Universal Design for Instruction (UDI)

Think of Universal Design for Instruction as you would the clothing industry. One size really does not fit all. Just are there are many different body types and differences even within similar body types (e.g. one limb shorter than the other, missing a particular limb, etc.), there are many differences in how individual brains receive, perceive, process, and produce information. UDI is an educational approach that accounts for variation in brain processing from the outset so that more learners, as opposed to fewer, can access the information being taught. These principles derive from the body of research on human cognition, learning, and memory.

GCC and the ODS is committed to providing inclusive learning environments. Equal access can often be achieved through course design. However, barriers to learning or assessment may still exist for students with disabilities, and accommodations may still be necessary to address those barriers.

Nine Principles of UDI

According to Scott, McGuire, and Shaw (2001), there are nine principles of UDI:

  1. Equitable use: Accessible and usable by everyone.
  2. Flexibility in use: Accommodated to individual needs with choices provided.
  3. Simple and intuitive: Clear and understood regardless of student’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: Accessible regardless of students’ sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: Anticipates learning pace and prerequisite skills.
  6. Low physical effort: Minimizes nonessential physical effort (unless physical effort is integral to the essential requirements of a course [e/g/ lifting requirements in a physical therapy program]).
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Considers physical and sensory access to environment, equipment, tasks.
  8. A community of learners: Promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty.
  9. Instructional climate: Welcoming and inclusive.

Scott, S., Shaw, S., & McGuire, J. (Nov. 2001). Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, The Council for Exceptional Children, Eric Digest #E618.

Understanding how these principles connect directly to the research on cognition, learning and memory can translate into best teaching practices. Indeed, a review of the literature on teaching reveals the following methodologies attributed to effective instruction as determined by student outcomes, student feedback, peer feedback, and supervision review.

Effective Instructors

Effective instructors:

  1. Provide clear and explicit expectations.
  2. Provide advanced organizers and supports.
  3. Provide information in multiple formats.
  4. Provide a welcoming classroom environment.
  5. Make connections between topics and real life experiences.
  6. Provide frequent, consistent, & formative feedback.
  7. Support individual learning needs within the group.
  8. Use effective assessment strategies.
  9. Are approachable and available.
  10. Are knowledgeable and focused on their subject matter.
  11. Make personal connections with their students.
  12. Hold challenging standards for learning.
  13. Engage in, & encourage metacognition.
  14. Understand human development & learning theory.

Flexibility in use; perceptible information; tolerance for error; size and space for approach and use; and a community of learners can be grouped under the principle “instructional climate”. Establishing a welcoming climate can reduce barriers to learning by ensuring that it is the frontal lobes or “thinking” areas of the brain that an instructor is engaging in students, as opposed to the reactionary or self-defense areas of the brain. A learner that cannot physically access a task or environment, cannot perceive information as it is presented, fears making a mistake, or fears ridicule from peers, will have a brain in which the limbic system, especially the amygdala, will be highly activated to respond to these perceived threats; whether consciously or subconsciously. The brain is more motivated by learning what is essential to survival; therefore, any threat to an individual’s safety will take precedent over any other information being presented.

The brain is also more attracted to novel stimuli since anything novel may be relevant to survival. Having a welcoming classroom environment with tolerance for error will allow an instructor to balance the delicate line of upholding challenging standards for learning without exceeding the “threat” threshold for learners. An instructor who is approachable and available and who provides flexible choice of a diverse array of assignment types, will be working with more cognitively active learner brains as opposed to emotionally reactive learner brains. Providing frequent and formative feedback promotes tolerance for error and also promotes the learning process by engaging the “error detection and correction” areas of the brain so that the learner can explicitly learn the right way to do a task or to re-learn how to do a task as opposed to defaulting to making the same mistakes in the future.

The brain is wired to receive emotional information first and cognitive second. The threat response centers of the brain are designed to respond to emotional responses (insecurity, confusion, fear, anger, embarrassment, etc.) and trigger physiological reactions (e.g. elevated heart rate, sweaty hands, dilated pupils, etc.). When a learner is unsure of the class routine, of what is expected of them, of what a task requires, of what a completed task should look like, of what the instructor’s response might be, etc., they may default to less than effective coping mechanisms for course success. Providing routines and clarity especially benefits individuals on the autism spectrum. Equitable use; simple and intuitive directions and instruction; low physical effort for task engagement, are all principles that reduce the chances of a learner having a threat reaction response to the learning environment. Reducing perceived threat factors is like reducing distractions – more attention can be focused on the cognitive elements of the task instead of focused on the emotional and physiological responses. A welcoming environment that invites positive humor produces better learning retention and recall by activating the amygdala and hippocampus, both structures in the limbic system that play a role in memory formation and associative memory. In addition, positive emotions and humor release endorphins and dopamine, neurotransmitters that play a role in motivation, attention and stress-reduction.

A little bit of stress can be good for learning – it triggers the brain to “pay attention.” Too much stress can impede learning in all the ways mentioned previously as well as affecting memory formation and storage. Stress triggers cortisol release in our bodies and if we do not “burn off” (e.g. physical exercise, meditation, yoga, etc.) any excess cortisol, it accumulates and eventually attacks the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is most active during the deepest stages of sleep and its role is to process information received during waking hours and determine what to hang onto, and where to file it in the brain based on associative information previously stored. Many individuals who are stressed tend not to sleep well, further hampering the hippocampus’ ability to engage in its memory tasks. Repeated exposure to stress that exceeds an individual’s ability to cope can be detrimental to memory and learning; a classroom environment and instructional methodology play a significant role in stress exposure for many learners.

The harder that a brain has to work at accessing information or processing a task, the more and/or faster that brain is burning through its’ main fuel supply: glucose. In addition, the more abstract a learner perceives a task to be, the more likely they are to procrastinate on engaging in the task (McCrea, Liberman, & Trope, 2008). The brain that needs to work harder to decode text is going to consume more glucose than the brain that can decode with automaticity; likewise for sustaining attention, processing numeracy; applying spelling and grammar rules and so on. Time on task is not equivalent across learner profiles. Some learners may need additional time depending on how “physical” the task is for their brain. Refueling the brain through snacks, water, and oxygenation is essential to optimal brain functioning. Extended time can be a difficult accommodation if the brain is unable to “refuel” in the way that it needs to; a brain running low on glucose results in frustration/low tolerance, fatigue and restlessness.

Learn More about UDI and UDL

If you would like to learn more about Universal Design for Instruction and Universal Design for Learning and find more helpful UDI course development tools, consider spending time at the following websites:

Another research / evidence-based instructional approach that mirrors the practices of UDI and UDL is the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics for teaching students who are English language learners. The SIOP model requires many of the same practices encompassed by UDI and UDL research and the program provides useful lesson planning templates.


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Scott, S., Shaw, S., & McGuire, J. (Nov. 2001). Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, The Council for Exceptional Children, Eric Digest #E618.