Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Kresge Library, Room 430
100 Library Drive
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4479
(location map)
(248) 370-2751
[email protected]

Steps overlaid with ramp, illustrating a universal design

Inclusive Practices and Universal Design for Learning

Mon Nov 9, 2020 at 07:30 AM

What do you picture when picturing an engaged student? A disengaged student? Is it students using technology in class, body language we interpret as boredom, or something else? These days it might be students opting not to turn on cameras during a live lesson, or not logging onto Moodle for many days. It is easy to take it personal when students aren’t engaged in a course you have worked hard on, but it is more productive to ask “Why are they disengaged?” The answer may be different than we expect, especially with the many ways higher education norms mystify students, especially first generation students or students who bring with them educational experiences and perspectives very different from those prioritized in our courses.

Since we do not know who will come into our class in any given semester, and we don’t always know a lot about our students, it helps to create courses from a design perspective, particularly one that is flexible and accounts for students of many different interests, strengths, and motivations. 

Universal Design for Learning (or UDL) is a way to “improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (CAST, 2015). This approach considers the why, what, and how of students’ learning while reducing the barriers students may face in achieving course outcomes. Learning during the pandemic exacerbates these barriers, which is why UDL is the foundation of a recent Chronicle article on six ways to be more inclusive in your virtual classroom. UDL doesn’t water down instructional expectations or standards; instead, it provides students access to opportunities to succeed. See our UDL resources and videos for more on UDL’s principles.

Things to Do Now (or Soon)

These are some first steps to consider in increasing access for a variety of students. They don’t need to be done all at once. The authors of Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, recommend a “plus one” approach, which promotes making one change, one time, forever (Tobin & Behling, 2018). Consider where you can get the most benefit for your work: about what parts of your course do students always….

  • ask questions about the content,
  • get things wrong on tests and exams, or
  • ask for alternative explanations?

They also recommend choosing where to start by asking students themselves: where do they get stuck? What kind of options would increase their motivation and deepen their understanding?

  • Provide early access to course content. Allowing students to look at least one week ahead in a course helps them plan for uncertain schedules.
  • Record sessions. Recorded sessions not only supports students who cannot attend live sessions, but also provides an opportunity for students to review specific parts as many times as needed.
  • Turn on live captions. Google Meet, Google Slides, and Microsoft PowerPoint have live captioning options. While not perfectly accurate, this visual reinforcement can help students who have difficulty understanding audio.
  • Be flexible in assignment due dates, when possible. Do assignments need to be turned in within a date range, or is it crucial for students to turn in assignments on the day specified? Timelines help students scaffold their learning, so consider how to encourage timely submissions without drastic penalties for work submitted shortly after the due date.  
  • Encourage variety in discussion forum expression (text, video, audio). With increased online classes, we are all likely doing a lot of reading these days. Moodle’s multimedia tools allow students to add text, video, or audio directly to Moodle text boxes. Encourage students to respond in a variety of formats: sometimes students can articulate more complex thought in audio or video, and variety can help increase student motivation. 
  • Provide checklists or templates to help students focus on the learning. During a pandemic, students are not only learning concepts related to the discipline, but also how each instructor sets up their Moodle course, how different activities work, plus a litany of other processes. Checklists or assignment templates can help free up some of students’ cognitive load in order to focus on the important stuff.
  • Link to the reading source (rather than uploading PDFs). PDFs can either be highly accessible or difficult to read depending on how they are produced (see our PDF accessibility guide). Check for the original web source for a PDF, whether a journal article or popular web piece, and link students to that web page, which tends to scale better. Providing both PDF and weblink is an added bonus. 
  • Share course documents in Google Docs or Word rather than just PDF. These editable formats more easily allows students to customize appearance and annotate the document based on their needs (highlighting due dates, rearranging information, etc.). Additionally Google Docs has a “make a copy” feature that allows students to make a copy of a document, which allows you to maintain a master copy while also allowing students to annotate their own copy.
  • Find existing reinforcement resources (study resources from the Academic Success Center, YouTube videos, visual guides). Many faculty are publicly sharing their teaching resources. When you recognize a pain point in the semester, note it for later exploration and see what the web offers. Sometimes an alternative explanation and example reinforces a concept in a way that helps it stick for students. Make these additional resources optional for students who feel like they need additional review. 

Inclusive Practices Rejects a Deficit Model

I hope this checklist provides a good starting point and sparks a deeper interest in UDL. I also hope you continue to explore UDL’s opportunities. When considering UDL from an inclusion lens, it’s important to note that UDL is more than a “one size fits all” mindset. As is often articulated by disability experts, designing for the marginalized doesn’t merely “help” the marginalized, but creates a better design. Therefore, rather than using UDL to “help” underperforming students, UDL should be used to de-center the value placed on one way of engaging students, representing ideas, and measuring their learning. In other words, UDL should emphasize student difference as an asset rather than to compensate for perceived deficits.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.


Center for Applied Special Technology. (2015). About UDL

6 Quick Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Virtual Classroom [Chronicle article, 5-minute read]. Flower Darby, author of Small Teaching Online, focuses on inclusive course design based on two frameworks: universal design for learning and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.