Katherine Karayianis, School of Social Ecology

As a child growing up with a disability, I often heard the word “universal design” thrown around by my mother at every IEP meeting. I remember her begging my teachers to use these universal teaching strategies to not only help me succeed in the general classroom without being stigmatized, but that these teaching methods would prove beneficial for my peers as well! I didn’t understand why my teachers were so resistant to changing their traditional teaching practices in order to enhance their class learning environments. After doing some research, I have discovered some tips for how to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in higher education classrooms, along with my own insight regarding these strategies.


Well, what even is UDL?

That’s a great question, I wondered the same thing for many years! UDL encompasses meaningful and purposeful design of the learning environment that recognizes the diverse needs of students in a classroom (Fornauf & Erickson, 2020). Researchers and educators have noticed that higher education classrooms and universities are now abundant in diversity, and a diverse class requires diverse instruction (Boothe et al., 2018).


Is there a connection between UDL and educating students with disabilities?

I thought you’d never ask! Historically, UDL is often associated with educating students with disabilities and meeting the unique needs of these students (Fornauf & Erickson, 2020). I think this is why my mother kept mentioning “universal design” in IEP meetings. She believed that students with disabilities should be educated in a similar manner to their peers, with the addition of specialized education services to fill in learning gaps. She believed that by implementing diverse strategies in the classroom, her daughter would be able to learn to the best of her abilities without being stigmatized for being taken out of the classroom and receiving special education services. Her idea of UDL is almost accurate, but is slightly confused with other special education initiatives. Kudos to you Mom for trying, but I can take it from here.

While the main goal of UDL is to meet the diverse needs of students in a class, this does not mean that the UDL framework is uniquely tailored towards each student. Instead of focusing on the disability, UDL framework focuses on student variability (Fornauf & Erickson, 2020). While we are talking about student variability, I want to mention how UDL can be especially important to use in higher education classrooms when you think about the huge variability in the types of “disabilities” that require accommodations. I am diagnosed with ADHD, but you wouldn’t know that just from looking at me, but some disabilities are more visible and may require physical assistance, such as someone who uses a wheelchair. Am I more impaired than someone who uses a wheelchair? Who is to say, we have different needs! Now, what if I am embarrassed of my ADHD and want to keep it hidden from my teachers and classmates? Will I be able to succeed in the classroom if I leave my disability undisclosed? Unfortunately, this is a dilemma that many students with disabilities face in higher education. Previous research unveiled that about 60% of students with disabilities choose not to disclose their disability in higher education settings due to the stigmatization of appearing different from other peers (Griful-Freixenet et al., 2017).


So, what can I do as an educator?

The good news is using UDL in your classroom will help meet the needs of a diverse body of students in a class, and this does not require you to “out” any students that do not feel comfortable disclosing their disability. There are three main principles behind the framework of UDL, and below are some strategies you can use to implement UDL into your classrooms:


  • Use multiple means of engagement

Examples include creating collaborative assignments, using various formats in activities,  and ensuring educators are easily accessible to their students (Boothe et al., 2018).

  • Use multiple means of representation

Examples include offering various formats of instructive materials, highlighting critical information taught, and providing student feedback on assignments (Boothe et al., 2018).

  • Use multiple means of action and expression

Examples include allowing students to choose the format of assignments, clarifying directions and providing examples, and offering flexible opportunities to demonstrate knowledge.


I know that implementing UDL practices in the classroom takes work, but your students will appreciate the extra effort (trust me!).




Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, Marla, J., Donnell, K. A., & Hall, D. D. (2018). Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the College Classroom. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 7(3), 308–326. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199328093.003.0015

Fornauf, B. S., & Erickson, J. D. (2020). Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy through Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 33(2), 183–199. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1273677&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Griful-Freixenet, J., Struyven, K., Verstichele, M., & Andries, C. (2017). Higher education students with disabilities speaking out: perceived barriers and opportunities of the Universal Design for Learning framework. Disability and Society, 32(10), 1627–1649. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2017.1365695