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San Diego State University

Student Ability Success Ctr

Universal Design

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.


Recognizing that the way individuals learn can be unique, the UDL framework, first defined by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s, calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn

Legal Framework

Universal Design for Learning is referred to by name in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 (Public Law 110-315).

It is also mentioned in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which in turn refers to a legal definition of the term in the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. The emphasis being placed on equal access to curriculum by all students and the accountability required by IDEA 2004 and No Child Left Behind legislation has presented a need for a practice that will accommodate all learners.

Universal Design and Students with Disabilities

Universal Design recognizes that students are endowed with many different learning styles. It benefits all students including:

  • Verified disabilities
  • Undiagnosed disabilities
  • English language learners
  • Different cultural backgrounds
Universal Design requires that faculty strive to present materials and do assessments in ways that are accessible to students that learn in different ways, either physically or cognitively. The goal is not to change the essential elements and learning outcomes of a curriculum, but rather to provide multiple paths for students to assimilate course materials and demonstrate their knowledge.

Do-It: A Resource for Employing Universal Design

The DO-IT project from the University of Washington has developed excellent resources to employ Universal Design for the benefit of students with disabilities. Please become familiar with this valuable resource. Here are a few key pages: