The first level of a Universal Design for Learning framework is the access level and that makes sense; learning can’t happen if you can’t see, hear, pay attention to, read, or speak. 

The roots of UDL trace, in large part, back to neuroscience research (Reid Lyon, 1985; Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) on students with learning disabilities for whom profound barriers to reading print meant that the dominant means of conveying information (i.e., books) in school left approximately 10% of students without access to the curriculum. As the research advanced, it roughly followed two veins of inquiry: there was interest in knowing more about the children whose brains learned differently (e.g., Shaywitz, 2003; Wolf, 2007) and interest in intervention which in turn produced advocacy for change in educational practices, curriculum design and materials. Universal Design for Learning is part of the second vein.

Thus, the UDL framework is, at its foundation, a model that was designed to include children who had traditionally been excluded from instruction. UDL founders David Rose and Anne Meyer (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) emphasize the role of neuroscience research in showing that learning is not one thing but instead a composite that varies by task and in turn, support the idea that learning differs with experience. 

So if the learning process is nuanced and variable, shouldn’t our teaching match it? 

Could our teaching not provide a variety of routes to learning outcomes? 

It could. And access is the starting point.

As I said, access is the point at which students engage with the material. Engagement is a term bandied about in educational circles a lot and its interpretation for instructors can range from having a quiet classroom, to listening skills, from class participation to feeling like a clown at a birthday party. 

I’d like to get rid of it, and talk instead about access.

For our purpose, access can be thought of as the point where a student can engage begin to participate in any class activity, from walking into the class, reading materials, being a contributing member in group work, participating in class discussions, holding pipettes, or sustaining attention through a three-hour lecture. I’d like to suggest that you start thinking about access as an everybody thing, beyond students with disabilities, to start thinking about anyone who:

  • is a second language learner

  • is a first generation post-secondary student

  • is new to Canada

  • didn’t know you needed to bring a pencil to class

  • struggles to afford books

  • is shy

  • needs to ask lots of questions

  • has a concussion

Here are five concrete steps that you can take to both check on and support access through the design of your course activities, lectures, exams, and assignments. Please note that each of these steps is a concept, exercise, and practice in its own right. This overview is precisely that and each step in turn will be elaborated in subsequent blog posts, workshops, presentations, and meeting sessions through TLC.


Step One – Autonomy

Autonomy is connected to a student’s sense of perceived self-efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy is (in this blogger’s experience) an extremely helpful construct because it focuses not vaguely upon our general and volatile sense of self-esteem, but on how we feel when we are about to embark upon a task. Perceived self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance and it determines how we feel, think, and motivate ourselves (Bandura, 1994). So when we are talking about access, we want to know – does the student have the belief equipment to think that they could be successful in this course

In terms of course design we want to check:

  • are expectations clear?

  • are learning outcomes clearly stated in terms of abilities/skills the student will acquire?

  • are course activities thoroughly described?

  • are activities multi-modal (e.g., print with the option of oral presentation)?

  • are learning tasks scaffolded or do students have a fall-off-the-cliff experience?

  • is prior knowledge/experience/prerequisites identified and connected to the present course?

By addressing these components, the student should get a strong feel for the course, where their strengths and weaknesses lie in terms of the course content, and be able to make a decision about whether they are likely to be very successful, moderately successful, or in over their heads.




Step Two – Relevance & Value

The importance of relevance and value ties back to the problem of learning being inert and not generalizable outside the immediate educational context. To address this problem, scholars of situated learning paradigms attempt to ground learning in authentic, problem-based contexts so that students can see a clear path from knowledge acquisition to problem-solving activities. By integrating learning contexts, and engaging in problems-solving, students see learning as meaningful and purpose-driven. As an expert in your area, this is where you get to be excited about your field!

Here is what to check in your design:

  • have I presented problems to solve (or just information to know)?

  • have I demonstrated conundrums in my field?

  • have I talked about current theories and research and why we need more/better/different?

  • have I designed problems that can be carried forward into a more advanced course in my area?

  • have I explicitly instructed students on communication in terms of problem solving?

  • does my assessment reflect problem-based thinking (instead of fact regurgitation)?


Step Three – Minimize Threats

Minimizing threats is a key engagement access concept that is connected to autonomy and self-efficacy. First, minimizing threats is concerned with a sensitivity to stigma, stereotyping – in other words, creating a safe space to ask questions, take risks, and demonstrate understanding. Second, minimizing threat has to do with floors and ceilings or in other words, the minimal and maximal demands of the course. This concept was discussed by Junsong Zhang in his recent blog post. Junsong’s post has an important tie to minimizing threats because it explains the value in getting students started (particularly with technology use), the importance of play, and gradually increasing the sophistication of the task (again to avoid that falling-off-a-cliff feeling).

Here is how you can check on threats to access and distraction in your class:

  • vary the novelty or risk in the classroom

  • be explicit when presenting novelty and/or challenging material and frame it as such

  • invite students to take time, think quietly, make notes, and either discuss or not as they are processing information

  • be explicit in acknowledging uncomfortable feelings that may arise

  • share examples of your own sense of threat in educational settings to show managing threat is an important aspect of learning

  • vary the level of sensory stimulation – the quiet of listening to a lecture, the loudness of stimulating discussion, the quiet din of group work

  • vary the social demands to account for preferences around speed, note taking, reputation management, and self-efficacy beliefs


Step Four – Provide Alternatives to Auditory and Visual Presentation

This step is relatively straightforward. If you present information visually, prepare a way for it to be presented auditorily and vice versa. Record lectures for all students and use those recordings as learning tools. Have notes and readings prepared as accessible PDFs so students can use screen readers to readily access the information. Provide diagrams and charts for lectures and offer students text or spoken descriptions for all video, and images. In all cases possible, pair pictures and sounds; multisensory learning helps all brains!


Step Five – Vary Methods of Response

Supporting and designing for a variety of responses in the learning process is a key aspect of access. When we design for students to express what they know in different modalities (by speaking, writing, singing, painting, building, blogging, vlogging, etc.) it offers the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge that isn’t bound to a single medium. Not only can this provide access for students, but it can help achieve a depth of knowledge and generalizability that may not be achieved through the traditional paper/exam. I would argue that one of the best sites for access is providing alternatives for expressing knowledge. Particularly for students who have had a lifetime of adjusting their learning, trying to keep up, facing stigma, and feeling like an outsider, the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge in an unconventional fashion is a breath of fresh air. 

Essentially, or as a bonus, depending on where you’re landing, building for alternative methods of responding to the course content will not only support access, but can also breathe fresh air into your own thinking about your course, your learning objectives, and your own sense of what it means to teach and learn.






Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of 

human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. 

Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).


Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST.


Reid Lyon, G.R. (1985). Educational validation of learning disability subtypes. In B.P. Rourke (Ed.) Neuropsychology of learning disabilities: Essentials of subtype analysis (pp. 228-253). New York: Guildford Press.

Shaywitz, S.E. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper.