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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

The Special EDge

Winter 2013 Volume 26, Number 1

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design is an approach to creating places and products that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, can use without additional adaptation. Carrying this principle into education, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) eliminates the tag of “disability” and operates from the premise that every one of us has distinct learning capacities and preferences that determine what we learn—and whether we even can learn in a given situation. The starting point for UDL is that, if teachers are to be effective, they need to be working in environments that are accessible to all, and they need to present information in ways that allow all students to access it. Research shows that when UDL principles are applied in the classroom, students become learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, and purposeful and motivated.* UDL helps students go far beyond securing a passing test score. It promotes the ultimate goal of a good education.

Where to Begin

 Numerous print and Internet resources fully explain the principles, theory, and components of UDL; there are online examples of each of UDL’s guidelines, along with examples of lesson plans (see resources on page 4). These guidelines are numerous and can be a little overwhelming at first glance. It’s important to remember that big things start small, and they take time to develop. Educators may want to choose just one of the guidelines at the beginning of their UDL efforts, selecting it on the basis of what will most benefit the students in their particular classrooms. Sometimes one small but enduring change can make a significant difference. The following two pages in this document give you a look at how implementing a specific UDL guideline plays out across three different classrooms—and how that one guideline can make a big difference in the lives of struggling students.


One UDL guideline calls for “options for self-regulation.” This includes helping students become interested in what they are learning and develop the patience to sustain the effort they need to master the material. This ability to self-regulate—to intentionally and strategically adjust emotional reactions in order to be more effective in coping and engaging with the environment—is a critical part of human development. Many of us learn these kinds of skills on our own, by the mistakes we make and through the guidance and example of other people in our lives. Others of us have a difficult time developing them, because of either our environment or our own neurology—or a combination of the two. Effective classrooms address this fact and teach self-regulating skills explicitly. The following three examples show just how.

Case Study: Second Grade

Devon is seven years old and cannot seem to sit still. His pediatrician thinks he has attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. But his parents aren’t so sure, and they don’t want to put him on medication.

The way Devon’s school day is organized helps him control his urge to run around. One of these organizing features is a “grow-tall” chart on which Devon’s teacher records the amount of time each student spends at the numbers table. The students know their goal is to increase each day the amount of focused time they spend there. Devon’s teacher insisted they all start with very short periods, shorter even than what she knew her most impetuous students could handle. Then she praises students at length for every one minute of “growth.”

With his classmates modeling focused attention, and with the manageable daily goals clearly spelled out and the successes made visible, Devon has started putting his energy into making sure his personal chart reaches the ceiling at the same time as those of his classmates. He can now spend 20 minutes of focused time each day at the numbers table.

Case Study: Seventh Grade

James had been diagnosed with emotional-behavioral disorder before junior high, although his math teacher thinks this disability comes as much from his unstable home life as from any actual disorder. James’ records show that he sometimes randomly shouts obscenities when he is struggling with a complicated task.

At the beginning of the school year, James’ math teacher addresses behavioral expectations with the whole class. But rather than simply handing out and reciting a list of rules, she spends a week helping her students get to know their strengths and weaknesses in math, reflect on and write about the ways they’ll need math after they’re out of high school, and formulate their personal goals for the class. She provides numerous models for the writing tasks, along with videos about attractive jobs that require math. She works with each student individually, and when she sits down with James, she speaks with him frankly about his record of outbursts: why he does them, how they “help” him, and what would serve as a suitable replacement for them.

Every student in the class develops a personal plan and creates a chart for how to achieve his or her goals. James’ chart includes a path for reducing aggressive outbursts. At the end of each week, the students write about whether or not they are closer to their goals and why. Because James was able to formulate his own goals along with the rest of the class, and because he liked the idea of being in charge, his outbursts have lessened and he actually likes his math class.

Case Study: Eleventh Grade

Iris hated reading. She started high school four years behind her age-mates and felt hopeless about ever catching up. Reading was hard for her, so she didn’t do it, and every year she fell farther behind. And she hated coming to class not knowing what everyone was going to be talking about.

But her social studies class changed things. All of the readings were available in three formats: in addition to hard copy, each text had an accompanying digital recording for download onto listening devices, which students could use on the bus or at home; and everything the students were assigned to read was also available in an interactive format on the school computers. The students could listen to the reading, follow along in the text, and stop whenever they didn’t know the meaning of a word or needed more background information, all of which was provided with a click. Every student in class, regardless of reading level, took advantage of these multiple options. And for the first time in her school career, Iris wanted to read. No one knew when she stumbled, she was able to absorb the content for class discussions, and she was becoming more fluent as a reader because of the supports that these multiple formats were giving her.


Within a curriculum designed for all students, each of these students found what he or she uniquely needed to succeed. 

Differentiated Instruction & UDL

Differentiated instruction (DI) is the process of adapting and modifying three things: teaching, learning activities, and student requirements (those things that students have to do and produce for a given class). DI alters these three things in ways that meet the needs, strengths, or preferences of a student or a small group of students. DI often involves a pretest to determine what students know and what gaps in knowledge each needs to fill or what skill to acquire before he or she can grasp the content of a lesson. For example, if a student can’t add fractions but the lesson involves quadratic equations, he or she will need a level of instruction that is different from that needed by a student who has already mastered fractions and the logic of basic mathematical sentences. For each of these students, DI creates learning paths so that they both can be challenged and both can learn. Universal Design for Learning, by contrast, addresses differences at a structural level. Taking inspiration from the way environments have been designed to be accessible (building curb cuts into sidewalks, for example, and not just installing ramps after the fact), UDL involves constructing curriculum, instruction, and assessments that anticipate the needs and preferences of students. A UDL assessment, for example, would have many built-in supports, such as adjustable text size, thus requiring less differentiation. 

Assistive Technology & UDL

Many people think that universal design is just a specialized form of assistive technology (AT). While both UDL and AT serve to support students with disabilities, there are fundamental differences between the two. Special educators consider an intervention that involves AT only after a student starts having problems learning. UDL, on the other hand, represents features that are an inherent part of the instructional design; these features are built into the “front end” of learning environments and instructional materials. They consist of embedded supports—such as text that “talks,” language conversion capacity, cognitive simplification, the ability to dictate responses rather than handwrite, the capacity to alter font sizes—all of which enable every student to learn and to demonstrate what he or she knows, despite differences. With UDL, no disability needs to be identified before the student has the option of using a helpful feature.

However, a fine line often exists between AT and UDL. What is assistive technology for one student may just be technology for another. If a device simply makes a task easier (or more fun), it is not considered AT. If the device is essential for a student to complete a task or to learn, and if a student needs it because of a disability, then it is AT; the components of “essential” and “disability” are inherent to the designation. In
addition, when a student requires AT in order to access his or her education, that need and the assistive device must be written into the student’s IEP. 

Universal Design Engages Three Brain Networks to Ensure Learning*

The “what” of learning.
How we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear, and read. Identifying mathematical patterns or an author’s style are recognition tasks. UDL presents information and content in different ways—multiple means of representation.

The “how” of learning.
How we plan and perform tasks; how we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay and solving a math problem are strategic tasks. UDL allows students to demonstrate in different ways what they know—multiple means of action and expression.

The “why” of learning.
How we get engaged and stay motivated; how we become challenged, excited, or interested in what we do and learn. UDL involves strategies for stimulating interest and motivation for learning—multiple means of engagement.

*Adapted from CAST:

About UDL

Center for Applied Special Technology: CAST
CAST, a nonprofit research organization, works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through Universal Design for Learning. The CAST Web site features instructional tools, curriculum checklists, lesson-building guides, instructional videos that introduce the fundamental principles of UDL, interactive books for students, and more.
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National Center on Universal Design for Learning
Examples and resources that illustrate each of the UDL guidelines and principles, along with explanations and instructional videos, are available through the Web site of the National Center on Universal Design for Learning. The site also provides strategies for sustainable implementation of UDL at the classroom, school, and district levels.
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Online Course on UDL
San Francisco State University makes available a free, online course that explains how UDL “makes course concepts educationally accessible.” While the course is aimed at college teachers, its principles apply to educators at every level.
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Universal Design for Learning: Meeting the Needs of All Students
While written from the perspective of a first-grade teacher, this article provides clear and useful principles that all teachers can use to build UDL into their curriculum and classroom activities.
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UDL in Practice

UDL Curriculum Toolkit
CAST makes available a collaborative toolkit that uses open-source software and creates a starting point for teachers to build a Web site appropriate for any UDL curriculum they want to present.
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Free Technology Toolkit for UDL in All Classrooms
This online resource is a gold mine for teachers interested in applying the principles of UDL to their classrooms. The site includes free text-to-speech features, graphic organizers, study-skill tools, literacy and writing tools, tools for collaboration, research tools, math tools, helpful apps, and more, along with useful links to additional resources.
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Tool Kit on Universal Design for Learning
This toolkit from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, offers a compilation of current information on UDL that serves as a companion document to its Tool Kit on Teaching and Assessing Students with Disabilities.
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UDL Lesson Builder
The CAST Universal Design for Learning Lesson Builder features model applications of UDL in the classroom and provides supports for building lessons using UDL and for storing customized lessons. 
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UDL and the Transition to a More Challenging Academic Curriculum
This article from the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition explains how UDL creates environments and curriculum that are flexible and that support students of widely varying abilities.
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California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT)
A Special Project of the Napa County Office of Education| 5789 State Farm Drive, Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Fax: 707-586-2735 |