UDL and Education Reform: A Primer

I recently left an internship with the U.S. Department of Defense Educational Activity. Just to be on the safe side, this post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Department of Defense Educational Activity, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Opinions expressed here are my own and I am solely responsible for this content.


Education is often in a state of reform especially as society changes over time. In the United States, educational reform has taken its most recent turn in the Common Core Curriculum. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories participate in the Common Core Curriculum. The Common Core is a set of standards developed utilizing expert opinions about what students should know after each grade level (CCSs, 2014).

These standards reflect a “college and career ready” approach, indicating that students, upon graduation from high school (secondary school) will either be ready for postsecondary schoolwork without remediation or will be able to successfully complete vocational training and be able to carry out the career of their choice within skilled trades (CCSS, 2014).

These standards currently fall into two categories. The first category is standards for mathematics. The second standard is language arts. Language arts, it should be noted, has under the Common Core become an expanded category. Traditionally, the subject of language arts has been thought to encompass writing, reading, and the study of literature. The most significant change in this subject, under Common Core, is that literature has become an expanded category. Now, non-fiction literature, including historical documents and technical literature have an expanded presence in the standards especially in the later grades. These two areas were chosen because they are deemed to be building blocks for skills needed in a variety of areas that can be spread throughout the grade levels. For example, mathematics complements sciences. Eventually, there will be more standards for other subjects. Some states, in fact, are currently going about creating College and Career Ready standards in subjects such as science and the arts (CCSS, 2014).

Although the Common Core has proved to be a controversial issue domestically (e.g.. Oklahoma has pulled out of Common Core and Louisiana is considering it while other states never joined and with one state, Minnesota, declining to participate in mathematics standards and with opposition from various conservative and liberal factions), it does lay groundwork to increase expectations of all student groups, including students with disabilities and students who do not speak English as their first language.

One of the suggested ways to do this is through “instructional supports for learning” (CCSS, 2014) “Instructional supports” are parallel to the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CCSS, 2014). However, the National Universal Design for Learning Center points out that Universal Design for Learning actually goes beyond the implementation suggestions laid out by Common Core. Rather, the National UDL Center suggests that UDL actually extends to all learners.

Universal Design for Learning is a set of instructional strategies, supports, and evaluations that are designed to enable all learners to meet goals. Education reformers often support their argument by defining UDL’s codification under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-135, 110th Congress), 2008. This definition calls for flexibility in presenting information to students and in ways of having them demonstrate mastery of material and reducing barriers to instruction and providing appropriate accommodations to students who need them. It is emphasized that UDL is an evidence-based strategy (P..l. 110-135, 110th U.S. Congress). Evidence-based strategies are those driven by “hard” data (i.e. studies incorporating scientific method and quantitative evidence).

UDL’s roots are rooted in psychology and neuroscience 9e.g. Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, &Tolving, 2000; Kent, 1998; Nichelli, Graggman, Pietrini, Clark, Lee, & Milletich, 1995; Petersen, van Mier, Fiez, & Raichle, 1998; Rypma &D’Esposito, 1998; Tootell, Reppas, Kwong, Malach, Born, Brady, 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999; Xiong, Rao, Jerabek, Zamarripa, Woldorff, & Lancaster, 2000). These studies were made possible by examining how brain pathways work. Further evidence established pathways for learning (Tootell, Rappas, Kwong, Malach, Bor Brady, Rosen, & Belliveau 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999). Because tasks are individuated within the brain, people do not process information in exactly the same way (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995).

Learning has been revealed to be 1) modular, 2) distributed, 3) parallel. And 4) heterarchical (Meyer & Rose, 2005). Learning takes place as various modules in the brain interact (Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, & Tulving, 2000; Rypma & D’Esposito, 1999). Additional theoretical support for this way of understanding learning pathways comes from Howard Gardner’s (Gardner, 1983, 1999) work on multiple intelligences which indicates that there are various kinds of intelligences that a person may possess. According to Gardner, individuals will learn better if information is presented a variety of ways because such instruction accounts for a greater number of “kinds” of learners. For example, some individuals may learn best verbally, some through kinetic movement or by doing, some visually, some through auditory means, and so forth.

UDL best supports curriculum in three ways. First, it utilizes multiple means of representation across learning styles. Secondly, it allows students to express themselves in multiple ways while holding to standards. Finally, it allows for multiple means of engagement through a variety of means (Meyer & Rose, 2005).

Another way that UDL impacts curriculum is through deemphasizing (although not necessarily waiving) certain presentational elements (e.g. books and lectures) in favor of other kinds of learning practices. These practices contain built-in models of performance, opportunities for supported practice, immediate feedback, and communities of practices (Dalton, Pisha, Coyne, Eagleton, & Dreycher, 2001).

Feedback, in form of assessment, can be an important issue in UDL and is of particular concern in the age of education reform. UDL principles indicate that there should be some level of flexibility built into assessments. UDL’s emphasis on technology, however, can actually provide for a greater level of deeper assessment than traditional exams, however, as students can be evaluated through a variety of conditions which goes beyond what traditional exams can measure (Meyer & Rose, 2005; Russell & Haney, 1997, 2000).

Of course, individuals with the most severe cognitive disabilities may need alternative assessment in order to meet goals. One way, currently being led by a collaborative group of academic, non-profit, and corporate researchers, hosted by the University of Kansas, is working on one particularly UDL based alternative assessment called the Dynamic Learning Maps Assessment. This assessment recognizes that learning pathways, especially within this group, are not linear (Dynamic Learning Maps, 2011-2014). An example of a learning map can be seen here (www.dynamiclearningmaps.org/content/what-learning-map).

Now that we have a primer in UDL and educational reforms, we can discuss more substantial issues in UDL and education reform. This content will be coming in the following weeks. Until that time, please use the comment tool for your questions, opinions, and feedback.

Andrew Bennett


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