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Cornell University

Universal Design

What is universal design for learning (UDL)?
Why UDL?
How can you incorporate UDL in a course?
What are some resources at Cornell related to universal design, disabilities, and learning services?

What is universal design for learning (UDL)?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners and eliminate unnecessary hurdles in the learning process. This means developing a flexible learning environment in which information is presented in multiple ways, students engage in learning in a variety of ways, and students are provided options when demonstrating their learning.

Universal design for learning is similar to ‘universal instructional design’ or UID, and ‘universal design for instruction’ or UDI. All three advocate for accessible and inclusive instructional approaches that meet the needs and abilities of all learners.    

There are three main principles of UDL:

1. Provide Options for Perception- Based on the premise that learners access information differently, this principle means providing flexible and multiple ways to present information. For example, using PowerPoint as a visual supplement to your lecture.

2. Provide Options for Expression- Since learners vary in their abilities to demonstrate their learning in different ways, this principle means providing flexible and multiple ways to allow students to express their knowledge or demonstrate their skills. For example, providing students an option of writing a final exam or submitting a final assignment.

3. Provide Options for Comprehension- Students are motivated to learn for different reasons and vary in the types of learning activities that keep them engaged. This third principle means providing multiple ways for engaging in course activities. For example, engaging students in both group work activities and individual work, as opposed to engaging students only in individual work.

Giving choices, however, does not mean changing expectations. For example, if your course learning outcomes includes being able to communicate in writing, it is not possible to offer students the option of demonstrating their learning through an oral presentation rather than through a written assignment.

Why Universal Design for Learning?

        • Incorporating universal design principles enhances an inclusive learning environment.
        • Designing a course to accommodate a wider variety of needs may eliminate potential learning barriers, or unnecessary learning obstacles. If a course can be designed at the onset to do this, then why not?
        • Providing students with multiple means of perceiving, comprehending, and expressing their learning not only allows for students to engage with the material in a way that most benefits them, but also encourages students to engage with material in ways that would help the material expand their competencies and improve in areas in which their skills are not as strong. 

How can you incorporate UDL in a course?

        • If you have already designed a course, reflect on how it is going. What current course activities, methods of instruction, and assessments are working well? What is your teaching style and what are your students’ learning styles? Ask yourself which students would likely do well in your class and which students might struggle. For example, students who learn by listening would do well in my lecture course, but students who need to interact with concepts in a hands-on manner might not in a course.
        • Reflect upon whether or not you could offer more flexibility or choices in the way you present content, the way students engage in learning in your course, and the way they are assessed.
        • Have students choose from a selected bank of assignment topics, or allow students (at the beginning of the semester) to determine what percentage of their grade can be dependent on certain assessment options.
        • Check in with your students to see how things are going. Conduct a mid-semester evaluation, and/or evaluate how productive your classroom climate is.
        • As with any teaching strategy, reflect on how it went. Did it work for you? For your students? Were students able to attain the course learning outcomes? Make necessary adjustments for your next semester.

See more on UDL principles and how they can be applied.

How accessible is your course?
Use this course accessibility checklist.

What are some resources at Cornell related to universal design, disabilities, and learning services?


CTI T4 Universal Design. pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

Here are some examples of how faculty have incorporated elements of UDL in their courses:
UDL Case Stories Ensuring Access through Collaboration and Technology: Partnerships, Technology & Dissemination (EnACT)
Postsecondary Education and UDL National Center on Universal Design for Learning


Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D.H., Harbour, W.A., Johnston, C.S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their applications. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19 (2), 135-151.



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