What is UDL and why should you care?

Last week, I delivered a webinar to learning professionals from across Canada for I4PL (Institute for Performance and Learning) focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and equity. As workplaces become more inclusive and welcoming environments for diverse employees, our learning tools and practices need to be representative and universally designed. The goal is to create learning spaces and resources so all learners can benefit.


While I can’t cover a whole workshop in a short blog, I want to explore UDL and how I have been using the UDL principles in learning design, development, and delivery. The UDL framework reminds us that all brains are variable and that monolithic “learning styles” do not actually exist. Instead, we know that each brain is processing information in complex and variable interactions between the various networks of the brain.


What do you already know about UDL? Take a moment to jot down 2-3 things that quickly come to mind.


UDL is an approach to optimize teaching and learning by considering learner variability and designing options that remove barriers in order to achieve clear and rigorous goals. In the 1990s, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the UDL framework, which is the only Universal Design framework that is based on research on cognitive neuroscience (Meyer, et al. 2002; Rose, Rouhani, et al., 2013; Rose, 2016). CAST is an organization whose mission is to eliminate barriers to learning and support the development of expert learners while addressing aspects of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.


UDL Core Ideas include:

  • Understanding that variability is the norm
  • Being clear on the goal and flexible in the means
  • Recognizing that the barrier is in the environment not the learner.


You’ll often see UDL illustrated as a framework in three columns. Each of the columns represents a different principle of UDL:

  • multiple means of engagement
  • multiple means of representation
  • multiple means of action and expression


Three rows intersect these columns, and are broken down into checkpoints: access, build, and internalize. As educators, we want to help learners get to the internalized level. The image below helps to illustrate the concepts.


freshly harvested garlic with roots attached and soil in roots

Forsythe, G. (2021). UDL Guidelines Doodle edition. [Infographic]. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/51592407506/ CC BY 2.0.


What does UDL look like in practice?

In practice UDL means providing opportunities for reflection, providing content in multiple ways, employing interactive learning activities, linking new information to previous experiences, providing access to resources to deepen learning, and offering opportunities to review content and practice skills, for example.


Here are two learning design and delivery scenarios and some UDL responses.


  1. You’re marketing a new voluntary learning program in your organization/company. You want to ensure there is uptake by a diverse audience. How can you incorporate equity-centred principles and concepts into the marketing and design?
  • In your training description identify how you aim to create a safer space for learners
  • Use images and visuals that represent diverse learners
  • Ask diverse learners ahead of time what might support their participation
  • Ensure the learning program is flexible. Offer it on multiple occasions or asynchronously
  • Ensure diverse trainers and diverse resources (books, articles, videos) whenever possible
  • Market in multiple ways (videos, visual, text) that incorporate accessibility (closed captions, font size, colour contrast, etc.)


  1. During an in-person training session, a few people dominate the group discussion. How do you create a safer space for everyone to engage and participate?
  • Create group agreements at the beginning of the training and name the concept of taking space/making space
  • Invite people who haven’t yet spoken to be the first to respond before others
  • Invite responses from a specific group of people (though not on specific individuals)
  • Use a ballot box activity to incorporate an opportunity for anonymous participation
  • Use think-pair-share or another reflection/ small group discussion process to ensure everyone has airtime


While the UDL guidelines do not fully address equity in learning, they help to remove barriers and support learner variability. If there is one thing you take away from reading this, remember that the barrier is in the learning environment, not the learner.