The Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for curriculum development that addresses all students with flexible designs that can be customized to suit individual learners.

The actual concept of the Universal Design for Learning was an outreach of the architecture and product design of Ronald L. Mace of North Carolina University, which he created with an eye toward accessibility by everyone to the best extent possible. For example, things such as curb cuts and ramps not only assist those with disabilities, but make walking easier for parents with strollers or deliverymen pushing handcarts. As everyone benefits from these designs, the concept became known as “universal design.” It was first defined in educational curriculum terms by David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s.

Simply put, the Universal Design for Learning is based on neuroscience research that shows that each individual’s learning needs, interests, and skills are unique to that person and involve three primary brain networks that deal with learning.

1. Recognition Networks

Universal Design for LearningAlso identified as “representation” by some, this principle deals with the “what” of learning. We all receive and comprehend information differently. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning terms how we gather facts and group what we read, see, or hear as recognition tasks. Using many representations, such as visual, printed reading material, and auditory recordings, allows all learners to connect with the representation best suited to them.

2. Strategic Networks

This part of our brain defines our “how” of learning. It involves our organization and expression of ideas, how we plan and perform tasks. Some students can write well, but not be able to verbally express themselves. To reach all students, it is important to provide many options for expression and action in the performance of strategic tasks such as solving a math equation or writing an essay.

3. Affective Networks

Universal Design for LearningThe Universal Design for Learning defines the affective dimension of our brain as governing the way in which students can be motivated to learn and stay engaged in learning. Some students work better alone, and others do well in group study. Some are challenged by an unexpected and new approach, while others are interested only in a strict routine in which they feel comfortable.

Bringing Universal Design for Learning to Your Classroom

The goal in incorporating the Universal Design for Learning in the classroom is to be flexible. Variety is the key to reaching the diverse students in your classroom. Begin by integrating a variety of instruction methods — Use field trips, guest speakers, music, projects, computer software, and websites to broaden your teaching style. Allow students to choose to work in pairs or groups, as well as individually.

Universal Design for LearningYour curriculum may be based in a textbook, but use online resources, videos, games, and other presentations to illustrate the material. Lectures can be supplemented by showing pictures, videos, or viewing artifacts during a field trip to a museum. Give written directions, as well as verbal, to reach students who respond better to auditory cues. Recognize that some students can do better in testing their knowledge with oral presentations than in a written exam and vary your assessment techniques accordingly.

The Center for Applied Special Technology website,, and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning,, have many tools and resources available. Change is easy when a base for a curriculum is established and from that instructional goals for all different kinds of learners evolve.

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