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Meeting the Needs of All Students: Universal Design for Learning

Posted by Matt Bergman

Feb 18, 2015 8:28:00 AM


There is more variability and/or diversity in our classrooms today than at any time in history. Today’s classrooms contain an array of students with different backgrounds, intellectual abilities, experiences. The way our students learn is “as different as their DNA or fingerprint” (CAST, 2015).  With all of these challenges, how can educators develop lessons to address the needs of all students in their classroom?

Lesson Planning

Developing effective lesson plans begins with developing effective curriculum--that is, with the goals, methods, materials, and assessments used to navigate the learning process. Many schools develop curriculum based on the model of an average student that doesn’t exist. This inflexible one-size-fits-all curriculum creates unintentional barriers, because it addresses the needs of some and neglects the needs of others.

Planning to Meet the Needs of All Students

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework was originally developed by researchers from CAST in the 1980’s to create flexible learning environments for special needs students. Based on brain research, researchers found that these techniques actually addressed variability in a way that worked for all students!

Even though we all learn differently, researchers found that there are ways all learners are alike. To address the needs of students, we need to develop a flexible curriculum that provides students with:

Multiple Means of Representation

representationWe all use our senses to create meaning and connections with the world around us, which makes it important to represent new concepts in different ways.  Students need different ways to see, hear, and interact with concepts, ideas, and vocabulary. You may want to consider providing students with a few different ways to represent new content.

For example, if students were learning new vocabulary terms, you may want to provide them with different ways to learn the terms. You may use Quizlet to develop flashcards for students to learn, review, and physically interact with the new terms. You may want to show YouTube clips of the terms in action.  

Multiple Means of Action and Expression


The way we demonstrate our understanding involves organizing and expressing our knowledge in different ways. Although we don’t always have the flexibility (especially with standardized testing), when appropriate, we should provide our students with different ways of showing what they know.

For example, you may have the learning goal of having students compare and contrast two particular concepts. Perhaps you give students several different options or pathways to accomplish the same goal, like writing a short essay, creating a 1 minute iMovie trailer, or developing a Venn Diagram.

Multiple Means of Engagement

motivationLearners also vary in the way that they engage with content and stay motivated; therefore, it is important to provide students with relevant, challenging, and interesting information. It is important to understand their interests and what excites them. Perhaps you have students who love to draw, write, or love sports. Can you incorporate these items into class?

Providing choice is another great way to engage students. For example, elementary teachers often use the Daily 5 to provide students with tasks they need to complete. Perhaps you give students the flexibility of choosing the order they complete the tasks. Are you a high school teacher that thinks that this doesn’t apply to you?

Check out what the Bartholomew Consolidated School District in Columbus, IN is doing with Tic Tac Toe choice boards in the high school classroom.

Why UDL?

UDL is a scientifically-based framework aimed at providing our students with the flexibility, scaffolds, and supports that our students need to learn. UDL frontloads instruction with these supports to remove high-probability academic barriers before they occur. UDL creates flexible learning environments that celebrates and recognizes the variability that exists in our classrooms today.

About Matt Bergman

Math_Bergman_HeadshotMatt Bergman is an educational technology blogger and educator at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA, who uses the UDL framework to work with students living in poverty. He has developed a graduate course on UDL for teachers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. Matt recently developed a five-hour professional development course on UDL for K-12 teachers in the state of Florida. To read more about UDL and educational technology, check out Matt’s blog

Topics: Teachers Using LearnBop, Differentiating Instruction, Teaching & Learning

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