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Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom

This approach helps you make your teaching accessible to all students.

What is Universal Design for Instruction?

Universal design originates in barrier-free design and architectural accessibility. According to the Center for Universal Design, “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” In recent years, this approach that was originally applied to building design has been applied to instructional practices. Universal Design for Instruction targets the best practices of teaching for each student’s learning needs.

According to Scott, Shaw, and McGuire (2001), the nine principles guiding Universal Design for Instruction are: 1) equitable use, 2) flexibility in use, 3) simple and intuitive, 4) perceptible information, 5) tolerance for error, 6) low physical effort, 7) size and space for approach, 8) a community of learners, 9) instructional climate.

Equitable use means that each student has the opportunity to meet the objective. Flexibility in use allows for making necessary adjustments. Simple and intuitive requires decreasing ambiguity and complexity. Perceptible information recommends providing information in a variety of approaches to allow for different sensory strengths and weaknesses. Tolerance for error asks faculty to take into account that not all students start at the same place and learn at the same pace. In thinking about low physical effort, the instructor considers the best way to sustain student attention and to reduce fatigue. Size and space for approach invites faculty to think about the way materials and physical space are used in a lesson. In the development of a community of learners, the goal is to increase interactions between students and the instructor. In reflecting on the instructional climate, we want to keep our expectations high while encouraging a friendly and learning-centered environment. Scott, Shaw, and McGuire emphasize that not all nine principles are used in every activity.

Strategies for implementation

1. Equitable Use. You might think here about the kinds of tests and assignments you require. An instructor might, for example, ask the students to take tests and write a paper. If the students took essay tests and wrote a paper, the course would allow strong writers to illustrate their knowledge, but it would not be equitable for students who have disabilities that affect their writing. One remedy would be to add a multiple choice section to an essay exam. A second course requirement could be a course presentation which could be done individually or in pairs. The key to equitability is providing a number of different ways that students can demonstrate their knowledge.

2. Flexibility in Use. The flexibility in course requirements involves being free to revamp your approaches. On the first day of class, some instructors ask their students to complete note cards that ask for different kinds of information, including student assessments of their own strengths and weaknesses. Upon leaving class that day, the instructor thinks about the equitability of the course requirements. If an instructor realizes that the course requirements focus on a student’s weakness he or she should be flexible in enhancing the assessment approach. Some instructors try to use different types of assessments so that all students have an opportunity to show their knowledge. In addition, some instructors might give students options in choosing their test format (i.e., only essay or combination multiple choice and essay).

3. Simple and Intuitive. In designing a syllabus, lecture, activities, and assessments, you should be sure your goals and methods are clear and easy to understand. In class lectures, Scott, McGuire, and Foley (2003) suggest using concept maps for complex ideas. Scott, Shaw, and McGuire (2001) recommend providing students with grading rubrics for papers and projects so that students are aware of your high expectations.

4. Perceptible Information. Students perceive information in a variety of ways. Some students do best with visual information, while others rely heavily on their auditory skills. This principle of perceptible information reminds instructors to share knowledge through multiple avenues. Many instructors use overhead projectors or PowerPoint, allowing students to both see and hear the course discussion. In addition, some instructors provide lecture notes and an audio link to their lectures on their course Web site.

5. Tolerance for error. In many courses, there are students who come into the class with a lot of background knowledge and others who don’t. In an effort to meet the needs of students with varying amounts of prior knowledge, some instructors provide introductory material in class and ask the students to do outside readings targeted at a higher knowledge level. In the next class, the more complex information can be discussed and the next topic introduced. This approach allows for both introductory and advanced information to be shared. Another approach is to provide links on the course Web site to further information either on the introductory or more advanced level. The purpose is to provide students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, expanding their knowledge of the content area.

6. Low Physical Effort. The crux of this principle relates to maintaining student alertness and reducing fatigue in the classroom. Many instructors already account for low physical effort by varying their instruction to include a combination of lecture, individual exercises, and group work. This variety allows students to move around and to increase their attention to each separate task. One other way to address this principle is to allow students the option of writing their essay exams either by hand or in the computer lab.

7. Size and Space for Approach. Most often, instructors are assigned classrooms, and they don’t have much say about the desk style or physical space. The key to this principle is being aware of the classroom’s physical space and thinking ahead of time about different ways to use the space. When you think about the type of materials that you use in the course and the arrangement of desks, for example, you are preparing for the student who sprained an ankle and the student in a wheelchair.

8. A Community of Learners. To create a community of learners, instructors need to be flexible, perceptive, and tolerant of different levels of prior knowledge, as well as being aware of approaches to increase students’ attention and ways to use physical space. To create a positive community of learners, faculty members need to incorporate all aspects of the Universal Design for Instruction principles. The willingness to learn from the students in the class will facilitate the growth of a community of learners.

9. Instructional Climate. While Scott, Shaw and McGuire (2001) position instructional climate as the ninth principle, I find it to be first in importance, as it is crucial to the success of everything else. One cannot have a community of learners without having a positive instructional climate. Instructors help to create this climate by everything that they do, from the way they respond to student questions to the arrangement of the classroom chairs. It is amazing, for instance, how changing the seating arrangement from rows to a circle can transform class discussions.

Students know how they learn best. Give them credit for the knowledge they bring to the classroom, and make them partners in the creation of a positive instructional climate.

References & Resources


Center for Universal Design (1997). Universal Design Principles. Retrieved January 3, 2007, from the Center for Universal Design.

Scott, S.S., McGuire, J.M., & Foley, T.E. (2003). Universal Design for Instruction: A framework for anticipating and responding to disability and other diverse learning needs in the college classroom. Equity and Excellence in Education, 36 , 40-49.

Scott, S.S., McGuire, J.M., & Shaw, S.F. (2001). Principles of Universal Design for Instruction. Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability.

Shaw, S. F., Scott, S.S., & McGuire, J. M. (2001). Teaching college students with learning disabilities. ERIC Digest #e618. Arlington, VA.


DO-IT at the University of Washington

Faculty Ware at the University of Connecticut’s

Project PACE—University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Rochester Institute of Technology  

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education  

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