Boost Motivation with Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recognizes that variability exists in student populations along many spectra, and guides the design of learning experiences that present as few barriers to success as possible. To learn more about the concept of Universal Design for Learning, see the Teaching Resources Page: Increase Equity, Access and Engagement with Universal Design for Learning.

This article addresses one of the UDL Guidelines from, the leading proponent of Universal Design for Learning. The guideline covered by this article is “Multiple Means of Engagement.” View all the UDL Guidelines from CAST.

Boost Motivation with Universal Design for Learning

UDL and motivation

One way in which designing instruction with UDL can support student learning is to boost their engagement and motivation. Many theories of learner motivation exist, including the Expectancy – Value – Cost model, ARCS Model of Instructional Design, and Self-Determination theory. These theories are well-summarized by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. Some common themes from these theories that relate to the UDL framework include the importance of choice and autonomy, inclusion and belonging and salience and sustained effort. Let’s examine each of these ideas, how it’s important for motivation and engagement, and ways to incorporate it into your course.

Keep in mind that it’s most likely not necessary for you to overhaul your entire course in order to apply any UDL principle or guideline. In many cases, it’s a matter of adding things here or there to your already-designed course. You might consider, for this guideline, considering which topics, activities, assessments or assignments students seem to struggle to engage with or sustain effort on, and start there.

Give learners choices

Take moment to view this Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from October 1989. In this scene, Calvin’s dad is concerned about Calvin’s report card, and Calvin explains that he “does not like school.” His dad counters that Calvin seems to like to read and learn, as evidenced by his voraciously consuming books about dinosaurs. Calvin counters that, in school, they aren’t reading about dinosaurs! Clearly Calvin understands that when he has a choice about what he’s reading, reading and learning can be fun.

Learner autonomy is about giving students more choice and control over how they achieve the learning objectives for the course. While they cannot, and should not, have choice over the learning objectives for a course, they can be given opportunities to choose how they get there. In this example, if the learning objective is to ‘improve reading skills’ or ‘improve reading comprehension’ or something similar, then allowing Calvin to read something he’s interested in could make him more motivated and successful, especially since he is clearly capable of doing it when he is interested. 

Learner autonomy is a concept that is already popular in language learning, where students are most engaged when they’re learning aspects of a language that they feel will be useful, or are relevant to their goals. In this case, being able to communicate with others in that language about topics that are important to them (Benson, 2011). Even beyond the UDL framework, Education philosophers like Paulo Freire (1998) have framed learner autonomy as an ethical issue which empowers students and shows respect for their role in their own learning.

Ways you might increase learner choice and autonomy

Let them choose the challenge level of an activity or assignment, or the types of assignments they complete.

  • In a 2017 study, Hanewicz et al. describe including “cafeteria” style assignments in which students select from a large pool of different assignments to complete. Interestingly, the researchers found that more than 30% of students completed more assignments than were required to earn an “A.”
  • If you want to consider this approach, you’ll want to design the “menu” so that regardless of the assignments students complete, they will have the opportunity to achieve and be assessed on each stated learning objective. Students who select less challenging assignments might need to complete more of them to earn an A.
  • You also might utilize contract grading in which students decide on the grade they want to achieve first, and then select the assignments that will earn them that grade. Read more about this idea in Making the Pitch for Contract Grading from Old Dominion University.
  • In a Faculty Focus article Michele Poulos suggests Harnessing Assignment Menus for Student Choice in Learning.

Give them the option of making learning into a game.

Gamification is the practice of introducing principles and design concepts from games into non-game environments to increase participation, engagement, and performance. Examples of this could include earning points, credentials or badges by meeting certain criteria.

If you are interested in this idea, Moodle has a gamification plugin. Resources for learning more include the User Guide for the Moodle Gamification Plugin and DELTA’s gamification workshop and workshop recording.

Let them choose content and/or context.

If your learning objectives relate to a particular skill that can be applied in a variety of contexts or practiced using a variety of content, let students choose what interests them and they’ll be more engaged and motivated.

  • Examples: Offer several options of books for a book report, allow them to choose their own topic for a paper, or let them select from a variety of case studies that relate to a particular problem.
  • The Choice activity in Moodle can be helpful here, particularly if you are wanting to create small groups based on a choice. Read more about the Choice tool and how you might use it at the Moodle docs page for the choice activity.

Let them choose authoring and/or creation tools, or multimedia format to complete an assignment.

If you can’t provide choices on the assignment or content, maybe you can let them choose how to create their submission.

  • Could they choose to demonstrate their mastery through either a paper, presentation, video or infographic?
  • Can you accept different file formats or authoring tools like Google Docs or Word, Slides or PowerPoint?

Let them have a say in deadlines or timelines.

This idea also relates to the UDL principles of self-regulation and goal-setting.

  • Perhaps they can choose how they sequence pieces of an assignment, or when their final due date is.
  • Maybe you provide a “best by” date but offer flexibility in the hard deadline.
  • The Moodle Roadmap Plugin is one example of a tool that employs this principles. The Roadmap indicates when students complete an assignment, and if it’s completed by the expected date and time, the roadmap gives them an extra little star. If you are interested in learning more about Roadmap, you can refer to the Overview of the Roadmap Plugin.

Customize learning for students through adaptive and personalized pathways.

Ensure learners’ feel they belong

Belonging is defined by Lewis et al. (2016) as “the extent to which individuals feel like a valued, accepted and legitimate member in their academic domain.” Zumbrunn et al. (2014) found that supportive classroom environments lead to enhanced feelings of belonging, which increased student motivation, achievement and engagement.

Our classrooms are diverse. Students vary in background, ethnicity, gender identity and sec, disability status, native language, marital status, past and present trauma, employment status, parental status, age…the list goes on. If a student’s experience in the classroom makes them feel excluded due to one of their many identities, they will find it harder to feel like they belong and thus find motivation. We don’t have to know everything about our students’ identities and customize our teaching…applying this principle is more about welcoming all students and building trust within the classroom, allowing student voices and experiences to enrich the learning environment, and monitoring content for possible threats or distractions or messages that might be non-inclusive.

Strategies to enhance belonging and be more inclusive

Humanize your online course to connect more with your students.

Be authentic and share you personal experiences or academic journey. Show that successful people (a) can struggle and (b) have lives outside of the classroom. Find examples and more tips on the Teaching Resources Page for Humanizing Your Online Course.

Review the symbols, images, language and examples you use

Ensure that all students see themselves, or people like them, represented in your course. Ensure your content, images, and examples do not further stereotypes of who does this work that leaves some students out.

  • Check the language in your syllabus and other communication to ensure it is inclusive of all people and reflects the preferred language that relates to some identities. See Educause’s Inclusive Language Guide and NC State’s inclusive language guidelines for some tips.
  • If course material or concepts have historical or current disparate impact on different parts of the population or certain groups of people, consider highlighting those societal and environmental implications so that students in those groups to feel their experiences are heard.
  • Provide ways that students can express themselves and bring in their own experiences to enrich the learning environment. One particularly useful tool for this is Yellowdig, a platform for student-driven discussion and sharing designed to build a learning community. Learn more by reading the Overview of Yellowdig.

Explicitly set and enforce expectations for interactions and classroom community.

  • State at the beginning of your course that “All students belong here. All students’ voices and experiences are valuable.”
  • Give students a chance to get to know each other, perhaps through an introductory forum or Yellowdig post and through small group discussions or breakout rooms in Zoom.
  • Ask for students to give you anonymous feedback if they experience a lack of belonging based on something that went on in your class, and address what they share. Make it right if you can.
  • Find more ways to foster community at this Teaching Resources Page on Engagement in Synchronous and Asynchronous Classrooms.

Help learners see salience and sustain effort

Once you’ve laid the groundwork to promote student motivation, students must stay focused on achieving the objectives for the course. Learners can vary in how they are engaged or motivated to learn. One key component of this is student self-regulation and self-determination. Courses that address self-regulation explicitly will be most successful in applying these UDL principles (CAST, 2018), and we do that through things like goal setting and providing feedback.

The other piece of this is that students are most engaged when activities are relevant and valuable to their interests or goals. Including reminders of this and helping students draw connections between the activities and their value throughout your course will help sustain effort and motivation.

Strategies to optimize salience and effort

Create authentic activities and highlight real-world connections. states, “Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their interests and goals… Individuals are rarely interested in information and activities that have no relevance or value. …one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility and relevance of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities. …To recruit all learners equally, it is critical to provide options that optimize what is relevant, valuable, and meaningful to the learner.” (from Checkpoint 7.2 at

  • Show learners how the lessons they complete now will help them reach their future goals.
  • Use authentic examples, cases and scenarios.
  • Provide opportunities to work with real clients or organizations related to their career goals.

Meet Irvin, a learner who did not see the value of STEM in the classroom, but now uses it every day. (YouTube video, 2 min 44 sec)

Examine how your expectations influence motivation.

  • If students know that the most they will be able to achieve by putting in their best effort in your course is to be able to remember facts or understand concepts, they are less likely to be interested or motivated to learn.
  • Smith and Darvas (2017) found that higher-order thinking skills like evaluating and creating are intrinsically motivating.

Ask your students to set and track their own learning goals.

Provide mastery-oriented feedback.

Mastery-oriented feedback is focused on guiding students to successful long-term habits by emphasizing effort, practice, and improvement.