Universal Design for Learning Blog Feature

By: Melissa Hughes, Ph.D. on July 16th, 2019

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Universal Design for Learning

Professional Development | Guest Edu Bloggers | Featured Topics: Differentiated Instruction | universal design for learning

The following is a guest blog from our favorite expert on Whole Brain Teaching & Learning, Dr. Melissa Hughes. 

Some of you may know that I started my career in a 4th grade classroom. What many people may not know is that my journey to understand how the brain works and how to make it work better started there. It would have been really helpful for me to know as a teacher what I know now about those factors that impact memory, focus, concentration, creativity. While all students have the same pieces and parts between their ears, each is unique in strengths, challenges, learning preferences, and ability.

Thanks to advances in cognitive neuroscience and technology, we’re able to peer inside the brain to understand what happens when we learn. Like fingerprints, no two brains are alike. Cognitive function is dependent upon one’s neural connectivity and is influenced by genetics, experiences, and environmental stimuli. A new educational model was inspired from those advances, and it’s gaining traction in classrooms across the country. It’s called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and it bases instruction on how different areas of the brain function.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

The term "universal design" refers to a movement in architecture design and composition of an environment that can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. For example, ramps and curb cuts were initially designed for wheel chair access but they also make it easier for parents with baby strollers or delivery people with dollies. Closed captions on television and movies were designed for the hearing impaired, but everyone can appreciate them in places like the gym or the airport.

Universal design rejects the idea that things should be designed for the average person. Instead, we should strive to accommodate an extremely diverse range of abilities and situations. Just like universal design in architecture, UDL applies the tenets of equal access, flexibility, simplicity and efficiency to the process of learning.

The principles of UDL are rooted in the three main networks active during learning: affective, recognition, and strategic. Generally, incoming sensory information – that which we see or hear - is received in the back of the brain or within the recognition networks. Affective networks are responsible for the “why” of learning. They control our emotional involvement with learning such as our motivation and our ability to focus and remain engaged with a task. This is where we process and make sense of new information. And we organize our response or reaction to it in the frontal lobes or the strategies networks. Strategic networks govern the “how” of learning. This is the process of demonstrating our knowledge, sharing it with others in the manner of expression that fits our strengths.

How is UDL different from differentiated instruction?

While differentiated instruction reactively evaluates the students in an attempt to meet individual needs, UDL proactively evaluates the instruction and the environment to provide wide access to a variety of learning experiences on the front end. In doing so, teachers remove barriers to learning by providing a range of options when presenting content or giving students multiple opportunities and choices as to how they demonstrate their knowledge.

Want to learn more?

VariQuest customers can access an informative webinar presented by myself and Carman Le, MAT, exploring instructional strategies and the application of UDL in the classroom as a recording on the VariQuest Resource Center now! (You must log in to view.)

About Dr. Hughes

DMH.jpgPresident and Founder of The Andrick Group and author of Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round and the full-color companion Gratitude Journal. Melissa has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and specializes in recent brain-based research that illuminates effective teaching and learning. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to improve the way we learn, work, and communicate.