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Applying Universal Design for Learning

Date Posted Mar 27, 2017

Recently my colleague Mary Labrada and I presented a session on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at the RU Online Learning Conference. The goal of our presentation was to give attendees guidance on how they could immediately incorporate UDL strategies in their courses. The easiest way to incorporate UDL best practices is at the start of the course development process. However, many of us have well-established courses but just need to improve the accessibility of the existing content.

The goal of UDL is to make education accessible to all learners at any time. It is a shift from the common practice of only making changes when contacted by our Office of Disability Services due to a student who needs an accommodation. It’s estimated that at any given time, 1 of every 5 learners has a diagnosed or undiagnosed disability!  Students may be completely unaware that the difficulty they are experiencing with their coursework is due to a disability.   Therefore, it’s important to include UDL principles into every single course we deliver to ensure that we are making our content accessible to all learners.  Yet, knowing where and how to start may the biggest obstacle we face.  Currently, there is a RU staff member from the Office of Disability Services who is conducting a survey with the objective of designing training on this topic. If you’d like to help inform what types of training would be useful, please fill out the survey!

Image for Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning aims to reduce barriers to instruction.

The changes that Mary and I presented are classified into 4 categories based on how easy and quick they are to make. What follows is a summarized version of the information we presented that day.

Immediate Changes

These are quick fixes that can make a world of difference to your students because they affect how the content in a Learning Management System is displayed.

Changes That Can Be Delayed

These changes may require a little more work on your end and may need to be put off until you have the time to work on them.

  • Creating accessible PDF files
  • Replacing your photocopied documents – photocopies that have been scanned and uploaded are not considered accessible since they are basically images that cannot be read by a screen reader.  Talk to your local Library to ask about how they can help you make those accessible.

Changes That Would Be Nice

We recognize that not all changes that would make your course universally designed for learning are easy to achieve.  Some require specific resources or funding that you simply do not have at your disposal.  If you can make them, please do so.  If you cannot make the changes that would make the content the most accessible, there are sometimes workarounds that are simpler and will be a step in the right direction.

  • Educational videos: when delivering content online, presenting only text-based information can be monotonous and true torture for someone with a visual processing issue. Using media to “mix things up” is a great idea for all your learners.
  • Closed captioning for video: research has shown that not only hearing impaired individuals use closed captions.  Many users like English Language Learners and learners in restrictive acoustic environments (e.g. libraries or online learners with sleeping babies in the room) benefit from having closed captioning available.  If you cannot afford closed captioning you can produce a written transcript of the audio in the video and upload that to make the media more accessible.

Course (Re)Design

If you’re just beginning on your course development journey or you feel like your course needs a complete overhaul then course design or redesign is what you should focus on.  Here at Rutgers you can work with an Instructional Designer who can help you spot the areas of your courses that could benefit from UDL strategies.  Here are 8 tips that we gave conference attendees that you could incorporate into your development process:

  1. Be clear about learning objectives: make sure they are measurable and aligned to the activities and assessments of the course
  2. Scaffold your content: allow for review of past content so learners can build on that (or acquire it if there are knowledge gaps) and then move on to higher order thinking activities and skills
  3. Chunk your content: this practice creates meaningful, visually distinct content units that make sense in the context of the larger whole
  4. Organize your content with a logical structure and be consistent with that structure.  This is mostly applicable to how you display your content on a learning management system
  5. Vary how you present your materials/content – don’t just rely on text but incorporate images, video, audio, blogs, websites, etc.
  6. Vary your assessment types: don’t just rely on summative assessment but incorporate formative assessment (summative vs formative assessment).  
    1. One way to do this allows students to become self-aware about how they are doing in your course (student self-checks) as well as for you to gain feedback about how your course is serving your students (instructor course checks).
    2. With summative assessments, vary the question types (don’t just rely on multiple choice and essay questions) as well as the acceptable submission type. Can your students write an essay, create a video, slideshow, animation or comic book to demonstrate mastery of the concept your assessing?  If so, allow their creativity to run free.
  7. Use rubrics: they make grading efficient, consistent, objective, and faster.  They also serve as a working guide for your students and provide clear expectations for them.
  8. Give timely feedback: don’t make your learners wait a week to get the answer to their question.  Feedback is considered timely if it is given within a 24-48 hour time period.  In this way, the concept the learner was working on is still fresh in their mind and your feedback will have context.

Want more information?

If you’d like more information please visit the RU Accessible website, contact the Office of Disability Services, or reach out to one of our Instructional Designers.

We want to hear from you!

Have you implemented any of these strategies into your course delivery?  What obstacles have you faced trying to make your content more accessible? Do you have any Before and After stories? We’d love to hear from you – post your comments below. 

Jeniffer is one of the Senior Instructional Designers here at OIRT. Her background includes Instructional Design & Technology, K-12 education, and Field Biology. Her other areas of interest include: Accessibility and Adaptive Learning Systems.


This article is a waste of time. The fact is that disabled students are identified within their 12 years of basic education. There is no disability that is so elusive that disabled students fly under the radar so to speak. These immediate changes are very basic and you are advocating for a problem that is blown out of proportion. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012 only 1 in 10 of all students are disabled. These disabilities range from autism, to visual impairment, deafness and much more. That is the latest statistic as nothing more recent is available. I know that nobody actually cares or reads about your articles but at least try to be factually correct. Teachers who specialize in teaching such students are aware of your immediate changes as they’re very well known already. What you seem to want is for ALL professors to make these immediate changes, even if they have only non-disabled students. As for ones that do have disabled students, these changes have already been in place. Once again, this article was a waste of time.

Hi there,

I’m sorry that you did not find any value in the post but thank you for reading it. I thought you might find it interesting that many disabilities (especially in the mental health arena) do not develop or are not identified until people enter their college years. In fact, I recently attended a conference session that spoke to Universal Design Principles that could be applied to help students that deal with depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc. At the higher education level, we also have many returning students that have age-related disabilities that they may not have presented in their early college years. Many of them are unaware that they have a disability (or have trouble accepting a loss of vision, hearing or physical ability) and therefore their instructors are not aware either. Furthermore, not every student who is aware of their disability self identifies and many go without the accommodations that could aid in their learning. As a mother of two children with disabilities I can assure you that even at a K-12 level, where disabilities have a high identification rate and teachers are made aware of the situation, not everyone does their best at making their class/content accessible.

I believe that current research has placed the percentage of public school students with disabilities at 13%. Again, this may only take into account easily identifiable disabilities and may not include mental health disabilities. We take great care to be accurate in our blogs since we know that it is important and we do believe that disseminating information like this is imperative since an overwhelming number of faculty members that we work with do not include accessibility checks in their course sites.

It might also interest you to know that Higher Education institutions have been facing lawsuits for years now because they have not taken accessibility into account when developing content. By federal law, all federal departments and agencies- which include educational institutions that are recipients of Federal funds- must be compliant with Section 508 of the American Disabilities Act. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others. Therefore, you are correct: we want ALL professors to try as much as possible to make their content accessible. It is in the best interest of their students as well as their institutions (if they want to avoid a lawsuit). It is the principle of Universal Design for Learning that content be made accessible to ALL learners, regardless of their ability. I highly encourage you to learn more about Universal Design for Learning as it pertains to all learners and not just to students who have an identified disability.

Thank you for your informative article. As a mother of 3 children with mental health issues (which weren’t diagnosed until late high school and early college years), I appreciate any and all efforts by educators to make learning more effective for these children. As a non-traditional student myself, I value the accommodations that you suggested since for all I know, I could have similar issues as well! Keep up the good work.

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