Supporting Learner Variability: UDL Part 1

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This post is the first post of a three-part UDL series. This post focuses on defining UD, DI, and UDL. Future posts will further unpack UDL, provide recommendations for pedagogical approaches, share a lesson plan template and provide a wealth of actionable strategies to use for UDL implementation. 

Supporting Learner Variability

As equity-minded educators, it is important we distinguish between three commonly and often interchangeably used terms: Universal Design (UD), Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Concentric circles, from the outside in, showing Universal Design for Learning, Differentiated Instruction, Universal Design, and Accessibility.

To best understand these models, it makes sense to first understand accessibility. Ensuring content and experiences are physically and cognitively available to as many learners as possible is core – not just for legal compliance but as an end goal. Done proactively and deliberately, accessibility provides opportunities for all learners to access, engage with, and demonstrate their knowledge and skills without unnecessary challenges. Accessibility is the common core within all three models.

Universal Design (UD) promotes infrastructures designed to provide physical accessibility for everyone. For example, a curb cut is not only intended for wheelchair access to the sidewalk but are also helpful for strollers, bikes, suitcases, rollerblades, and dollies. This type of thinking influenced UDL to design courses that maximize their accessibility to a diverse body of people. Doing so also supports compliance with ADA and Rehabilitation Acts that require “equal access” to course content for learners with disabilities. Seven principles serve as the foundation for UD: 1) equitable use; 2) flexibility in use; 3) simple and intuitive use; 4) perceptible information; 5) tolerance for error; 6) low physical effort; and 7) size and space for approach and use.

Differentiated Instruction (DI) reflects brain-based variability in that we all learn differently, and we individually exhibit differences in our strengths and challenges. By getting to know our learners, educators provide accessibility by aligning teaching approaches and materials to create unique learning pathways. These pathways are tailored to individuals, or groups of individuals with similar strengths and/or needs. DI uses a reactive and teacher directed approach to accommodate learners’ needs.

Shows regions of the brain activated by each element of UDL.

UDL considers three broad learning networks of the brain (affective, recognition, and strategic) to provide multiple pathways for learners. Pathways are created by providing multiple methods for learners to engage with the course, its content, and ways to express their learning. Using UDL approaches ensures that all learners will be able to demonstrate their learning without unnecessary challenges unrelated to the academic content.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that borrows and expands on each of the previously mentioned models. UDL encourages educators to attend to the full range of learners’ strengths and challenges to eliminate barriers to learning. Typically, instructors tend to teach to the “middle” learner – sometimes adding additional resources to extend learning or “fixing” learners performing below this benchmark. Whereas UDL promotes “teaching to the margins” by anticipating the range of variability. This approach eliminates the need for DI accommodation.

Table comparing UD, DI, & UDL
UD, DI, UDL Education Scale (Adapted from UDL Now! [2016])

Understanding the similarities and differences of UD, DI, and UDL will help you label the work you’ve already done and determine how to move forward. Incorporating tenets of UDL may seem like a high bar after quickly converting our courses and just barely completing our first term of remote teaching. But that is what makes UDL especially important during this time. It is an equalizer that can help support the varying situations and needs of our learners during an incredibly challenging and complicated time.

For UDL support, sign up for a 1:1 consultation with CTL, check in with DAS, or visit with the Faculty Media Center!

Stay tuned for part two of this series to learn pedagogical approaches for implementing UDL!


  • “Universal Design for Learning Guidelines.” Version 2.2.
  • OSU, Institutional Diversity. Guidance for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Learning,
  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014) Universal design for learning theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Publishing.
  • Novak, K. (2016) UDL NOW!. Wakefield, MA: CAST Publishing.
  • Seok, S., DaCosta, B. and Hodges, R. (2018) A Systematic Review of Empirically Based Universal Design for Learning: Implementation and Effectiveness of Universal Design in Education for Students with and without Disabilities at the Postsecondary Level. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 6, 171-189.
  • Tomlinson, C. A. (2017) How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms (3rd). Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Brooke Howland

Brooke Howland is the associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Elementary Education with an ESL endorsement from the University of Northern Colorado and earned her Ed.D. in Teacher Education in Multicultural Societies from the University of Southern California. Her scholarly expertise is in teacher development and curriculum design. Prior to working at OSU, Dr. Howland taught in the School of Education for University of Southern California; University of California, Irvine; and currently teaches at University of California, Los Angeles.

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