Universal Design: A Tool for Learning and Living

5 min readJun 22, 2020


Young man writing in a notebook wearing headphones with a microphone.

By Bob Cunningham
Executive Director, Learning Development, Understood

If you want to help out with a local fundraiser, you have many options depending on your strengths and interests. You might write the notice for the local newspaper if you’re a strong writer or deliver the welcome remarks at the event if that’s the best way for you to get ideas across.

Wouldn’t it be great to have some options at work, too? Maybe your boss could update the team in person or over a video conference each week rather than in an email. Instead of having to present an idea in writing, maybe you could do it orally, or give a physical example.

Unfortunately, that’s not the norm.

There’s a fundamental flaw in the way schools often approach students who struggle. If kids do poorly, it’s because of the way they learn, not the way they’re taught. With that thinking, the instruction doesn’t change, and the students keep struggling. One solution to this catch-22 is a concept known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL, developed by CAST, provides a framework for how educators can think about barriers to students’ learning. It also gives ideas for how educators can remove those barriers as they guide all students through the curriculum. The goal of UDL is to turn students into “expert learners” — learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed. But how?

Consider this scenario. A fifth-grade teacher has a student who struggles with reading and often doesn’t pay close attention in class. Those challenges present real barriers to learning.

Fifth-graders throughout the state have to meet a standard that requires them to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre or their approaches to similar themes and topics.” It’s the same for every student.

But in closely reading the standard the teacher realizes that it doesn’t specify the genre of stories, the grade level of the reading, and the themes and topics. Students all need to meet the learning standards, but they don’t need to do the same thing in the same way at the same time.

That gives the teacher great flexibility in designing lessons in all of these areas — for the entire class. For the student who’s struggling, the teacher can remove some of the reading and focus barriers that might prevent success. While the student has to do the work, the task is approached in a flexible way that allows students to engage from their strengths and interests.

For example, the teacher can find out what topics the student is really interested in and will have an easier time focusing on. Together they can select engaging materials for the student to use. They can explore different genres or multiple themes. The teacher can also encourage the student to read at any level that is comfortable (it doesn’t have to be on grade level).

There are also no restrictions on how the student shows knowledge and understanding. The teacher can encourage using various formats — writing, on audio or video recording, in a presentation, by drawing a comic strip, or in conversation with another student who chose the same genre. By doing these things, the teacher is giving the student every chance to succeed.

But this student isn’t the only one in class who benefits from the teacher’s flexibility to present options for learning.

All kids learn differently, and UDL principles give every child the chance to learn in a way that lets them do their best work.

That’s how UDL works in the classroom. But this approach isn’t limited to teaching or even to a school setting. UDL is so closely associated with teaching, people overlook the fact that it really relates to learning. It’s useful far more broadly than in schools or even other structured educational settings like museums and science centers.

Learning doesn’t only happen in a particular place or at a certain time or in any prescribed way. We learn constantly and continuously, in many different ways. UDL is such a powerful way of thinking that it becomes Universal Design for Living.

UDL can be a guide for living life more fully. It encourages the idea that people have unique experiences, strengths, and challenges and that our paths are different in important ways. UDL allows us to meet and embrace differences in a way that works for everyone, with flexibility.

On a personal level, you can use UDL to remove barriers to meeting your own goals. But it requires you to:

  • Know yourself deeply
  • Recognize what stands in your way and how to remove barriers so you can thrive

With UDL, there’s really one key — giving yourself multiple options. Look at yourself the way that teacher looked at the struggling student. The teacher knew something about the student — reading and attention could be tough — but made the effort to know the student more deeply. The teacher learned about the student’s interests and preferences and used them to remove the barriers around engagement, representation, and performance.

You can do the same things for yourself by taking these steps:

  • Find different ways to engage interest and to keep momentum
  • Try various approaches that stretch the way you see, think and talk about things, and the way you understand them
  • Explore varied ways to express yourself through language, visuals, and movement
  • Use multiple strategies for planning, organizing, and problem-solving to help you set goals
  • Adjust the way you go about pursuing your goals when things aren’t going well

Be purposeful in considering what engages you, what makes you grow, how you can best express yourself, and how you get things done. This will help you see more clearly what stands in the way of success, in any way you want to think about success.

When you use UDL with your goals in mind, you can identify how to use it to help others with theirs. Just follow the same steps the teacher took and that you took for yourself. Take time to know others. Be flexible. And do whatever is in your power to remove barriers for them so they can thrive.

Bob Cunningham EdM, is a nationally known education leader and executive director of learning development at Understood. He is a founding expert on learning and thinking differences and consults with schools, organizations, and families on the education of diverse learners.