Universal Design for Learning: Engaging Students & Brains

Updated: 6 days ago

“Like fingerprints, no two brains are alike.”

- CAST, 2018


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” (NC State University, 2008). 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. Within 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, n.d.).


The UDL framework aligns with what is known about the brain and based on "scientific insight into how humans learn" (CAST, para. 1).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 two brain are the same and supports neuro-variability. CAST emphasizes the importance 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 (CAST, 2018, pp. 1-2)


In UDL & the Learning Brain, CAST (2018) provides key facts about the brain from a UDL perspective to support the understanding of neuroplasticity, learner variability, and how learning happens. As shared by CAST (2018), “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” (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. The UDL framework provides detailed information about each of the principles and how to 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 to foster expert learners. These guidelines, which build upon scientific insights about learning, the brain, and research informed practices, provide a comprehensive framework that supports inclusion, engagement, regular and substantive interaction, practice, and transfer of learning.


Author: Dr. Kristen Betts


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