Universal Design for Learning: Engaging Students & Brains

Updated: May 31

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a transformational framework for teaching and learning. Historically it is connected to the architectural concept of universal design. Ron Mace is recognized as the pioneer and visionary of Universal Design, even coining the term “universal design.” The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), which was founded in 1984, is recognized for applying the concept of universal design to a framework for curriculum reform in education. The UDL framework is often associated with accessibility and special education. However, the UDL framework is designed to support all learners across all learning formats within higher education, K-12 education, and beyond education. One of the core foci of CAST is to make learning inclusive and transformative for everyone (CAST, 2021).


The UDL framework aligns with what is known about the brain and human learning process. The guidelines focus on three networks that include:

  • Affective network: engagement with the learning task.

  • Recognition network: recognition of the information to be learned.

  • Strategic network: application of strategies to process information.


The UDL framework recognizes that no brain is the same. Therefore, this inclusive framework embraces neuro-variability. CAST shares that it is important for educators to acknowledge variability in learner background knowledge and experience since “each learner brings a unique blend of experiences and expectations to each learning event” (CAST, 2018, p. 2). Recognizing “there is no single way a brain will perceive, engage with, or execute a task,” CAST provides UDL guidelines that consider differences in learners to support the design of learning experiences through multiple means of:


· Engagement (the why of learning, which aligns with affective networks): interest, effort and persistence, and self regulation

· Representation (the what of learning, which aligns with recognition networks): perception, language and symbols, and comprehension

· Action & Expression (the how of learning, which aligns with strategic networks): physical action, expression and communication, and executive function


In UDL & the Learning Brain, CAST (2018) also recognizes the importance for educators to understand the connection between neuroplasticity and learning. “Understanding the plasticity of the brain is important for educators, because it helps us recognize that learning is a constant growth process constructed over time” (CAST, 2018, p. 2). CAST has designed an interactive table that can be used to learn more about the three principles of Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. Click on the links within the table to learn more about the three principles that are part of the table and how you can align course design, teaching, learning, and assessment with the UDL framework and the brain networks.


Figure 1

UDL Framework


Universal Design for Learning Framework

As educators, it is important to be familiar with the UDL framework. These guidelines, which build upon what is known about the brain and research informed practice, provide a comprehensive framework to support inclusion, engagement, regular and substantive interaction, practice, and transfer of learning to foster expert learners.


In designing new courses, revising current ones, or pivoting across formats, the question to ask is: What’s in your course? Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with Universal Design for Learning. Dr. Kristen Betts