1.2 Why is UDL Important? What Does the Research Say?


Think of the past learning experiences you have been a part of, either as a student or as an educator.

Were there times that seemed to cater only to the strengths, experiences, or perspectives of a particular subset of the learners? What was the effect on the other learners?

Arguments for UDL

Neurobiological research shows the importance of emotional engagement in shaping life-long learning, application, and memories (Immordino-Yang, 2016). Also, students’ educational outcomes can improve when the three principles of UDL are implemented in course design, learning experiences, teaching practices, learning environments, and student assessments (Al-Azawei et al., 2016). Further, using a variety of appropriate entry points and levels of challenge can improve learning for all students while maintaining a high level of academic integrity.

The post-secondary student population is increasingly diverse and our institutions embrace students who have different points of view, experiences, access needs, backgrounds, interests, histories, stories, and socioeconomic status to name a few (Buzzard et al., 2011; National Center on Universal Design for Learning at CAST, 2017). When traditional instructional approaches such as lectures and readings are used exclusively in a course, they do not address the diversity of learners that are likely to be in that course. To reduce barriers to education and increase student engagement, educators can consider the needs of all learners through course design, learning experiences, and the learning environment. UDL offers a framework for considering diverse student populations in higher education (Institute for Human Centered Design, 2016).

USask Lens:

Consider the following demographic statistics from the University of Saskatchewan (Academic Year Snapshot 2021-2022):

  • 14% of undergraduate students, and 7% of graduate students, have self-identified as Indigenous. Of these students, 57% self-identify as First Nations, 43% as Metis, and <1% as Inuit.
  • 8% of undergraduate students are international students. Of these students, the top countries of origin are: China (21%), India (20%), Nigeria (16%), Bangladesh (7%), and Vietnam (4%).
  • 35% of graduate students are international students. Of these students, the top countries of origin are: Iran (16%), China (15%), India (10%), Nigeria (8%), and Bangladesh (6%).
  • In total, 66% of students at the University of Saskatchewan come from within the province, while 18% come from out of province, and 16% of students come from out of Canada.
  • Of the students who come from within the province, 68% come from urban centres in Saskatchewan, while 32% come from rural communities.

These statistics offer just a few examples to illustrate that students bring different experiences and perspectives to their learning.

Several strategies can help meet diverse learner needs, including student learning communities (Tinto, 2003), peer tutoring (Topping, 1996), and supplemental instruction (McGuire, 2006). These approaches aim to increase retention, improve student performance, and, more importantly, shift the educational paradigm from one that is teacher-centred to one that is student-centred. Many of these strategies rely on students seeking assistance from the institution’s student academic centre. UDL is a complementary approach that educators can use to provide learning support within the courses themselves.

Implementing UDL requires consideration of both accessibility to information and pedagogical approaches. Put simply, UDL is intended to provide flexible curriculum (Pace & Schwartz, 2008) and learning experiences for students. Incorporating UDL does not eliminate educational barriers to learning (Zeff, 2007); however, it provides a new standard and mindset for educators to reduce barriers for all students.

Impact of UDL in Higher Education

Davies et al. (2013) conducted a study in which students reported that UDL intervention strategies increased their understanding of concepts in postsecondary courses (Davies et al., 2013). Further, UDL strategies can increase student interest and engagement, with multiple means of representation having the greatest perceived value (Black, Weinberg, & Brodwin, 2015; Smith, 2012). In a study on post-secondary students with at least one diagnosed disability (e.g., cognitive, psychiatric, or visual impairment), students emphasized the importance of being offered options for receiving learning materials – including educator prepared notes, notes prepared by student volunteers, recorded class lectures, alternative media, and hard-copy textbooks (Black et al., 2015). Lecture notes in particular, permitted students to focus on retaining information, lowering the pressure of making adequate notes in class, and helped increase students’ perceived engagement level during the lessons. Recently, Dean et al. (2017) demonstrated that engaging students both in-class and outside of class using accessible instructional methods – interactive multimedia such as interactive electronic textbooks, flashcards, practice quizzes, activity lists, video lectures, and personalized educator content, have a positive impact on learning, especially for large class settings that are typical of introductory university courses.

In addition to benefitting students, the process of incorporating the three principles of UDL can have a positive impact on educators. At the University of Southern Maine, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) faculty members who participated in a UDL development program reported a positive impact on their teaching experience, as evidenced by an increased engagement and commitment to improving student learning. Participation also had a positive impact on their professional relationships with peers, in that it encouraged faculty members to observe each other’s course instruction and discuss the ways they applied UDL principles to making their courses more accessible (Langley-Turnbaugh et al., 2013). UDL principles motivated educators to think about active learning and plan their lessons strategically to engage students by using demonstrations, simulations, models, and examples. Less emphasis was placed on theoretical foundations, offering students more ways to demonstrate competence. At the Metropolitan State University of Denver, a team of educators sent out weekly UDL-inspired tips for other educators to try in their classrooms (Herring et al., 2017). After a largely positive response, a website was developed to archive all instructional tips and offer a library of UDL resources, providing faculty the opportunity to comment and offer new tips.

Progression of Novice Learners to Expert Learners

Novices and experts approach learning differently. An expert educator may skip steps unconsciously, potentially causing learners to have difficulties interpreting concepts and making connections between steps. Additionally, the educator who can perform complex tasks in an efficient manner may underestimate the amount of time it takes for learners to perform an assignment or learn the material. Novice learners may not witness the impacts of their learning at the beginning and therefore may not feel they are making any learning gains (Middendorf & Pace, 2004).

One example of a process that can enhance our teaching practice and help educators recognize how their expertise might potentially complicate student learning is called Decoding the Disciplines (Middendorf & Pace, 2004). The decoding portion happens in an interview process: educators and educational developers collaborate to make an expert’s thinking processes visible, with the expert being asked provocative questions to help bring any blind spots to the surface. The questions are based on addressing a student “bottleneck” that the educator identified as an obstacle to learning. The expert’s shared stream of consciousness provides clues about why a novice might find it difficult to engage or express their learning at a level the educator expects.

To demystify the discipline’s complexity and narrow the gap between expert and novice thinking, Middendorf and Pace (2004) suggest that experts engage in a decoding process to uncover, observe, and interpret the tacit knowledge of the expert through a series of seven steps:

  1. Identify a bottleneck to learning
  2. Uncover the mental tasks needed to overcome the bottleneck
  3. Model these tasks
  4. Give students practice and feedback
  5. Motivate and lessen resistance
  6. Assess student mastery
  7. Share what has been learned through the decoding process
A snail is seen crossing a small gap, from one side labelled "novice" to the other side labelled "expert"
Figure 1-2: Crossing the gap between expert and novice thinking

Miller-Young and Boman (2017) interviewed seven faculty members across disciplines. Their research revealed that an expert has access to multiple ways of knowing, practicing and being, making it easier for educators to deconstruct and reconstruct their learning, recognize patterns, value provisionality, expand their thinking, be attentive to what is happening in the world, take agency, and apply an ethical and authentic understanding to their profession and practice (Miller-Young & Boman, 2017). In connection to UDL principles and guidelines, the expert learner’s implicit knowledge must be made explicit in order to be accessible to the novice learner. The novice learner can then share the expert lens and begin to develop multiple ways of knowing, practicing and being in collaboration.

Neural Networks and Principles of UDL

Taking a UDL approach, the educator embraces learner diversity. Informed by cognitive neuroscience, UDL was formed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to encompass three broad networks of cognition associated with learning (Kolb & Whishaw, 2015; Rose, 2005; Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006):

  1. Affective neural network – responsible for emotion and affect, located at the medial regions of the brain (e.g., extended limbic system). This network represents the “why” of learning and is responsible for evaluating the significance or importance of the information being perceived.
  2. Recognition neural network – situated at the posterior half of the brain’s cortex. This network represents the “what” of learning and is responsible for recognition and perception of information.
  3. Strategic neural network – situated in the anterior regions of the brain’s cortex (e.g., frontal lobes). This network represents the “how” of learning and is responsible for planning, organizing, and execution.

These neural networks roughly correspond to the three principles of UDL, which inform accessible pedagogy and establish a framework for course planning and learning experiences (National Center on Universal Design for Learning at CAST, 2017; Rose, 2001):

Neural networks and their corresponding UDL principles
Neural Network UDL Principle Also known as
Affective neural network Multiple means of engagement The “why” of learning
Recognition neural network Multiple means of representation The “what” of learning
Strategic neural network Multiple means of action & expression The “how” of learning

Gaps in the Research

Research to support the efficacy of UDL principles is, unfortunately, in the nascent stages (Al-Azawei et al., 2016; Mangiatordi & Serenelli, 2013; Rao et al., 2014; Roberts et al., 2011). As noted by Davies et al. (2013), there has been limited research on the larger scale impact of UDL on student performance, or of the value of UDL professional learning development for educators.

Recently, Dean et al. (2017) were among the first to examine learning gains on undergraduate students as a result of UDL-inspired strategies in a large lecture hall setting. In this study, instructional tools that were accessible both inside and outside of the classroom, such as interactive textbooks, had more of a positive gain on actual and perceived learning than tools, such as audience response systems, that were accessible in-class only.

Rao et al. (2014) noted that the literature lacks a clear explanation of how the three principles of UDL should be applied. They questioned the extent to which UDL principles and guidelines must be implemented in a course to be considered accessible and equitable. A cross-cultural examination on the influence of UDL-inspired curricula is also largely absent and is currently limited to a few countries that are similar in culture and socioeconomic conditions (Al-Azawei et al., 2016).

A major limitation to the application of UDL themes across post-secondary settings is the amount of time required to fulfill the three principles (Kumar & Wideman, 2014). Further limitations, such as class size, may limit the application of UDL strategies in large classes (Dean et al., 2017). However, as noted by Poore-Pariseau (2013), a well-designed rubric will help ensure students are graded fairly in UDL-designed assessment formats.


Reflection: One Small Step

Take a moment to recall a teaching/learning activity you offered or observed where you noted that several students struggled.

  1. Explain the activity and the specific point of difficulty that the students were experiencing.
  2. Identify the student variables that may have impacted student success.
  3. What are some strategies you might have used to increase student success?




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Universal Design for Learning: One Small Step Copyright © 2022 by Sara Dzaman; Derek Fenlon; Julie Maier; and Toni Marchione is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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