Models of Teaching: Universal Design for Learning

The Principles of UDL Instruction, and Differences with Direct Instruction

Universal Design for Learning provides a scientifically sound framework for the guidance of educational practice that operates on two essential principles. First is that flexibility is maintained in the ways that students are required to respond to knowledge acquisition, demonstrate their skills, and in the ways that students are engaged. Secondly, UDL seeks to reduce the barriers of instruction, provide appropriate accommodation and support, mitigate challenges, and maintain relatively high achievement expectations for all students inclusively, regardless of disability and proficiency in the English language (National Center on Universal Design for Learning [NCUDL], 2010a). The primary principles of UDL can, therefore, be condensed into the three fundamental principles of:

  1. Providing multiple means of representation,
  2. providing various ways of engagement,
  3. Providing multiple means of action and expression (NCUDL, 2010a).

These principles of UDL work to address the basic purpose of the approach, which was designed to provide children with learning disabilities access to the general curriculum.

The definition of UDL has consistently evolved since its inception, from a concept to a scientifically-sound and validated framework. There is great concern that there exists little research work into UDL, despite there being a body of research done in Universally Designed Assessments. Therefore, without this base of definitive primary research, UDL cannot be scientifically validated as an intervention (Edyburn, 2010). However, despite the lack of scientific validation of UDL as an intervention, various components of the approach, and the principles of UDL have been satisfactorily assessed, and hence the widespread application based on contextual and anecdotal feedback.

The principles of UDL provide that the approach is inherently different from conventional direct instruction. In UDL, teaching is primarily focused on both what is taught and how, while on the other hand, direct instruction is generally focused on what is taught (NCUDL, 2010a; American Graduate D.C. [AGDC], 2012). The critical requirement for UDL is to identify ways to teach the material to as many types of learners in the classroom as possible. Teachers in a UDL classroom plan lessons to utilize a wide range of student needs and strengths as there is no assumption of “typical” students. Further, in direct instruction, accommodations are made for specific students, those with an IEP or a 504 plan, to help them learn the same as their classmates. UDL, on the other hand, makes accommodations for all students (NCUDL, 2010a). Finally, a teacher in a direct instruction classroom decides how the material is taught, which a UDL teacher needs to work with the student to understand how the student would learn the content. Overall, the principles of UDL demand differentiation, which is the essential dissimilarity with direct learning.

Why UDL and Direct Instruction are Considered “Student-centred”

There are two primary instruction approaches; namely the teacher-directed and student-centered instruction. The differing characteristic between the two is embodied in the interaction between the teacher and the learner during the delivery of core learning activity. The teacher’s role in teacher-directed teaching is to be the leader while, on the other hand, the teacher is a facilitator in student-centered instruction (eMedia Workshop [eMW], 2012). Both Direct instruction and UDL feature specific characteristics that categorically define them as student-centered instruction.

In both UDL and Direct instruction, the teacher is required to be an active listener and take the time to understand the needs of their students. Thereafter, the teacher can plan their curriculums around how to support and challenge their students adequately. Furthermore, in both these approaches, the student is involved in the construction of their learning (NCUDL, 2010b). Their knowledge and ideas are solely their own, but the teacher facilitates their experiences by introducing additional content, delivering supplementary knowledge, support learning, and overall help students grow.

A defining aspect of UDL and Direct instruction, and in extension, student-centered instruction, is student participation. Students are infinitely more active in their learning, which is a concept developed from the constructivist theory of Jean Piaget (Kame’enui et al., 2013). This helps children to achieve a depth of comprehension and knowledge as it is being channeled into something meaningful to them as they have constructed it. Better comprehension can be obtained as the material being taught can be directly translated into real-life information that learners can latch onto. Students in a classroom undergoing student-centered learning will have an atmosphere that looks a lot like play. During play, children are incredibly engaged, and they may have a sustained and passionate commitment to their learning whenever they are excited. Direct instruction and UDL, if ideally implemented, comprise these characteristics and, therefore, could be considered student-centered instruction.

The Reason(s) for UDL’s Intuitive Appeal to Policymakers and Teachers

Educators are often tasked with the challenge of designing and delivering curriculum for an increasingly diverse student population. Each student learns differently, and would greatly benefit from having a variety of learning platforms they can choose from, flexible assessments, and contextual tools that they can implement to organize the newly acquired information and skills. UDL offers such a variety of resources and strategies to help with the resolution of diverse learning needs, proper diversification, and improve accessibility to learning opportunities for the student (eMW, 2012). This functionality eventually leads to improved student success. UDL implementers would also enjoy inherent benefits provided by the approach, which hence improves the overall attractiveness of the intervention. There is a highly reduced need and time requirement for the arrangement and management of individual learning formal accommodations (Swanson et al., 2013). This is due to the inclusive nature of UDL, which ultimately caters to students undergoing specialized IEP or 504 plans as well. UDL implementation also fosters communication and collaboration between the learner and the educator, which inadvertently improves classroom engagement and, very often, the reduction of classroom behavioral issues.

Finally, the proactive design of UDL implementation allows a holistic approach for a more diverse student population, which in turn increases the overall attractiveness of a learning institution. The framework also allows more opportunities for learners to fully demonstrate their knowledge and eventually develops more self-aware, overall knowledgeable learners. To abide with statutory requirements, the UDL allows for easier alignment with the needs of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AGDC, 2012). Overall, these benefits of the UDL framework, along with the relative ease of implementation, approaches have a great intuitive appeal to teachers and policymakers.

Assessment of Student Responsiveness in UDL and DI, and Corresponding Differences

Within a UDL-based classroom, regular assessment is essential as a source of meaningful data that allows an educator to plan for flexible learning activities to facilitate student learning. Students should be aware beforehand, what they would be assessed on, as well as the skills and knowledge that they are responsible for demonstrating. The UDL curriculum is designed with flexibility and accessibility in mind, and the assessment methods should be similar. The overall design of UDL introduces some complexity in the assessment, as many students have different learning styles and modes of instruction (NCUDL, 2010b). However, the most effective approach to assessment lies in shifting the assessment from the learning product to assessing the attainment of specific learning outcomes.

On the other hand, Direct Instruction (DI) follows a more conventional curriculum and learning goals often follow a single approach to achieve it. Students will be required to work towards the standardized goal, using comparable resources and tools, to ideally produce the same product (AGDC, 2012). Therefore, assessment in a DI classroom is also standardized, and the same test is implemented to measure the attainment of a specific learning product. Students in this classroom are also often aware of their assessments, and the skills and knowledge they are responsible for exhibiting.

The DI approach to standardization of instruction and assessment sets the bar too high, or too low for some students. The design is intuitively designed for the average student, and therefore any student who does not fit this norm is inherently disadvantaged in the learning approach. UDL educators widely feel that this average student is mainly mythical, and even if they exist, a strategy designed just for them disenfranchises every other student. As a result, the very design of instruction and assessment presents the difference between these two approaches, which is the extent of standardization and differentiation.

UDL Cautionary Notes from Edyburn

Edyburn (2010) provides that, given the dearth of primary studies surrounding the UDL, an analysis of research evidence regarding its implementation as a scientifically validated intervention is impossible. Furthermore, the inclusion of the response in federal law was only after the mischaracterization of the compiled work, which supports the various components of the UDL principles. As a result, the claim that UDL is scientifically validated through research cannot be reasonably substantiated (Edyburn, 2010).

Furthermore, due to the highly bespoke nature of UDL-intervention, there is the inherent risk of approaches that educators and policymakers would think are based on UDL, but in fact, are not. There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the actual components of UDL, and aspects such as cooperative learning and co-teaching (Edyburn, 2010). Therefore, educators and policymakers may implement instructional practices that are wrongly based on UDL principles. It, thus, becomes essential to define the underlying aspects of UDL and to make them exceedingly clear to educators, researchers as well as policymakers alike.

The Key Components of the Universal Designs for Learning

Focus of Instruction (goals/aims)

In the UDL approach, educators are challenged to move past their conventional roles in curriculum planning as content makers. Learning outcomes are also revised not merely to be performance markers for learners. As a result, UDL aims to create clear, concise learning goals that support the holistic development of expert, lifelong learners that are both tactful, resourceful and motivated (Swanson et al., 2013). As a result, the UDL approach provides aims that are comprised of three primary components: (1) The separation of the means from the ends, in that objectives should be attainable in different ways by different people, (2) the appreciation of variability in learning delivery, and finally (3) the provision of UDL alternatives in the selection of materials, methods, and assessments.

Role of the Teacher

The primary role of a teacher within a UDL framework is that of a facilitator, rather than one of authoritarian leadership. The teacher is inherently required to be an active listener and take the time to interact and understand the individual needs of their students (Kame’enui et al., 2013). These needs are considered during curriculum development, with the underlying purpose of supporting and challenging their students. The students can, in this case, be actively involved in their own learning.

Expectations of the Students

UDL provides an opportunity for all students, regardless of their learning disabilities and language proficiency, to access inclusive education. Therefore, students in a UDL classroom expect the chance to access and participate in the progress of their general education curriculum without any significant barriers to instruction. The assessments are also outlined beforehand, which allows the students to be implicitly aware of the skills and knowledge that they should possess, and consequently, the skills and knowledge that should be imparted on them during their learning.

What is Assessed in the Approach?

The UDL approach seeks to acknowledge and appreciate the heterogeneity of the student population. It aims to tend to the students often in the margins, those with emotional and behavioral challenges, learning disabilities and reading difficulties, sensory and physical disabilities, autism disorders, and so forth. Given the differentiation and inclusivity of the approach, the assessments should be structures similarly. As a result, the evaluation focuses mainly on the attainment of learning outcomes, rather than an assessment of the learning product as a whole.

How Growth is Measured

UDL seeks to diversify the criteria for assessing student development, and in the process, address many of the issues presented by the conventional inflexible media prevalent in traditional instruction. As a result, UDL proposes the assessment of the attainment of learning outcomes with consideration to individual learning differences, media constraints, student support, and curriculum integration, as asserted by Kame’enui et al. (2013).


American Graduate D.C. (2012). I do, we do, you do: Scaffolding reading comprehension in social studies. [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Edyburn, D. L. (2010). Would you recognize universal design for learning if you saw it? Ten propositions for new directions for the second decade of UDL. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(1), 33–41. Web.

eMedia Workshop. (2012). Teaching Matters: Explicit Instruction. [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Kame’enui, E. J., Fien, H., & Korgesaar, J. (2013). Direct instruction as Eo nomine and contronym: Why the right words and details matter. Handbook of learning disabilities, 489-506.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2010a). The UDL guidelines. [Video]. YouTube. Web.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2010b). UDL guidelines in practice: Grade 1 mathematics. [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Swanson, H. L., Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of learning disabilities. Guilford press.

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