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UDL: Providing Multiple Means for Action and Expression

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
March 28, 2021

I went to a parochial school where “one size fits all” education was the only way to do anything! It was always 1. watch the teacher, 2. read the book, 3. do the worksheets and 4. write a report, do the homework or pass in the paper.  Over and over again.  The only time that ever changed was when we had a Science Fair or an Art Fair.  I could actually build something!  In the 7th grade Science Fair, I built a model of a seismometer!  In the 9th grade Art Fair, I sculpted a head out of oatmeal on a papier-mâché form!  I was in heaven. 

I spent hours on each of them and learned a lot in the process. I was engaged, I found resources and I was able to express what I knew in a form I was happy in. Now, I didn’t become a geologist or an artist but I did learn the benefits of doing something that I loved and that I needed to be patient and persistent to complete the tasks.

That is what action and expression is all about.  Action and expression uses the Strategic network of the brain. To me, it is where the fun begins with UDL as this is where the students show us what they have learned!  This is also where the students take over by using their executive functions to set their goals, plan their projects and deliver proof of what they know using multiple means of action and expression. In the first two principles of UDL we have provided students with multiple means of engagement and representation to get them involved with the information on multiple levels.  This strategy is now fulfilled by the students showing us what they have learned in the process.  Their responses will show their variability and their uniqueness. 

Where the Fun Begins

The first time you try this you may find it to be stressful to you as the teacher. This is where you have to empower your students and relinquish the control you usually have over your students’ work.  With this UDL principle you will no longer be getting 25 versions of the same paragraph, research paper, or versions of the same test.  However, all of that will be replaced with student work that is unique and interesting. Projects that students cared about and invested time into making sure it was done as good as they could do it.  Something that showed what they learned...not just what they remembered for the test.


The action and expression principle contains three guidelines:

  • Provide options for physical action
  • Provide options for expression and communication
  • Provide options for executive functions.

Physical Action

Providing options for physical actions includes varying the methods for response and navigation and optimizing access to tools and assistive technologies. This gives the student the opportunity to physically participate in the current task with the options you provide regardless of any disability or preferences.  Providing a computer for a student to respond by typing instead of writing by hand is a common example of this guideline but it could also allow for additional time on tasks to allow for the differences in student abilities.

Expression and Communication

Providing options for expression and communication gives the students the ability to get up and go to a different station or use a different tool to create a response to a prompt or answer a question with video instead of text or a graphic instead of a worksheet.  This is where the student use of multimedia is not only encouraged but expected. When creating a lesson based on a standard think about all of the ways the student could show you they have met that standards. Are you providing your students with options and choice?

Executive Function

Providing options for executive function is a lynchpin in the process of developing an expert learner. CAST states that “these capabilities allow humans to overcome impulsive, short-term reactions to their environment and instead to set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed. In short, they allow learners to take advantage of their environment”.  This is where you will help your students set appropriate goals, make plans and strategies and monitor their progress. Multiple means for action and expression graphic

Dr. Todd Rose shares a great personal example of his strategy of improving his executive function in a video clip on the action and expression page of the free ebook from CAST.  In the video he explains how he had a very low working memory function which led to him always doing poorly in school.  He tried compensating for this by writing notes on paper or his hand. He would end up having too many paper notes, everywhere, with no system of organization.  It never amounted to anything successful until he developed a system in a digital and analog task manager that he could trust.  He adds “that the use of tools to amplify our abilities is uniquely human” and that “we use tools in every part of our lives except education...but it is the same”.  The action and expression principle helps us help our students find the right tools for them to succeed.

Student learning grows when they have opportunities to choose pathways and learn about themselves. What they learn today will be a foundation for what they learn tomorrow.  What they learn will help them build their confidence in what they believe they can do too, in their self efficacy.  So, we need to give them practice and support in the building of their executive function, in trying things out, in failing and trying again.  We need to give them opportunities to try and do things with different tools.  To not just get “good at school” but “good at life” by doing things differently so that they will be ready with “21st Century Skills” when they leave school.

To learn more about Action and Expression and UDL, check out the resources below that interest you most:

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