Universal Design: Introduction

Think College Learn

The term "universal design" was first coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace in the early 1980s to describe the concept of designing products and buildings to be “usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

Six Principles of Universal Design

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort

These design principles, when applied to the learning environment, are referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). There are many terms and acronyms used to describe Universal Design in higher education, including Universal Course Design (UCD), Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), etc. For the purposes of this module, the term Universal Design for Learning will be used. The UDL framework calls for creating curriculum from the outset that considers the full range of learners and learning styles. 

CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, provided a framework for UDL that looks at three primary brain networks and the multiple means of representation, expression and engagement. 

  • Representation: Provides learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Expression: Provides learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  • Engagement: Uses strategies to tap into learner interests and motivate them to learn.

Universal Design for Learning provides concrete instructional strategies that meet the unique needs of a diverse range of students – such as students who are English language learners, have a disability, or are from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. 

How does Universal Design for Learning (UDL) relate to access?

  • UDL provides equal access to learning—not simply equal access to information.
  • UDL allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the teacher monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods.
  • UDL does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access.
  • Simply stated, UDL is just good teaching.

Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

Faculty are confronted by the changing population of students in their courses and are looking to UDL to help them improve learning experiences for all. Most faculty are not trained as teachers, and professional development in this area is often fragmented. Therefore, an effective strategy has been to understand that applying UDL strategies can truly help meet the needs of all students, and will likely improve teaching experiences. To learn how UDL enhanced one professor’s experiences, watch the video of Professor Lance Hidy in the To Learn More section.

Projects that focus on applying the principles of UDL in higher education:


This brochure, created by the Equity and Excellence in Higher Education project at UMass Boston includes several strategies and tips for including universal design principles in college classrooms.  Great resource to share with faculty.Read more

This website, created and maintained by the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, focuses on UDL in higher education.Read more

An online learning module from the Florida Consortium for Inclusive Higher Education on Universal Design for Learning, with a focus on its use in college classrooms. Read more