Universal Design for Learning

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Providing Access

Running head: Providing Access: Universal Design for Learning

Providing Access: Universal Design for Learning

Presented to:

The ETC Faculty

In Partial Fulfillment of

ETC 695

Spring 2004

Northern Arizona University


Darcy Markham

March 8, 2004


Not gaining access to the general education curriculum is a critical issue for students with disabilities who have been for the most part shut out from participating fully in the general education classroom. With the passage of the amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997) there has been an increased focus on providing students with disabilities an opportunity to interact and benefit from the curriculum as well as measurably improve in achievement.

Further, the No Child Left Behind Act has placed standard-based education in the forefront increasing the emphasis on learning outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities (Jorgensen, 1997). As a result of these two legislative mandates, the idea of creating a universally designed curriculum that is flexible enough to provide all students with an opportunity to participate in the learning experience arose. Providing access to this curriculum means more than just providing students with a textbook and a computer, it means ensuring that children have access to the learning itself,

Out of these basic assumptions has emerged a new paradigm in curriculum design called the Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Based upon the Universal Design principles of architecture this new paradigm has the potential of revolutionizing how we teach as well as how students learn.

This literature review will examine the principles of Universal Design for Learning and the research that contributed to its development. Finally, it will discuss the author’s current project, which is based upon UDL and how this project will contribute to the current data available on the effectiveness of UDL.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning is a theoretical framework developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to guide the development of curricula that are flexible and meet the needs of all learners (Dolan & Hall, 2001; Pisha & Coyne, 2001; Rose and Meyer, 2002). The concept of Universal Design for Learning was inspired by the universal design movement in architecture.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required that all public buildings be accessible to all people including those with disabilities, many existing buildings had to be retrofitted to meet these needs. This was a time-consuming and expensive task that often fell short of its goal. Soon those responsible for designing these buildings began to think about incorporating accessibility features into their design. This new idea of design was termed Universal Design.

Soon educators began to think about applying these same principles to curriculum design and Universal Design for Learning was born. A project spearheaded by Anne Meyer and David Rose began to look at ways in which new technologies could be combined with curriculum that would allow all students to access learning. What resulted were the principles on which Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based:

  • To support recognition learning by providing multiple, flexible methods of presentation;

  • To support strategic learning, by providing multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship; and

  • To support affective learning, by providing multiple, flexible options for engagement (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

These principles provide students with a variety of methods to access curriculum and engage them in learning. Based upon Vygotsky’s theories of learning and the latest brain-based research, the researches at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) began looking at how they could combine this latest research and new technologies to create curricular materials that met these three basic principles.

In developing this framework, the researchers not only wanted to provide a way to make material accessible to all learners, but also provide accessibility to the learning by designing materials that incorporate the strategies and methods known to assist in the learning process. These strategies include focusing on the big idea, comprehension strategies, mediated scaffolding, strategic integration, judicious review and primed background knowledge (Kame’enui & Simmons, 1999).

Preliminary Research

The researchers at CAST began a formative evaluation using a digital prototype of a history textbook that included text-to-speech (TTS) capability. This study conducted over a period of two years included 70 students in Grade 11, 16 that had identified learning disabilities. Results from this preliminary study were utilized to create subsequent modifications and recommendations regarding the design of flexible, digitally based curriculum materials. (Pisha & Coyne, 2001).

Four categories of preliminary recommendations emerged during the formative evaluation process: content presentation, navigation, reference tools, and gathering salient information. (Pisha & Coyne, 2001). The formative evaluation yielded the following preliminary suggestions for incorporating flexibility into content presentation in a digital learning environment:

  • Make TTS available to support reading

  • Provide sequential on-screen text highlighting, to be used alone or synchronized with TTS

  • Make available a launch page for each chapter, with options for presentation of text, images, and other content elements

  • Make available the option to display digital text in a single column

  • Provide an option to view the text, images, charts, sidebars, and other elements simultaneously, as they would appear in a printed textbook

  • Provide the option to select a simplified presentation of textbook material, in which images, charts, sidebars, and other elements are represented by relatively simple icons

  • Include both text and graphics in each icon, and keep the location of these links consistent

  • Make available an outline of each chapter that readers can use either as an organizer before reading or as a succinct statement of key points for studying

  • Embed relevant video clips directly in the chapter, reachable via a linked icon or embedded image of the video itself

  • Make digital and printed content consistent in appearance, to facilitate students’ use of both the textbook’s and the computer’s presentation (Pisha & Coyne, 2001).

Based upon the results of this and other preliminary studies CAST developed the framework of UDL which assists in minimizing the barriers that exclude learners with disabilities. Web-based technologies have enhanced the ability of designers to create these opportunities due to the inherent flexibility of digitized technology. Various web initiatives exist which can insure that barriers are minimized. For example, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed by the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and CAST’s own Bobby evaluation tool can assist web-designers avoid some of these barriers (http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp). CAST recognized that all barriers to learning could not be erased, however by creating alternatives in representing information some of these barriers could be minimized. Even with the inclusion of such accessibility features within the curriculum materials barriers may still exist. According to CAST and its researchers, UDL is a process not an outcome with much research still needed to determine its effectiveness and methods (Rose & Meyer, 2000).
Brain-based Learning

Current brain research has contributed to the principles on which Universal Design for Learning is based and strengthens the argument for multiple approaches to teaching and learning. Using the latest technologies, neurologists have been able to study the living brain and have identified three distinct but interrelated brain networks at work in every learner (Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 1998). Generally speaking, one network recognizes patterns, one generates patterns, and the third determines priorities.

The recognition networks, which occur in the back half of the brain, enable us to identify and understand information, ideas, and concepts. They are specialized to sense and assign meaning to patterns we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. The strategic networks located in the frontal lobes are responsible for knowing how to do things and generating patterns like holding and moving a pencil, riding a bicycle, speaking, reading a book, or writing a story. The strategic networks are critical for all learning tasks. At the core of the brain (the limbic system) lie the affective networks responsible for emotion. These networks determine whether the patterns we perceive are important and help us decide which actions and strategies to pursue. These three networks parallel Vygotsky’s conditions for learning (Vygotsky, 1978) which are that the learner must recognize patterns in sensory information; that the learner must have a strategy for processing information; and that the learner must be engaged in the task.

Based upon this research came the understanding that learning requires the interaction of all three strategic networks, and “although these networks operate similarly in all learners there are distinct differences that affect how individuals learn” (Rose, 2000). These differences seem to be reflected in different types of learning style, strengths and weaknesses, and varying "kinds" of intelligence students bring to the learning situation.

Enhancements to Learning

The researchers at CAST further began to study the research available on various enhancements for learning. The results of these reviews informed the direction of future projects and design. Among the various enhancements investigated were graphic organizers, anchored instruction, computer simulations, modified text, and text-to speech. The following is a summary of this review.

Graphic Organizers

Review of the literature indicates that graphic organizers can be an effective tool in learning. The literature indicates successful learning outcomes have been demonstrated for both students with learning disabilities and without learning disabilities (Anderson-Inman, Knox-Quinn, & Horney, 1996; Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Bulgren et al., 1988; Gallego et al., 1989; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987; Newby, Caldwell, & Recht, 1989; Sinatra et al., 1984 as cited by Strangman, Hall and Meyer 2003

A relatively new area of research is the investigation of computer-based methods for presenting graphic organizer instruction. Herl et al. (1999) tested the effectiveness of two computer-based knowledge-mapping systems and showed them to be effective in enhancing learning. Based upon these studies the conclusion can be drawn that graphic organizers when effectively implemented into the curriculum can improve student comprehension and learning. (Strangman, Hall & Meyer, 2003).

Anchored Instruction

Anchored instruction is an instructional approach in which the learning environment is designed around a realistic situation where there is a problem to be solved by a group. A review of the limited literature available on anchored instruction indicates that it is helpful when used with a variety of populations. Populations studied included students with various disabilities, including those students described as "low achieving" and "at risk." All of these groups of students were found to benefit academically from the use of anchored instruction. Some of the studies have significant methodological drawbacks, such as small sample sizes and lack of a control group, which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the effect of the use of anchored instruction in classrooms. However, while this research evidence is not conclusive, it suggests that anchored instruction may be a helpful in improving learning. (Strangman, Hall & Meyer, 2003).
Other Enhancements

Other enhancements reviewed have been found to be effective in improving achievement in the samples studied. Modified text, which is text that has been modified from its original form, was found to be effective in improving student achievement and motivation in the seven studies reviewed (Ruzic & O’Connell, 2002). Text-to-speech literature was also examined. Based upon the limited number of studies, four out of five studies indicated that text-to-speech was effective when used with special populations. (Ruzic & O’Connell, 2002).

Research on computer simulation indicates that such technology is effective in helping students develop richer and more accurate conceptual models in science and mathematics, although some of these studies have limitations with regard to research quality. (Strangman, Hall & Meyer, 2003.). When looking at the effectiveness of computer simulations in the development of skills, eleven out of twelve studies reviewed by Strangman, Hall and Meyer (2003) indicated that skill development was enhanced in some form or another. Of the eleven studies reviewed, nine found that students who worked with computer simulations significantly improved their performance on content-area tests. Only two studies reported an inferior outcome relative to traditional learning methods (Stangman, Hall & Meyer, 2003).


Based upon the available research and CAST’s own continued development, Universal Design for Learning indeed has the potential of revolutionizing curriculum development. Although its effectiveness has not thoroughly been determined, preliminary research suggests that it will have an impact in creating a curriculum that is accessible to all learners within the general education curriculum.

As a special education teacher, I have all too often witnessed how the traditional curriculum used in the general education classroom excludes those students with disabilities. For this reason I have found myself drawn to the principles of UDL and its potential for all learners.

This has led me to investigate the possibilities of including UDL in developing a web-based social studies unit aimed at teaching fourth grade students about the state of Arizona. Based upon the textbook currently being used by the district, this unit will transform the standard print based media into a digitized version that will include digital media to enhance learning. The project will be inquiry-based and will present students with a real-life scenario on which to build their learning. Following the guidelines set out by CAST and the principles of UDL an emphasis will be placed on ensuring that the unit is more that just a digitized textbook and indeed provides accessibility not only to the material presented but to the learning itself.

Two fourth grade classrooms will utilize the completed project as part of their social studies curriculum. Teachers will be asked to provide feedback on the use of the unit and their perceptions of its effectiveness in teaching the information as dictated by the state standards. Secondly, students will be asked to complete certain projects that will be used as evidence of their learning and provide feedback on the relative easy of use of the web-based unit. Finally, a comparison of learning will be made between those students using the web-based curriculum and the two other classrooms, which have elected not to use the curriculum. Student’s projects will be graded on a rubric and compared as well as a comparison of scores on unit tests.

In conducting this limited study, it is hoped that the information obtained will contribute to the data available on UDL and its effectiveness in providing access and learning to alls students within the general education curriculum.


Anderson-Inman, L., Knox-Quinn, C., & Horney, M. A. (1996). Computer-based study strategies for students with learning disabilities: Individual differences associated with adoption level. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(5), 461-484.

Boyle, J. R., & Weishaar, M. (1997). The effects of expert-generated versus student-generated cognitive organizers on the reading comprehension of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 12(4), 228-235.

CAST, Inc. (2003). CAST [online]. URL: http://www.cast.org

Dolan, R. P., & Hall, T. E., (2001). Universal design for learning: Implications for large-scale assessment. IDA Perspectives, 27(4), 22-25.

Gazzaniga, M.S., Ivry, R.B., & Mangun, G.R. (1998). Cognitive neuroscience: The biology of the mind. New York: Norton.

Glaser, C. W., Rieth, H. J., Kinzer, C. K., Colburn, L. K., & Peter, J. (2000). A description of the impact of multimedia anchored instruction on classroom interactions. Journal of Special Education Technology, 14(2), 27-43.

Goldman, S. R., Petrosino, A. J., Sherwood, R. D., Garrison, S., Hickey, D., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (1996). Anchoring science instruction in multimedia learning environments. In S. Vosniadou, E. De Corte, R. Glaser, & H. Mandl (Eds.), International perspectives on the psychological foundations of technology-supported learning environments (pp. 257-284). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Herl, H. E., O'Neil, H. F. Jr., Chung, G. K. W. K. & Schacter, J. (1999). Reliability and validity of a computer-based knowledge mapping system to measure content understanding. Computers in Human Behavior, 15(3-4), 315-333.

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Providing new access to the general curriculum: Universal Design for Learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(2), 8-17

Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act Amendments of 1997. 20 U.S.C. section 1415.

Jorgensen, C.M. (1997). Curriculum and its impact on inclusion and achievement of students with disabilities. Consortium on Inclusive Schooling Practices Issue Brief 2(2), CISP Publications and Resources.

Kame’enui, E. and Simmons, D. (1999). Toward Successful Inclusion of Students with Disabilities: The architecture of instruction (ERIC/OSEP) Mini Library on Adapting Curricular Materials, Vol. 1) Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

Meyer, A. & Rose, D. (1998). Learning to read in the computer age. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Pisha, B., & Coyne, P. (2001). Smart from the start: The Promise of Universal Design for Learning. Remedial and Special Education, 22(4), 197-203.

Pisha, B., & Coyne, P. (2001, November). Jumping off the page: Content area curriculum for the internet age. Reading Online, 5(4). (Retrieved on 2/11/04 from http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/pisha/index.html).

Rose, D. (2000). Walking the walk: Universal design on the web. JSET E journal, Vol. 15, No. 3. Summer 2000. (Retrieved on 1/29/04 from http://jset.unlv.edu/15.3T/tasseds/rose.html).

Rose, David H. (2000). Universal design for learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15(1), 67-70.

Rose, D. & Meyer, A. (2000). Universal design for individual differences. Educational Leadership, 58 (3), 39-43.

Rusic, R. & O’Connell, K. (2002). Anchored instruction. National Center on Accessing the General Education Curriculum. (Retrieved on 2/14/04 from http://www.cast.org/ncac/index.cfm?i=1663).

Rusic, R. & O’Connell, K. (2002). Modified text. National Center on Accessing the General Education Curriculum. (Retrieved on 2/14/04 from http://www.cast.org/ncac/index.cfm?i=1664).

Rusic, R. & O’Connell, K. (2002). Text-to-speech. National Center on Accessing the General Education Curriculum. (Retrieved on 2/14/04 from http://www.cast.org/ncac/index.cfm?i=1665).

Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2003). Virtual reality and computer simulations and the implications for UDL: Curriculum and enhancements report. National Center on Accessing the General Education Curriculum. (Retrieved on 2/24/04 from http://www.cast.org/ncac/index.cfm?i=4770).

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

World Wide Web Consortium. (1999). Web content accessibility guidelines 1.0. Cambridge, MA, Rocquencourt, France, & Endo, Japan: MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT)


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