Daniel J. Ruiz, Department of Earth System Science

After asking someone to repeat themselves multiple times and still not hear what they’ve said on the 3rd iteration, I’m the type to give up, smile and nod, and be overcome with embarrassment of the whole exchange. Too often do our students feel this way after asking their peers, TAs, and instructors questions only to get the same explanation and sheepishly give up. Not much can be done for my social awkwardness, but as educators we can do more for our students’ learning through universal design.

The Universal Design for Learning1 is a framework in which education is made more accessible to a diverse population of students with varying backgrounds, skills, proficiencies, and disabilities; living up to its moniker.2 Three pillars uphold this approach: Engagement, Representation, and Expression.


Motivation for learning can be as diverse as the population you are instructing. To maintain your students’ attention it is important to diversify the relevance, and intrinsic value of the material covered in class.3 Some students may be motivated solely by grades, real-world relevance, societal impacts, or career-oriented applications. To address these underlying motivations, we can make some assignments worth points, and also diversifying the application to your students’ lives. For example, students may be more interested in high- and low-pressure systems in the context of public health. Students might not be particularly interested in wind patterns, but they may be more interested in how local air quality and thus human health is affected in some regions.


Many students have different learning preferences. Some may enjoy PowerPoints to escape the professor’s terrible handwriting, while others prefer the pace of ‘chalk talks’. Some students may need to read about explanations while others will need to watch the concept in action.4 When explaining surface wind patterns, students may get lost on the verbal explanation. Therefore, I attempt to walk them through the concept by drawing it on the projector step-by-step. This helps reinforces my verbal explanation while adding a visual component. If your artistic skills are lacking, you can build the same figure using clipart in PowerPoint. Interactive tools can also be implemented for the students to explore these concepts, such as https://earth.nullschool.net/. Videos may be helpful for your students, but it’s important to be intentional about your video choices. Does the video coincide with your instruction, or do they conflict? Are there subtitles?


Similar to the diversity of how students learn, they also have different skills, making it important to provide different avenues in how they express their knowledge.

Standardized multiple choice questions are often easy to write and easy to grade, making them a preferred method for testing students’ knowledge. However, scores for these tests are disproportionate among diverse backgrounds. This method also does not test their full understanding of the concepts. To combat this, free response questions and concept maps may provide a more accurate accounting of what they know. Some students may be better writers, while others may have better speaking skills.5 If students have a research project, perhaps giving them the option of a written report or oral presentation will allow them to use their best skills. When providing options such as these it is important to have one universal rubric so that students will be fairly assessed among one another.

Although these techniques are not exactly intuitive, all these modes of UDL can be implemented into our classrooms through intentional efforts. Not only will we be more effective as educators, but the education our students receive will be a richer experience.


1. CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2.

2. Barteaux, 2014. Universal Design for learning.

3. Reeve, Ryan, Deci, 2018.  Sociocultural Influences on Student Motivation as Viewed Through the Lens of Self-Determination Theory.  

4. Dean, Lee-Post, Hapke, 2016. Universal Design for Learning in Teaching Large Lecture Classes. 

5. Scott, LaRon A. and Bruno, Lauren (2018) Universal Design for Transition: A Conceptual Framework for Blending Academics and Transition Instruction.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on June 7th, 2019.