Five Ways to Incorporate Universal Design for Learning into Your Online Course

by Kristina Wilson


What if someone told you that there were research-proven techniques you could use to improve your online class for all students, increasing retention, persistence, and satisfaction by more than 4% over the baseline? I’m sure you’d be skeptical. Students differ so significantly from each other and from quarter to quarter; how can any instructor anticipate the individual needs of every student? Universal Design for Learning is a great place to start.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

At its core, Universal Design for Learning is a flexible, research-based pedagogical framework that aims to develop curriculum that meets the needs of students with a variety of learning preferences and differences.

Think about universal design for environment or product design. If stairs lead into your building, only those who can walk up stairs can enter. If you have a ramp leading up into your building, a much wider variety of people can enter: certainly, those same people who can walk up stairs, but also delivery people pushing hand carts, wheelchair users, parents pushing children in strollers, cyclists, and many more.

UDL aims to make similar decisions in curriculum, to serve the greatest number of students without the need for accommodations or adaptation.

To learn more about the origins of UDL, how the framework has been implemented in the United States, and a UDL reading list, I’d recommend checking out the Universal Design for Learning Wikipedia page.

Three Guiding Principles

At the core of Universal Design for Learning theory are the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. “These guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” The latest version, 2.2, was updated in 2018.

Three guiding principles define the framework. Does your course support student…

Engagement? – This is the “Why” of UDL. Why should students be interested? Why should students sustain their efforts and persist? Why should students self-regulate their activities?

Representation? – This is the “What” of UDL. What content will students interact with? What is perceived? What is comprehended?

Action and Expression? – This is the “How” of UDL. How will something be physically accomplished? How can a student express themselves and communicate? How can we support executive functioning?

Five Easy Ways to Incorporate UDL into Your Course Design

The framework is expansive and detailed, but here are five really easy ways to begin using Universal Design for Learning in your online class.

Build in opportunities for reflection.

Many classes leave reflection for the course and instructor evaluation form. Building opportunities for reflection into your course–throughout the class, and not just at the end–can help motivate and engage students. Pausing to review success in the course can allow students opportunities to laud or praise themselves for the progress they’ve made so far. Reflection on course struggles or failures can be opportunities for students to vent, articulating their troubles, or reorient themselves for the rest of the term. This process of “zooming out” on personal progress in a course increases metacognitive skills and helps students learn to “monitor their emotions and reactivity carefully and accurately.”

Read more about developing self-assessment and reflection.

Provide more than one way to get from point A to point B.

Navigating an online course can be difficult. Often, students must reorient themselves with new landmarks each time they begin an online course. When developing your online course, consider how students might find important course components like the syllabus and assignments. Is there more than one way to find them? When you mention a rubric in your assignment, why not provide a link to it rather than ask students to remember where it is located? When you post an announcement about an upcoming assignment due date, why not provide a link to the assignment rather than ask students to find it themselves, scrolling down to where the module is?

For online classes, this also extends into web accessibility. Can a video be played by clicking an icon or selecting that icon with keyboard navigation? Can students either type a textual response to a discussion or verbally dictate a response to a discussion? While the Canvas LMS takes care of a lot of these options, consider extending this consideration to outside technologies in your course.

Read more about varying the methods for response and navigation.


Looking to motivate students, especially adult students? Talk through the “why” by providing context at every turn. This might involve annotating resources from week to week. Why is this textbook chapter, web article, or video important to completing the week’s tasks? You might bring this into your teaching practice by sharing recent news stories or job posts related to the topic of your course.

And then there’s developing assignments in context with the world outside of the online classroom. In the School of Professional Studies, we are always working to create authentic assessments for our students. Instead of saddling students with busywork, what tasks will develop workplace skills and emulate workplace contexts? Where can we use case studies “that foster the use of imagination to solve novel and relevant problems”?

Read more about optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity.

Provide options for resources.

In the Distance Learning department, we have made it a priority to provide textual equivalents for audiovisual content used in our courses. When possible, we select videos with captions and podcasts with transcripts. For videos and podcasts we create in-house, we either script them first or order a transcript from a vendor. We compose alternative text for images and infographics. So what can you do to go above and beyond?

  • Hold yourself to these same standards when you select or create images, audio, and video as part of your teaching practice. That weekly wrap-up video you record and share in the announcements should also have a textual equivalent. That recent chart or news video you found to share as a response to a student’s discussion post should also have a textual equivalent.
  • Consider recording some of your text as podcasts, simply so that students have the choice to read or listen. A syllabus walkthrough could also be a helpful resource. Students might enjoy getting to know you a little better as well as become more familiar with the syllabus.

Learn more about offering alternatives for auditory information.

Learn more about offering alternatives for visual information.

Provide options for assignments.

Providing students with individual choice and autonomy in an online class can go a long way, helping them “develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning.”

Conversation with a learning designer will help you determine appropriate methods of assessment. There isn’t always one right answer–sometimes, students can show mastery of objectives in a number of ways. Why limit your students to one deliverable type? Provide some options. Some students may be more comfortable speaking than writing; how about a podcast option? Some students may be more comfortable writing than speaking; how about an essay option?

Plus, this also makes grading more interesting for the instructor. Instead of 30 papers to read, you might have 10 videos to watch, 10 podcasts to listen to, and 10 essays to read.

You might also compose a few prompts, allowing students to select one, or allow students to propose their own.

Read more about optimizing individual choice and autonomy.


If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few starting points.

For more information on how you can incorporate UDL principles and techniques into your online class, contact your Learning Designer.