Elevate your Content 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 CAST.org, the leading proponent of Universal Design for Learning. The guideline covered by this article is “Multiple Means of Representation.” View all the UDL Guidelines from CAST.

UDL and Course Content

To apply UDL to course content and its representation, we want to look at how students gather facts and categorize what they see, hear and read. Perceiving content is a layered process. Students must be able to see, hear, or otherwise access the letters, symbols, images and words. Then, they must be able to understand the author’s style, vocabulary and message conveyed with those words and symbols. Finally, they need to be able to comprehend the content by linking it to previous knowledge in order to fully perceive and comprehend the content being presented.

Barriers can exist based on personal factors (E.g. place on a variety of spectra of disabilities, background knowledge, native language) or environmental and situational factors. Applying UDL does not require that we are fully aware of each student’s characteristics or situations, but rather that we use the principles that have been created to make course content as accessible and inclusive as possible for everyone.

Maximizing Perception with UDL

To design content for perception by everyone, UDL asks us to be sure no content requires full functioning of just one sense to perceive it. This makes perfect sense when we think of this guideline’s title: Provide multiple means of representation.

UDL also challenges us to remember that offering these multiple representations are necessary for some, but can benefit all. Following these guidelines is necessary for learners with sensory deficits like visual or auditory impairments. For these learners, we become aware of them when and if they register with the Disability Resources Office and receive accommodations.

Proactively applying these principles means that accommodations are not needed, and also benefits learners who are not registered with the Disability Resources Office, as well as those who have temporary or situational needs and preferences. 

Factors that make visual content difficult to perceive

  • A disability related to vision
  • Life demands like commuting, cooking for a family, and household chores that are incompatible with viewing visual content
  • Technology difficulties like broken images 
  • Small screens or low-resolution displays
  • Some forms of neurodiversity
  • Features of the text like color, font, size, etc.

Factors that make audio content difficult to perceive

  • A disability related to hearing
  • Illness, ear infection, or injury to the eardrum causing temporary hearing impairments.
  • A sleeping child nearby
  • A noisy environment.
  • Some forms of neurodiversity
  • A native language other than the one used in the audio

Representing content in multiple ways for multiple senses involves creating textual representations of all images and ensuring that all text can be interpreted by screen-reading software. For detailed information about digital accessibility, refer to the Accessibility Resources included in DELTA’s Teaching Resources site.You might also find this Online Course Accessibility Checklist and its companion Digital Accessibility Guide helpful.

Maximizing Comprehension with UDL

Once we know learners have perceived content, UDL guidelines challenge us to ensure that learners can fully understand and process the information that you’ve presented. Even once students are able to fully see, hear, read, or otherwise access your content, they may still encounter barriers related to the language and how it is used. There is a distinction here between content and information that may be challenging or complex and the language that is used to describe and explain that content. Our goal is to remove the barriers related to language so that students can focus their energy on understanding and making sense of the content. We can support student comprehension with a number of design strategies.

Using plain language

Using “plain language” can help maximize comprehension. Plain language has three components: readability, intelligibility and usability. Readability means that a reader can make sense of the writing itself (not necessarily the meaning) with minimal effort. Intelligibility describes the clarity, relevance, coherence and cohesion of the message. Usability comes down to effectiveness of the message, which means it is appropriate for the purpose, it is broken down into steps or key points, and it achieves the objective. 

When we use plain language it does not mean that you can only teach or explain simple things. It just means that the language you use, even if you’re explaining something very complex, should be as clear as possible. 

This is especially important when it comes to things that are not related to the content, such as communicating with students or writing assignment instructions. 

There are some tools available that may be helpful in analyzing your language. Microsoft Word can calculate a readability score based on the number of words and syllables per sentence. A good target is to write at a seventh or eighth grade reading level.. The Center for Disease Control also has lots of plain language resources.

Providing vocabulary support

The use of jargon, acronyms, new and unfamiliar vocabulary and idioms can also impact comprehension. Idioms are especially challenging for learners from other cultures or for whom English is not their native language, because the true meaning is often different from the direct translation. 

Even if your goal is to familiarize students with new vocabulary or acronyms from your discipline, it is important to still provide context and support.  Providing vocabulary resources, such as a glossary or external links, can go a long way in helping students who need additional support with new vocabulary. Pre-teaching new vocabulary is also helpful. At the start of a new module lecture a few moments could be allocated to defining key or new terminology to ensure all students are familiar with the terms and will correctly understand them when they are used later in the lesson.

 If you’d like to explore a way for students to collaboratively create a glossary for your course, the glossary activity in Moodle is one option. This can be set up and used only by the teacher, but it’s intended to be a collaborative exercise. Note that since it’s a student activity, when you copy a course from one semester to another, the glossary will not copy over. However, one could back-up the glossary from a course and restore it to a new one. Learn more at the Moodle Doc for Glossary Activity.

Providing background knowledge

The background knowledge learners come into a course with can have a big impact on how they understand and internalize, and then generalize, the new information that they’re learning in your course. Maybe there are some prerequisites for your course, but maybe students fulfilled those prerequisites through a high school AP course or at another college where you cannot know exactly what they learned or how well. Or, maybe there are also some unwritten prerequisites and an expectation that students will have been exposed to certain concepts or topics before. It is important to be sensitive to the fact that not all students had the same prior learning opportunities  and may not have the same levels of background knowledge.

To ensure students have access to build background knowledge they need, you can offer refreshers or optional readings/modules that students can complete if they feel like they need to brush up on their skills in a certain area.

Another way to build background knowledge is to activate prior knowledge that’s already there but perhaps has not been used in a while so feels a bit “rusty.” Strategies include anything that can kind of have them intentionally think back to previous experiences they’ve had and how that relates to what they’re doing now, such as

  • incorporating KWL activities (asking students to list what they Know, what they Want to know and what they have Learned). Learn more and download a KWL template in this article from the Provost’s office.
  • having students create concept maps or brainstorm before a lesson to organize their previous understanding of a topic.
  • providing reflection prompts at the beginning and end of a lesson to help students understand how previous knowledge fits with new knowledge.
  • using examples, making real world connections, using analogies and metaphors that can help learners connect the new information to information they already have.

Guiding information processing

Guiding information processing means implementing scaffolding by building upon skills progressively and being explicit about processes. For example, if you find that students are struggling with an assignment, you could break it down into smaller parts to guide them through the thought process or isolate certain aspects of the assignment to make sure they are on the right track.

Another strategy is to provide aids or organizational tools that can guide students through a process. These could include  tables or models for how to solve a mathematical equation, graphic organizers, checklists, reminders, templates or guided note-taking.

Thinking like a novice

Recognizing the documented phenomenon called the expert blind spot can also help you identify ways your instruction might create barriers to comprehension. An expert blind spot can exist when one has a high level of expertise on something and takes for granted the years it took to build the conceptual framework for the discipline. Essentially, it’s very hard to remember what it was like to be a novice in one’s field of expertise, or to know what reasonable expectations are for a novice. If you want to learn more about the expert blind spot, read the article “Beware the Expert Blind Spot” by Julia Phelan, Ph.D. (8 min read).

The solution to this is to, first of all, reflect on where this might be happening for you in your instruction, and then try to slow down and expect to have to repeat information multiple times. Provide additional resources for your students, and realize that it might take more explaining and more repetition than you think it should for them to really get it. Try to think like a novice and put yourself into their shoes to check for understanding.

You might even get an outside opinion from someone you know who is a novice. A student who succeeded in your course as a novice could be a wealth of information on how they worked to build their knowledge. Peer tutors can also be a great resource for students, since they only very recently learned your course’s content and it’s easier for them to remember learning it for the first time.

Reinforcing key information

When recognizing how novices think, we realize that they may not be able to discern what is key information versus less critical points. Instructors can help by emphasizing what is really important to help guide learners toward meeting learning objectives. previewing key information by providing outlines, overviews, or summaries before a lesson can help prepare students to learn. For example, before students read a short story, they’re told what to look for as they read and what they should be focusing on. It helps them to read with purpose instead of aimlessly reading.

Consider where you can include cues and prompts or use graphics, diagrams, or formulas that can reinforce the concept and make connections between previous and new information. Support generalization and transfer, and use examples (and non-examples), to help learners understand the big picture as much as possible.


For further reading about this topic: