collaborative Training Network to Create Case Studies that Integrate High-Throughput, Complex Datasets into CurriculaFront. Educ. 6:711512. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.711512

Bixler A, Eslinger M, Kleinschmit AJ, Gaudier-Diaz MM, Sankar U, Marsteller P, Goller CC, Robertson S. (2021). Three Steps to Adapt Case Studies for Synchronous and Asynchronous Online LearningJ Microbiol Biol Educ. 2021 Mar 31;22(1):22.1.22. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v22i1.2337. PMID: 33884065; PMCID: PMC8012036.

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

Hasley, A. O., Orndorf, H. (2022). Getting Started with Universal Design for Learning. Universal 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





Suggested Citation:  

Marsteller, P. (April 26, 2023). Universal Design for Learning: Examples for deep learning]. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/dei_stemm_blog/264828.html


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