Introduction to Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching framework based on research about how we learn. Through this approach, faculty anticipate the variability of learners and proactively design to eliminate unnecessary barriers. While no amount of intentionality and planning will result in a learning experience that works for all students all of the time, building in flexibility and choice allows faculty to engage a diverse student body while reducing the need for individual accommodations.


Inspired by the accessible architecture movement, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching philosophy that looks for barriers in the learning environment rather than “special needs” or “deficiencies” in the student. In the same way that a curb cut in the sidewalk helps not only people who use wheelchairs but caregivers with strollers, travelers with suitcases, and delivery drivers, a UDL approach can enhance learning opportunities for all students by embracing–and designing for–variability in learners.

The term Universal Design for Learning was coined by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s, but has grown in popularity and complexity over the past three decades. Although UDL remains grounded in the insights from neuroscience and cognitive psychology upon which it was invented, new initiatives have shown connections between UDL and DEI initiatives, trauma informed teaching, and culturally responsive pedagogy. We hope the following overview of the UDL framework will help you to understand the rationale guiding this approach.  

Learning Variability

For decades, diversity in teaching and learning was often described in terms of “learning styles”: dividing students into visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and designing curricula that strove to combine elements of each approach. But recent research has shown that learning is far more complex. 

Designing for Choice

In the United States, educational accessibility is often defined in terms of individual students’ legal rights to specific accommodations.  Accommodations, however, may be intimidating for students to present to their professors and challenging for educators to decipher and equitably apply. UDL will never eliminate the need for accessibility offices and policies. However, it posits that if we design our lessons with variability in mind, there will be fewer cases in which we need to awkwardly retrofit a course once it’s underway. 

Cultivating Expert Learners

When we think about the myriad dimensions of learner variability, from language skills to preferred styles of engagement, all of which shift and change over time and in different contexts, we quickly recognize that the student is the only person who can truly evaluate what they need in order to learn. However, we aren’t born knowing how to learn. Thus, UDL’s stated goal is to cultivate expert learners, students who are self-directed and possess the skills to learn new things.

Critiques of UDL and Where to Grow

Even the name Universal Design for Learning illuminates imperfections within the idea of UDL. There is no one design that will benefit all students. Often, removing a barrier for one person creates an obstacle for another. This is why choice is so important to the UDL model: ideally we can create an environment that has the fewest barriers for the most people. But there will never be a moment when UDL is “done” and there is no need to make individual adjustments to ensure that all students have equitable access to content. 

This resource was created by Phillippa Pitts, a PhD candidate and Horowitz Foundation Fellow in the History of Art and Architecture Department and Graduate Associate at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Last updated 12/19/2022