UDL Principles for Labs + Discussions

Tips for applying UDL principles to creating inclusive labs and leading effective discussion sections

UDL Principles for Labs + Discussions


Universal Design for Learning is a teaching philosophy that calls for intentional design of courses and course materials to be accessible to as many students as possible. In practice, we will never be able to anticipate the needs of all students, but educators can work to identify barriers to learning and implement changes on whatever scale is possible. This article is written for graduate student teaching fellows leading lab and/or discussion sections, but is applicable for all instructors who are looking for ways to apply UDL principles.

While graduate teaching fellows generally have limited input into the overall design of the course, labs and discussion sections are often spaces where, because of smaller class sizes, graduate teaching fellows may have more opportunities to engage students in active learning and have individualized communication about the material. In this way, lab and discussion sections already demonstrate some aspects of UDL, and are spaces that can be greatly improved with UDL principles. Teaching fellows are a critical component of these spaces, and are excellent resources for students. Furthermore, we have often learned the material more recently, and can recall which concepts we struggled with and how we overcame them.

This resource isn’t a checklist of everything that needs to be done, but a set of suggestions for places to start making improvements. For more information on the guiding principles of UDL, you can read the CTL introduction on Universal Design for Learning or browse the UDL guidelines. The guidelines are a set of suggestions, known as checkpoints, for implementing UDL. Throughout this resource, when a suggestion is related to a UDL guideline, we will name and link to the relevant checkpoint. These links contain specific suggestions for implementing the checkpoints.

Before Lab/Discussion

This part of the resource will describe steps that can be taken before a lab/discussion section. For students to get the most out of these sessions, the activities should be closely aligned with the goals for the rest of the course. Before each activity, it’s best to meet with the lead instructor and identify the learning objectives for the activity and any new content that will need to be taught before they complete the activity.

Suggested questions to ask the lead instructor

  • What are the learning objectives for this activity? How will these objectives relate to what is being taught in class?
  • What should students be able to know, do, or value after this activity?
  • Which course concepts related to this activity do students seem to struggle the most with? What related questions on homeworks or exams do students typically have challenges with?
  • What information do the students already have? What needs to be taught before the activity?
  • Are there aspects of this specific activity that students are frequently confused by? Can we edit or alter the activity to reduce confusion and promote understanding? (Example: If students typically miss an important step in a lab, update the manual to bold or italicize the part they miss, or make it a separate paragraph.)

It may also help to have a discussion with teaching fellows who have run the activity with students before. They may be able to point to areas where the activity can be improved before being presented to students.

Tip: Talk to a previous teaching fellow for the course. One character says “Did you run into any problems with you ran this activity last semester?” and the other responds “Actually, yes. Part 2 took so long that no group got to part 3. And many students misunderstood question 6.UDL asks that we make classroom material as accessible as possible, to meet the diverse needs of students. The guidelines consist of three main areas: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. Using these principles, we can review the activity and any associated manuals/handouts.

While improving manuals/handouts is extra work, doing so can save time, confusion, and frustration both during session and during grading (if applicable). Consider how long it may take to mark down many students for the same common misunderstanding that could be addressed beforehand.

During Lab/Discussion

When introducing the activity, emphasize the learning objectives and how the activity will help students achieve the broader goals of the course (Checkpoints 7.2, 8.1), based on your conversation with the lead instructor. Students will be more interested in the Tip: Listen for general feedback as students get settled in. Quotes are “I have no idea how to study for this test.”, “Yesterday’s lecture just made me more confused.”, and “Wow that homework was harder than usual.activity if they know how it will be relevant and helpful to their learning. It also helps students to connect the material to what is being learned in other components of the course.

Introduce any new material required for the activity that has not been covered in the course yet. If the lead instructor feels students should have all the relevant information, check in with the students about how well they feel they understand the concepts in a non-judgmental way.

Clarify or reinforce confusing concepts necessary for the activity. This is also a great time to discuss the people who have made contributions to the field, particularly those who may share marginalized identities with the students.

Another way to promote engagement and interest in students is to foster collaboration and classroom community (checkpoint 8.3).

If possible, keep a copy of the handout/manual or a notepad where you can write down any observations you make about how students approach the activity. Things to make note of include any questions or prompts that are causing confusion, any typos or missing information, how long your introduction is, and how long they spend on each part of the activity.

After Lab/Discussion

Perfection is impossible. Instead, adopt a mindset of continuous improvement, with incremental changes. To facilitate this, reflect on how the activity went immediately, or as soon as possible, after leaving the session. Refer to, or make, the notes described above.

Questions for Reflection

  • Did students understand the material and achieve the goals and learning objectives?
  • Were there any students who struggled to access the material or activity?
  • Can you identify the barriers they encountered?
  • Based on earlier discussions with the lead instructor, is there a disconnect between what concepts instructors think students understand and what they actually understand?

After this reflection, provide feedback to the lead instructor. The teaching fellow can offer professors invaluable feedback when we are able to interact more directly with the students.

Often a teaching fellowship will include grading, either of the lab/discussion activity or other coursework. UDL asks us to provide “mastery-oriented feedback” (checkpoint 8.4).


The goal of implementing UDL in an established class is not to get it perfect on the first try, but to work on making gradual improvements toward a learning experience that works for every student. Start working on implementing just one or two suggestions here or from the guidelines, whatever feels accessible for you. Through this process of continuous improvement, we become better teachers and demonstrate to our students that we care about their learning. Don’t be afraid to ask students for feedback and involve them in the process of improvements, asking them what is and isn’t working. This can happen organically through conversations, or you can have them complete an anonymous feedback survey.

Implementing these suggestions can take more of your time, but often doing so reduces frustration and confusion for both teacher and student. At its core, we are asked to try and make our courses accessible to people who may otherwise need accommodations or be unable to participate. However, practitioners of UDL often find that many students, who otherwise would not request accommodations, are able to better access the course material. By making gradual improvements, we are working toward creating an academic environment that works better for everyone.

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Further reading

Looking for more guidance for running a discussion or lab section? Check out these resources:

This resource was created by Bryanne McDonough, PhD Candidate in Astronomy, College of Arts & Sciences.

Last updated 12/19/2022