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What are the UDL Guidelines?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
March 28, 2021

My parents had an island in the kitchen when I was in high school. There were 6 worn wooden stools where we did our homework, played games of Uno, and had family dinners. I still have one of those stools and I’m sitting on it now, balancing it on two legs as I type (I know, Momma, I’m going to crack my head open.)

Belief System - Skill Set- System driver Analogy of stool

Think of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) like a 3-legged stool. On one leg, you have a belief system, on another a skill set, and still on another, the system drivers. To transform a classroom, a school, or a district, you need all three legs. That being said, you can try to balance on two of them, and maybe even one, but it is hard to maintain that stability for long. Let’s examine the 3 legs, and then ask yourself, “Where do I need more support?”

  • Beliefs. You have to believe that all students are capable of learning at high levels and believe that inclusive placement is necessary for success. You must also believe that students are capable of becoming expert learners who can make effective decisions for themselves when given conditions of nurture and the opportunity to try. 
  • Skills. Belief systems are not enough. We have to continually build a skill set so we design with variability in mind. We have to learn how to unpack our learning outcomes and design assessments where students can share what they have learned in relevant, authentic, and meaningful ways. But a UDL skill set is more than lesson design. To eliminate barriers that prevent students from learning, we have to be trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and know how to support students academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. 
  • Systems. To create universally designed classrooms, schools, and districts, we also need district support. District professional development, leadership practices, adopted curriculum, available technology, and schedules all impact our ability to meet the needs of all learners, so recognizing system barriers is also important for improvement planning. Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) strategically address these barriers, which ensures that UDL can be scaled and optimized district-wide.

Before diving into the UDL Guidelines, we want to reiterate that UDL isn’t something you do, as much as it’s a framework for how you approach planning on an iterative basis. You cannot simply choose to “Do UDL,” in a single lesson as creating inclusive and equitable learning experiences is an ongoing process that is driven by student voice and student outcomes. 

That being said, the first steps are often small. Recognize that each step is a journey and continue to build, even when you are on shaky ground. We caution not to think of UDL as something you can “do,” and then “not do.” Rather, when you commit to the core beliefs about UDL: variability, firm goals, flexible means, and expert learning, you consistently look for barriers and eliminate them by providing more flexible options and choices.

The UDL Framework provides three principles that remind us where we can provide options to make learning more inclusive. To design instruction for all learners, rethink barriers that may prevent students from learning at high levels and eliminate them by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. Learning more about these principles will help to shift your belief system about what is possible when we design for equity and provide you with strategies to build your skill set. 

udl guidelines graphic

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Nothing happens without engagement or the “why” of learning. I’m sure that as a teacher, parent, or educational leader you have been asked multiple times “Why do I need to learn this?”  Even though it’s sometimes tempting to answer, “Because I said so,” or “You have to,” neither of those answers will light a fire under your learners.  Simply put, if a learner doesn’t see a reason why they should learn something, they likely won’t put in the attention or commitment to learn it. 

The engagement principle relies on the affective network of the brain. Think about it like the thermostat of a heating system. If we don’t set the temperature, the furnace won’t light up, and the system won’t blow warm air into our rooms. Since all of our students are different, the only way that we have a chance of helping our students understand “why they need to learn this” is by providing options (setting their thermostats!) so that each student can choose the path that helps them see the purpose of their work.

Want to learn more? Keep reading about how and why to provide multiple means for engagement.

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Representation is all about the “what” of learning. It is the process of collecting and presenting information to students in a way that students can understand, engage with and comprehend. Representation uses the recognition network of the brain to extract and make meaning of content. Using our heating system analogy, the recognition network is the furnace or the fire that we use to make heat. Even if the thermostat is set, we won’t get heat without the fire. 

It seems that for the last 200 years of education, the primary means of representation have been text and lecture despite inherent barriers. Obviously, if you have a visual impairment, text is a big problem. But it is also a barrier for students who are English language learners or those who struggle with reading comprehension and reading skills, dyslexia, and ADHD. We need to provide multiple means of representation - go beyond a lecture and printed text -  to break down barriers for our learners. 

Keep Reading to learn more about providing multiple means of representation.

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

The third principle of UDL brings us to the “How” of Learning: action and expression, which focuses on the strategic network of the brain. This is also where the students take over by using their executive function to set their goals, plan their projects, and deliver evidence of what they know using multiple means of action and expression. The strategic network is the blower in the heating system. After the thermostat has been set, and the fire has been lit in the furnace, we need one more component to actually deliver the heat to us! Their responses will (and should!) reflect their variability and their uniqueness in how they met the goal. 

Want to learn more about providing multiple means for action and expression? Keep reading.

The UDL principles provide us with a wide variety of guidelines and checkpoints to help us make our lessons more inclusive, more engaging, and better for students to learn how to become expert learners. But as you build your skill set, continue to challenge your beliefs about what students can accomplish and advocate for systems change. You shouldn’t have to do this alone!

Learn more about UDL and the UDL Guidelines

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