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Home > Newsletters > Fall 2005 > UDL

Four Ways to Incorporate Universal Design for Learning into Your Assignment Instructions

By Robbin Zeff, Assistant Professor of Writing

Have you ever noticed how some products just make sense: a wider handle on a potato peeler for easier gripping or software that automatically corrects commonly misspelled words. In both instances these products were originally conceived to meet the needs of people with disabilities but ended up benefiting all users.  This is the basis of universal design, a concept you can apply to designing and developing your assignment instructions.

Universal design originated in architecture.  When the field of architecture first started to make the physical world accessible to people with disabilities, it was done by retrofitting buildings, such as adding a ramp next to a staircase for wheelchair access. But retrofitting buildings proved clumsy and architecturally inferior. By incorporating these elements from the start, such as integrating ramps and wide doors for wheelchair access in the design stage, the features became part of the building rather than an awkward add on. 

Moreover, the usefulness of the modifications quickly started to extend beyond its original purpose of aiding those with disabilities. For example, curb cuts in sidewalks were originally conceived to assist wheelchairs in navigating up and down sidewalks. But once installed on street corners, mothers with baby carriages, kids on bikes, and professionals with suitcases on wheels found the curb cuts equally beneficial. Soon, followers of universal design realized the modifications incorporated for people with disabilities actually benefited all users.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) applies the concept of universal design to the learning process by developing, designing, and delivering instruction and instructional material that makes learning more accessible to all students.  Though originally developed for aiding students with disabilities, the UDL paradigm is valuable to any learning situation.  In the typical college classroom, there are students with different abilities and needs in terms of seeing, hearing, speaking, moving, reading, writing, organizing, engaging, and remembering.  If a student has a disability that is visible, such as a mobility impairment placing that student in a wheelchair, or the student has limited sight, it is easy to recognize the disability.  However, it is much more common to have a student that has an invisible disability, such as a learning disability, a psychological disability, or a health impairment.  Moreover, since college students are over 18 and legally adults, disclosure of any disability is voluntary. This means instructors never truly know the many layers of abilities and disabilities among the students in a class making the case for UDL even more compelling.

UDL asks the instructor to identify the key goal(s) and objectives of a course or an assignment and then provide multiple and flexible methods of presentation, expression, and engagement. This flexibility does not mean diminishing the intellectual rigor of the course or assignment.   Instead, it means recognizing that a learning goal can be accomplished through a host of means.

Building on the findings of recent brain and mind research, a UDL designed classroom employs these principles by presenting content in multiple formats, building in flexibility in how learning is demonstrated, and offering students a variety of modes of engagement with learning material.  To accomplish this flexibility in instructional material design and delivery, UDL makes comprehensive use of technology in the classroom.  Without a doubt, digital technology and the Internet places a world of information at the fingertips of all students. But UDL is much more than making information more accessible, it's about making learning more accessible.

When it comes to paper assignment instructions, UDL enhanced instructions benefit all students in a course.  Here are four ways you can incorporate UDL principles into your assignment instructions.

#1: Design instructions with the user in mind
What makes some products intuitive to use and others almost impossible to figure out even with an instruction manual?  In a word, usability.  This refers to how well a user can perform the designated task with the tool provided.  If the tool works well, the user should be able to perform the task effortlessly and effectively. This can be achieved in assignment instructions by recognizing the different needs of students. For example, students with learning disabilities will need content in small chunks.  Students with limited sight will need instructions sheets in large font. Here are suggestions on how to design your instruction sheets with usability in mind.

  • Present information in small chunks separated by headers
  • Put key tasks and dates in bold
  • Be generous with white space 
  • Refrain from trying to make text fit on one sheet by reverting to very small font  
  • Provide supplemental information explaining key aspects of the assignment

#2: Reduce barriers to accessing the assignment
In college classes, assignments are tools for learning.  And yet, getting students to give the assignment instructions a close and thoughtful reading is often difficult.  For some, the assignment presentation is inaccessible because of its delivery format.  For other students, not having the assignment available when needed becomes a barrier.  Making assignment instructions readily accessible in multiple modes and formats encourages use. Here are some strategies for reducing barriers to accessing assignment instruction sheets:

  • Prepare the assignments in advance for students who need the assignment delivered in an alternate delivery mode, such as converted to Braille or read orally through a text to speech reader. 
  • Go over the instructions orally in class.
  • Make the instructions and supplemental material accessible in multiple formats. In addition to distributing a print version in class, make the instructions accessible online through the course Blackboard site as a downloadable Word file or .pdf file.  By placing the assignment on Blackboard, the assignment is available 24/7.

#3: Establish and articulate an assignment’s goals and objectives and criteria for assessment from the start
One of the keys to building in flexibility in an assignment is the clear articulation of an assignment's goals and objectives.  A goal is the broad general statement about what the students will learn from doing the assignment.  The objectives are the specific learning outcomes; in other words, what the student will be able to do after completing the assignment.  By focusing on the goals and objectives in the assignment design process, one can identify places where flexibility in presentation or engagement can occur without reducing the academic rigor of the assignment.  For example, if the goal of an oral presentation is to demonstrate the ability to synthesize and summarize information, then how that presentation is delivered can be flexible.  For a student who is deaf, presenting information orally is a barrier.  However, the same objectives for the assignment can be met through a PowerPoint presentation.  This is an example of how clearly articulated goals and objectives aid flexibility.

Equally important, if an assignment's goals and objectives are articulated, the criteria for evaluation is also clear allowing for flexibility in execution.  For example, if a student has ADHD, that student may have learned accommodation strategies to help gather and organize ideas on paper.  These strategies may be different from those presented in a course, but more accessible to the student.  If the student understands the criteria for assessment, the student can use the accommodation strategies he or she knows to do the assignment and then reformat the assignment in its final draft to meet the assessment criteria.  Here are some strategies for presenting an assignment's goals, objectives, and assessment criteria: 

  • List the assignment goals and objectives on the assignment sheet
  • Explain how these assignment goals and objectives fit into overall course goals
  • List the criteria for evaluation on the assignment sheet
  • Explain the assessment process for the assignment when the instructions are distributed

#4: Provide examples
Research in the technical writing aspect of instruction design has found that a user is more likely to complete directions successfully if representations of the finished product are provided.  For a class assignment, this means providing students access to examples of parts or the entire completed assignment.  Giving student access to student examples of the kind of writing that is expected for an assignment is extremely helpful to all students.  This is not a case of you doing the work for the student.  It is modeling the proper or correct writing format, organization, content, and style.  One of the fundaments of UDL in assignment design is to avoid the temptation to assume the students are proficient in every aspect of the task or genre you assign.  Just as a person would have a hard time putting together the parts of a barbeque without instructions even if the person had a general idea of what a barbeque looked like, so too our students greatly benefit from having writing samples of a particular assignment.

  • This can be done on the paper version of the assignment instruction sheet by including short examples.  You can also provide handouts of longer examples.  
  • Provide the URL on the instruction sheet where the student can go for additional examples. 
  • Post examples on the course Blackboard site in a designated example section. 
  • To get your own examples, ask students of previous classes if you can share their writing with your current students. You will want to get permission from your students.  Examples in a classroom textbook are nice, but they pale in comparison to real examples from former students.
  • Choose several examples that show different approaches to the assignment to avoid the student temptation to think there is only one way to do something. 

Applying UDL principles to assignment instruction design will benefit both you and your students. A UDL enhanced instruction sheet will increase your students' opportunity for success by making the assignment accessible to all learners through added clarity, flexibility, and focus. When the instructions are clear, well thought out, and self-explanatory, students have the tools they need to succeed in meeting the assignment's objectives. Moreover, building more robust instructions can make the assignment a learning tool itself. This happens because you can build in examples and explanations right into the instructions themselves, reinforcing the learning objectives of the assignment.

This approach equally benefits you, the instructor, by reducing the number of students who struggle or fail with an assignment.  UDL enhanced assignment instructions can help your students produce the papers you want to read. Indeed, being clear in the goal and objectives of an assignment and presenting the task so that all students understand and can succeed is nothing new. It is just good teaching.

For More Information on UDL

Online Resources

CAST is a not-for-profit education research and development organization that uses technology to make education more flexible and accessible for all students, especially those with disabilities.  This organization founded the concept of Universal Design for Learning and remains the industry leader in the field.

FAME (Faculty and Administrator Modules in Higher Education) is an online training program that educates faculty and administrators on how to improve the quality of education for students with disabilities.  It includes modules on climate assessment, rights and responsibilities, Universal Design for Learning, web accessibility, and college writing.  The section on college writing is a comprehensive treatment on how to make a college writing assignments and instruction accessible to students with all types of disabilities.


Burgstahler, S. (2005). Universal design of instruction. University of Washington: DO-IT,

Rose, D. & Meyer A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum. This book is available online for free through the CAST web site http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes


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Disability Support Services - The George Washington University
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