Education insights

Using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to personalize instruction 

In the late 1980s, an idea rose to popularity that people could be divided into four distinct learning styles — visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic. That idea has since been discredited, but there is no question that there are differences in the way different students experience the same information. In fact, it is more likely that instead of four key learning styles, there are a multitude of learning styles, and most individuals may blend two or three styles into their personal approach.  

Personalizing instruction may not be as simple as presenting the same information in four different ways, but there are systematic approaches teachers can use to ensure they are empowering learners to take ownership of their learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one such framework. 

According to the UDL Guidelines, UDL is designed to give all students equal opportunity to succeed: 

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. 

Far from taking a “universal” approach as implied by the name, UDL recommends using various teaching methods and building in the flexibility to allow students to learn and demonstrate their learning based on their strengths and needs. It is designed to help all students but can be particularly powerful for those with learning challenges, new English Language Learners (ELLs) and anyone with differences that affect how they learn. 

How does UDL work? 

Created by non-profit education research and development organization CAST, UDL is a framework for developing lesson plans and tests based on three principles

1. Engagement 

Looking for ways to motivate learners and sustain their interest by letting students make choices, giving assignments that feel relevant to their lives, making skill-building feel like a game, or creating opportunities for learners to get up and move around. 

2. Representation 

Offering information in more than one format, such as a worksheet paired with audio instruction, video demonstration, or hands-on learning experiences. 

3. Action and expression 

Giving learners multiple ways to interact with the material and show what they know, such as the choice between taking a pencil-and-paper test, giving an oral report, making a video or visual representation, or doing a group project. 

CAST demonstrates the differences between UDL and traditional education in this chart.  

Breaking down barriers 

CAST stresses the idea that UDL can help all students engage more effectively in the learning process and develop a better understanding of themselves as learners.  

It can be especially powerful in helping students who learn and think differently find more success in the classroom in a few key ways

  • It makes learning more accessible to kids who learn and think differently, even while they’re working in general education classrooms. 
  • UDL adapts the presentation of information to the learner instead of asking the learner to adapt to the information. 
  • It provides flexibility that gives students more than one way to interact with the material, enabling people to learn how to use their strengths and work on their weaknesses. 
  • UDL reduces stigma by giving a variety of options to everyone rather than singling out those with disabilities. This is powerful for all students, including those who do not have disabilities and those who have undiagnosed disabilities.
Using UDL helps teachers and students personalize learning 

Personalized learning exists on a spectrum, with some classrooms personalizing learning in small ways and others taking a highly personalized approach. In its purest form, personalized learning requires students to actively participate in designing their own learning and demonstration of the content. 

For students to adequately take ownership of their learning, they need to understand their own skills and support needs. UDL can give students and teachers a framework for working together to discover students’ individual learning approaches. 

ASCD created this example Learner Profile for a 7th-grade student: 

Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match (ascd.org)

Armed with this information for each student in the class, teachers can compile a spectrum of learning styles that represent their classroom. This may span from students with cognitive or learning challenges to highly self-directed learners. 

ASCD recommends teachers use their class spectrum to identify four representative learning styles to use as a checkpoint for personalizing lessons, ensuring there are options available that will help the whole class Access, Engage and Express their learning. Having filled out their personal profile, students will have a better understanding of which learning options they should leverage to maximize their own success. 

Promote independent learning and remove barriers with edtech 

Lenovo and LanSchool are committed to encouraging learning without limitations.  

LanSchool now supports co-teaching, a feature that enables teachers and paraprofessionals to access the same LanSchool classroom from their devices. Co-teaching allows two or more teachers to work together to share the planning, instruction, and assessment responsibilities of a group of students with or without disabilities. This level of collaboration can help to ensure that every student receives the attention and intervention needed.  

Classrooms that use UDL can leverage LanSchool to give teachers a single-screen view of all students’ screens, making monitoring their work easier, even when they’re working in different learning formats. The ability to chat individually with students further enables teachers to discreetly check in on each student as they work without disrupting the class as a whole. 

Give students the tools they need to succeed at personalization 

Personalized learning requires teachers to have a broad understanding of how their students learn, but more importantly, it requires students to develop a deeper level of self-understanding that can serve them well throughout their lives. A student’s strengths and weaknesses will likely change throughout their academic career, and with UDL, their chosen learning format can change just as easily. 

Using the UDL framework can have far-reaching effects beyond students’ school days. Learning how to engage in honest self-discovery is a skill that can help students grow and thrive throughout the rest of their lives.