Article

Universal Design for Learning: Personalized Experiences for All Students

Oct 26, 2023
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At one point or another, every teacher finds themself sinking under stacks of papers to grade, facing down a blank lesson plan template, or wading through student data and simply wracking their brain for ways to better reach every learner in their classroom. Questions arise, especially about the existence of the universal design for learning.


How Can I Cater to All of my Students?


How can I best support my learners who need a little bit more to understand a concept? What steps can I take to make it easier for them? What modifications should I make that will truly make a difference? All of these come to mind as we envision our next classroom lesson. 


More often than not, resource constraints and stress kick in, and we default to mentally grouping our students, making a plan to cover mainstream kiddos before tackling these questions to account for the needs of students who have fallen behind (or are working ahead). 


We find ourselves constructing a perfect lesson in its entirety and then going back in to think through and add in the extra efforts that we hope will personalize the learning experience for struggling students and high achievers. What would happen if we flipped this process on its head? 


What if, instead, we chose to place the focus of our lesson planning on meeting the needs of our outlier students first? What would this do to the efficacy of a lesson? That is exactly what the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework seeks to accomplish.



What is Universal Design for Learning?


The National Center on Universal Design for Learning explains that UDL is:

  • A framework for curriculum development encompassing a set of principles giving all students equal opportunities to learn
  • Based on extensive cognitive neuroscience research that is centered around identifying the variance in human learning and studying a pedagogy that will properly address those differences
  • Broken down into the three basic brain learning networks below, with underlying principles that are encouraged in adequate instruction:
  • The recognition network, or the “what of learning”
  • The strategic network, or the “how of learning”
  • The effective network, or the “why of learning”
  • An evidence-based pedagogy built upon a framework that guides instruction effectively to remove barriers commonly found in instruction


It may seem counterintuitive that a framework for universal curriculum design has gained momentum at the same time as personalized learning has become a consistent focus. However, both trends are deeply based in research, and that research clearly shows that the two concepts go hand in hand.


Distilled down to layperson’s terms, UDL is all about building in options for learners within all curricula from the start. It challenges educators to define end goals for their instruction, take the focus off of the method, and leave the road to achieving those goals largely open for their students.


How Can Teachers Utilize UDL?


A curriculum developed within a UDL model offers all learners a variety of ways to fully engage their brains with the content at hand through multiple modalities. It’s fundamental that the content encourages students to make connections between different subjects and offers ample opportunity to relate what they’re learning to their own lives outside the classroom. 


To achieve this, educators must be willing to open themselves up to a more dynamic view of teaching and learning, utilize flexible approaches for assessment (ex., oral or project-based strategies), and focus more on students’ explanations, demonstrated applications, and reasonings than on right or wrong answers.


Personalized Learning


That sounds a lot like personalized learning, right? When these goals are broken down, they are very similar to the aims of the personalized learning model. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) defines personalized learning as:


“Learning that is tailored to the preferences and interests of various learners, as well as instruction that is paced to a student’s unique needs. Academic goals, curriculum and content—as well as method and pace—can all conceivably vary in a personalized learning environment.”


Universal Design for Learning assumes this approach from the outset. UDL addresses learner variability by shifting the focus of instruction away from the elusive concept of the “average learner” and a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum to a curriculum that is primarily designed to be flexible in supporting all learners with varied needs, especially those who fall “in the margins.”


In doing so, the model focuses on the differences in all learners and incorporates those right into the flexible curriculum, rather than making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes that can quickly render activities, lesson plans, and even instructional approaches obsolete.


UDL and You


Instead of asking educators to identify how to personalize instruction for each student, a curriculum designed with UDL in mind integrates options for personalization and allows students to choose what is right for them.


UDL has the potential to help solve some of the most pressing issues in education today by advocating for an instructional approach that promotes high expectations and inclusion of all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities. Personalized learning is one way to ensure that each student’s unique needs are addressed. And, just like personalized learning, UDL is gaining momentum. 


The newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), along with the National Education Technology plan, makes references to UDL principles and specifies grant awards for local education agencies that select to incorporate the framework into their curriculum and/or adopt technology that supports all learning modalities.

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