Best Practices for Implementing Universal Design for Learning in the Age of ESSA

Jan 03, 2024
UDL and ESSA Edmentum article

You may be familiar with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But did you know that ESSA marks the first time that federal education law governing general K–12 education includes a definition and endorsement of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Before we dive into its inclusion of UDL, let’s do a quick review of what ESSA is.

What is ESSA?

At the highest level, ESSA is the seventh reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which was originally passed to address the need for greater equity and opportunity in public schools. From its inception, ESEA was considered a civil rights law, providing federal funds to school districts serving economically disadvantaged students. ESEA was intended to even the budgetary playing field for schools, making extra dollars available to districts in low-property-value areas where property taxes yield less funding. To this day, property taxes continue to be the primary funding source for public schools.

ESEA marked a fundamental shift in federal involvement in local education, emphasizing high standards and transparency in exchange for funding. ESEA and its appropriations are meant to be carried out for five fiscal years and then reauthorized by the government, bringing in a variety of revisions and amendments that address the current state of the education landscape. The Every Student Succeeds Act is the result of years of reauthorization seeking to address ongoing issues of equality in schools, educator accountability, and student assessment. Universal Design for Learning is one of the most forward-thinking approaches incorporated in ESSA to tackle these difficult challenges.

What is UDL?

Throughout its text, the language of ESSA clearly calls for integration of UDL in the classroom, asking teachers to address the learning needs of all students in their classrooms. Fundamentally, UDL is an instructional approach to support those students whose needs fall outside the standard design of curriculum. UDL reaches past the idea that there actually is such a thing as a typical student and instead casts a broader net over the learning process, making sure that those students who have previously been marginalized are reached. This includes students with learning disabilities, students whose primary language is not English, students classified as gifted and talented, and students for whom the traditional classroom has simply never quite worked. UDL is a research-backed instructional method based on neurosciences that apply across a wide spectrum of learners—it is truly brain-based teaching and learning.


So, we’ve recapped ESSA and we’ve covered the fundamentals of UDL, but why are we having this discussion in the first place?—mainly because UDL is important when it comes to the conversation around education equity. This approach signals a shift from identifying students with disabilities to creating classrooms and content that recognize students with all kinds of different abilities. Students who experience sensory overload when asked to get their hands dirty will struggle with learning letters through shaving cream, finger painting, or sand writing; give them the chance to sound out and identify letters on a poster, and they may just breeze through the exercise. The whole point of UDL is that when a student experiences failure with one learning tactic, that DOES NOT equate to an overall inability to learn.

Here’s how ESSA explains UDL, a definition which is borrowed from the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008:

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that — (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

A universally designed curriculum is shaped from the outset to meet the needs of the greatest number of users, minimizing the need for costly and time-consuming after-the-fact changes. The approach is also intended to create a classroom environment where every child is an important contributor. UDL classrooms are safe places where all students can become and demonstrate the expert learners they inherently are, accentuate their strengths, build up their shortcomings, and explore their natural curiosity. And, the good news is that UDL is not in conflict with other methods and practices. In fact, it incorporates and supports many current research-based approaches to teaching and learning. When we think about incorporating these inclusive elements into the academic approaches we have already been using in the classroom, suddenly, we are not starting from scratch. Instead, we’re building on the pedagogical shoulders of what has come before.

How to Integrate UDL in the Classroom

We’ve taken a brief look at the “what” and the “why” of UDL; now, how do educators start incorporating this model as a foundation of their classroom and instruction? Here are six best practices to keep in mind:

Know Your Students

Take the time to establish real relationships with each student in your classroom—understand how students want to learn and what their interests are, and think through how you can leverage those preferences into classroom and content expectations. To uncover these learning predilections, you can try administering a survey or scheduling one-on-one conferences. But, keep in mind that your students may not know how they learn best (e.g., just because a student likes watching videos does not mean that videos are the most effective medium for them to consume and retain information). Sometimes, it’s best to rely on your own observations and professional knowledge to determine what works best for your students.

Be Flexible

“Fail fast” has been a buzzy tagline lately, with good reason; it offers up the freedom to try new things, get creative, and take (reasonable) risks. Convincing yourself and your students to try new things, explore new modes of expression, and test out new processes are key in any successful UDL classroom, where variety, flexibility, and outside-the-box approaches are the norm. This mindset is also a great way to help students embrace failure as a valuable learning opportunity.

Get creative with technology

As we’ve alluded to so far, students learn in a myriad of different ways. Technology also offers a myriad of ways to present and share information, which makes technology and UDL a natural pairing. No matter what modality best suits your students, chances are that there is a fairly readily available technology you can leverage to support that instruction or assessment. Think about blogs, podcasts, video streams, digital storytelling, websites, and even 3D printing—so many technology tools are already available to help students consume and share knowledge, with new ones being developed daily. And, remember, you don’t need to know every app, program, and resource out there; let your students take charge and find the tools that resonate with them.

Don’t forget about analog options

Yes, technology and UDL are a great match, but students’ learning styles aren’t always tech-based—and technology certainly does not solve all problems. So, in addition to having content available in creative digital formats, it’s also important to give students access to more traditional and tactile modalities. For example, some students may find a new level of focus in reading when allowed to tuck themselves away in a quiet corner with a good old-fashioned book. Or, when given the opportunity to use a manipulative in a math classroom, like blocks, some students may gain deeper understanding by being able to physically demonstrate both a number and what the expression of that numeral means. This all goes back to the UDL focus on naturally presenting information in different formats.

Focus on creative assessment options

Presenting content to students in a variety of ways is only half the goal of UDL. Engaging students with different learning needs and preferences by giving them access to audio, video, digital text, and interactive sites only to hand out a standard paper-and-pencil quiz defeats the purpose. To truly unlock the benefits of UDL, it’s key to also give students options for how they are asked to demonstrate their knowledge and assessed against it. This could take the form of a display, slideshow, speech, video, website, creative essay, collage, or so much more. Even using simple free tools like Google Forms to offer technology-enhanced (and automatically scored) assessments can be an upgrade to traditional fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice tests.

Leverage technology accessibility features

Technology is offering some pretty cool advancements in terms of accessibility. The number of apps, extensions, sites, and built-in supports available to students within online programs and classroom devices is extensive and always growing. Think about features like closed captioning, language translators, music and sound effects, highlighter tools, and so on and so on—all can be hugely helpful. If you have a student who needs a support with reading, writing, math, history, chemistry, or any other subject, chances are that a resource or tool exists to help provide the adaptations he or she needs to learn successfully. Search out these features, and make full use of them.

Achieve ESSA goals with UDL

UDL is all about removing barriers and making sure that all students are able to participate and learn in the classroom—an important prerequisite to achieving new ESSA goals around student growth. However, there is no single right or wrong way to go about UDL, and there is no silver bullet technology tool that leads to success. Think about UDL more as a mindset and process to be taken one step at a time. Fail fast. Be brave. Lean on your professional network to ask questions, solve challenges, and figure out what works and what doesn’t for your unique students and classroom. The important thing is that you look at your instruction from a design perspective. Think about your students as individuals who have vast capacity to do great things; you just need be flexible and open enough to let them try.

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