The choice to develop accessible course materials, or to update existing materials to improve accessibility, is one that may seem overwhelming without a framework of instructional design to follow. The Universal Design for Learning is one such framework being employed in higher education. 

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a design framework aimed to enhance teaching and learning by creating inclusive educational experiences for all students (CAST, 2018). Pioneered by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s with a special focus in K-12 education, UDL is an approach to instructional development based on the science of how people learn that is becoming more popular in the realm of higher education (CAST, 2018; Tobin & Behling, 2018). Meaningful learning occurs at the cross-section of three broad neural networks: affective, recognition, and strategic (CAST, 2018). These networks are not uniform for all students, and learning is not a universal process, so UDL provides a framework to create a varied and accessible instructional experience that is not one size fits all. UDL is not a prescription for the best instructional practices, but rather a design framework that can guide instructors in the creation of accessible course design.

Affective Networks. According to CAST (2018), affective networks are used to process the why of learning. Through this network, students make choices regarding interest and motivation related to their learning. Addressing affective networks through UDL requires that instructors design experiences that use multiple means of engagement, since there is not a single means of engagement that will be best for all learners (CAST, 2018; Tobin & Behling, 2018). More specifically, instructors should build-in instructional options to support students in recruiting interest, sustaining effort and motivation, and self-regulation and reflection (CAST, 2018). Within the context of higher education and accessibility, addressing the diverse affective networks of students might look like:

  • Giving students an option to work individually or collaboratively
  • Creating projects that are relevant and authentic to the students now
  • Providing students with grading guidelines before they complete a project (or tasking a class to collaboratively create a rubric)
  • Incorporating self-reflection activities

Recognition Networks. According to CAST (2018), recognition networks are used to process the what of learning. Through this network, students differ in the ways that they “perceive and comprehend information” (CAST, 2018). Consideration of diverse recognition networks challenges instructors to design educational experiences that utilize multiple means of representation. Since each student may perceive information differently, it is important to provide said content in multiple ways to support the individual creation of context and connections (CAST, 2018; Tobin & Behling, 2018). Specifically, instructors can support these recognition networks by designing and developing curricula that is not reliant on a single sense (hearing, sight, touch, or movement), utilizes language and media to create a universal understanding, and includes activities to help students construct meaning and generate new understandings (CAST, 2018). Within the context of higher education and accessibility, the following are examples of course design that addresses recognition networks:

  • Using intro activities to activate background knowledge
  • Scaffolded activities for visualization and relationship identification using concept maps
  • Clarification of complex vocabulary or symbols through a collaborative student-generated glossary
  • Using multiple media sources to provide content
  • Providing alternatives to information delivery, including captions in videos and alt-text for images

Strategic Networks.  According to CAST (2018), strategic networks are used to process the how of learning. In short, the diversity of this network suggests that students have different strengths in information expression, so performance tasks should not be limited to a single means of action and expression. Addressing strategic networks through UDL requires that instructors design experiences that use multiple means of action and expression, since there is not a single method that will work for all learners (CAST, 2018; Tobin & Behling, 2018). Instructors should create instructional activities and assessments that challenge students to navigate learning environments in various ways and promote successful expression of knowledge and skills for all (CAST, 2018). Within the context of higher education and accessibility, addressing the diverse nature of  student strategic networks could look like:

  • Providing varied methods of response and navigation, including the use of clickers, handwritten activities, and group discussions
  • Allowing students to choose the best way to create and communicate information, beyond traditional PowerPoint presentations
  • Supporting planning and development through reflective journaling practices
  • Providing opportunities to identify relationships among course concepts throughout the course using concept maps or a similar visualization strategy

For more information, here is a PDF of the UDL Guidelines as well as an editable version to fill-in for reflection.


CAST. (2018). CAST: Our Work. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work#.W_2JRxNKii4

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.