Burgstahler, S. (2008). Universal design of instruction: What might it look like in my classroom? Design for All, 3(2), 35-47.

Universal Design of Instruction: What Might it Look Like in My Classroom?

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler University of Washington, USA

My article—"Universal Design in Education: Facilities, Information Technology, Instruction and Student Services"—which was published in the May 2007 issue of Design for All, describes a broad range of applications of universal design to all levels of education. The following article takes a closer look at universal design applications to instruction in higher education.

Much has been written about the universal design of instruction (UDI), where universal design principles are applied to all aspects of instruction, including curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessments. The goal is simple: To create instructional environments that are welcoming, accessible, and inclusive of all students. A universally designed course addresses the needs of potential students with a broad range of abilities, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, socioeconomic levels, and other characteristics. Instructors who support the UDI goal, however, are often uncertain about how to implement universal design in their courses.

This article shares specific strategies that an instructor might employ to apply UDI to the design and delivery of a course. It is based on a UDI checklist that was developed through the efforts of The Center for Universal Design in Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. Resources of this Center are located at http://www.washington.edu/doit/CUDE/. The specific checklist on which the following subcategories and suggestions are based is at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html. These guidelines were put together by consulting publications in the field of UDI and engaging a team of leaders within more than twenty colleges and universities in the United States.

Settting the Stage

Imagine a new university instructor, Dr. Sunder, who was preparing to teach several chemistry courses. Committed to reaching all students through the application of UDI. Dr. Sunder considered the potential variation in characteristics of students who might enroll in his classes. He considered variability in skill, learning style, learning preference, age, gender, talent, disability, socioeconomic level, and culture. He made a personal commitment to delivering courses that were welcoming, accessible, and inclusive of all of these potential students.

To gain specific insights, Dr. Sunder consulted with instructors and support staff who work with students who have disabilities. He learned that students in his classes might have visual or hearing impairments, mobility impairments, disabilities related to specific aspects of learning, and attention deficits. He gained knowledge about specific approaches for working with these students, too. For example, he learned that materials provided in an electronic text format can be accessed by students who were blind by using a computer with speech output technology and/or converting them to braille and that such equipment was available on campus or in the community; that students learn in different ways and a classroom of students can benefit from instruction presented in multiple ways; that deaf students can be more fully included when instructions and content are provided in printed format; that assistive technology can help students who have physical and sensory impairments operate lab equipment; that testing student learning in multiple ways can help instructors accurately assess the learning of all students. He also gained knowledge about services for students with disabilities provided by the institution and the community and about procedures for a student or instructor to accessing those services.

The following sections of this article present descriptions of how the planning and implementation of Mr. Sunder's course might have progressed. They are organized around issues related to class climate, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, interaction, feedback, assessment, and accommodation. It is hoped that, by considering this fictional account, instructors might take away a few ideas to help them begin to apply universal design to their own instruction.

Class Climate

Dr. Sunder adopted practices that reflected his high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. He took steps to create a welcoming environment for all students. On his syllabus and in his first class session he made a statement that invited students to meet with him to discuss disability-related accommodations and other learning needs. Throughout the course, Dr. Sunder was approachable and available. He learned students' names and used them when he communicated with them.

Dr. Sunder welcomed questions in and outside of class, seeking out a student's point of view and patiently responding. During class discussions, he encouraged the sharing of multiple perspectives and demonstrated and demanded mutual respect. He encouraged students to speak with him after class. He maintained regular office hours and worked around student schedules when his regular schedule conflicted with theirs.

Mr. Sunder took steps to develop teaching methods and materials that were motivating and relevant to students with diverse characteristics. He avoided stereotyping by offering instruction and assistance based on student performance and requests, not simply on assumptions that members of certain groups (e.g., students with certain types of disabilities) would automatically do well or poorly. Dr. Sunder also avoided segregating or stigmatizing any student by drawing undue attention to a difference or sharing private information, such as a student's need for a disability-related accommodation. He addressed individual needs in an inclusive manner; for example, rather than providing a different lab assignment for a student who had no use of his hands, he placed this student in a group of other students and helped them ensure that the student with a disability read directions, monitored equipment, took notes using an adapted computer, or otherwise actively participated.

Physical Environments and Products

Dr. Sunder ensured that facilities, activities, materials, workspaces, equipment, and field work in his classes were physically accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities. He organized his instructional spaces to maximize inclusion and comfort. For example, Mr. Sunder arranged seating to encourage participation, giving each student a clear line of sight to the instructor and visual aids and allowing room for wheelchairs, personal assistants, and assistive technology. He placed small groups in quiet work areas and made other adjustments to reduce distractions.

Dr. Sunder provided options for operation of lab equipment from different heights and with different physical abilities, with one hand, and by right- and left-handed students. He used large print to clearly label controls on lab equipment and other educational aids and provided straightforward, simple oral and printed directions for operation and use. Dr. Sunder consulted the publication Making Science Labs Accessible to Students with Disabilities (http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/science_lab.html). He applied recommendations, taking simple steps (e.g., using plastic instead of glass, tactile models, large-print diagrams, non-slip mats; maintaining wide aisles) to increase the accessibility of his lab and planning for the purchase of more expensive options (e.g., providing one adjustable-height workstation; purchasing a video camera with computer or TV monitor to enlarge microscope image).

Dr. Sunder addressed a wide range of potential student characteristics when he made decisions related to safety. He developed procedures to address the needs of students who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users and labeled safety equipment in clear statements, in large print, and in a location viewable from a variety of angles. He periodically stated safety procedures during his courses as well.

Delivery Methods

Dr. Sunder used multiple teaching methods. He used several different methods for delivering content and motivating and engaging students; these included lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based research, and fieldwork. He then made each teaching method accessible to students with a wide range of abilities, learning styles, and previous experiences. For example, he monitored small group discussions to make sure that all students were participating; when necessary, he helped group members employ strategies that ensured the active participation of those reluctant to speak, perhaps because of hearing or speech impairments or because the language used was not their first language.

Dr. Sunder selected a flexible curriculum, using textbooks and other curriculum materials that address the needs of students with diverse abilities, interests, learning styles, and other characteristics. He ensured that curriculum materials were well organized, emphasized important points, provided references for gaining background knowledge, and had study questions and/or practice exercises, chapter outlines, comprehensive indexes, and glossaries. He used computer-based materials that provide prompting, regular feedback, opportunities for multiple levels of practice, and access to background information, vocabulary and other supports based on student responses.

Dr. Sunder put learning in context. He provided multiple examples of specific concepts to make them relevant to individuals with diverse characteristics with respect to age, ability, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, interests, and other characteristics. He used large visual aids, tactile models, and other manipulatives to demonstrate content. Dr. Sunder provided cognitive supports-summaries of major points; background and contextual information; effective prompting; scaffolding tools, such as outlines, class notes, summaries, study guides, copies of projected materials with room for note-taking; and other academic supports. He delivered these materials in printed form and in a text-based, accessible format on his course website.

Dr. Sunder delivered lab instructions clearly and in both oral and print form. He asked for questions and had students repeat lab directions to ensure understanding.

Information Resources and Technology

Dr. Sunder took steps to ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources were designed to be intuitive, flexible, and available in formats accessible to all students. With the help of campus and community services, he made sure that all materials could be provided in accessible formats. He chose printed materials and prepared a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the class began and to allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats-such as books on tape, in braille, or in electronic format-which can take a long time. He provided the course syllabus and other materials he created in a text-based, accessible format on his course website and otherwise assured that this website was accessible by applying the World Wide Web Consortium's Accessibility Guidelines (http://www.w3.org/WAI/). He used captioned videos.

Dr. Sunder accommodated a wide variety of reading levels and language skills by presenting his course content in a logical, straightforward manner and in an order that reflected relative levels of importance. He avoided unnecessary jargon and complexity.


Dr. Sunder encouraged interactions with him and between students and ensured that communication methods were accessible to all participants. He made sure that sign language interpreters were available to deaf students. He faced the class, spoke clearly and made eye contact with students. He used straightforward language and minimized unnecessary jargon and complexity in in-person and online communications. He responded to online communication in a timely manner and encouraged students to visit him during office hours. ?

He encouraged different ways for students to interact with each other through in-class questions and discussion, small group work, and Internet-based communications. He required that all learners assume active, but possibly different, roles in completing group assignments. Dr. Sunder ensured that interactions were accessible to all participants. For example, he did not allow students to use a telephone conference unless all students expected to participate could participate given their abilities to hear, speak, and meet the schedule requirements.


Dr. Sunder provided specific feedback to individual students on a regular basis as well as corrective opportunities. For example, he allowed students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project was due. He gave students resubmission options to correct errors in some assignments and exams.


Dr. Sunder created a straightforward and comprehensive grading rubric. His syllabus included clear statements of course expectations; descriptions of assignments; assignment deadlines, expectations of students; and assessment methods, schedule, and grading scale. He used a pretest to assess background knowledge of students and adjusted his instructional content, student resources, and methods based on this information. He regularly, informally assessed progress through responses from students in class and, more formally, through frequent, short exams. ?Dr. Sunder assessed student progress by using multiple, accessible methods and tools and adjusted his instruction accordingly.

Dr. Sunder kept academic standards consistent for all students, even for those who required accommodations because of a disability. He tested in ways similar to ways in which he presented content and gave assignments and otherwise ensured that tests measured what students learned, rather than their ability to adapt to a new format or style of presentation. He gave students multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge. He used traditional tests with a variety of multiple choice and short answer formats, term papers, group work, demonstrations, and presentations as options for students to demonstrating knowledge. Sometimes he provided students choices in assessment methods. He assessed group/cooperative performance as well as individual achievement.


Before the class began, Dr. Sunder made sure that he knew how to arrange for accommodations for students for whom his instructional design would not fully meet their needs. He learned what services were available to students with disabilities on his campus and community and how arrangements for accommodations were made-e.g., how to get materials in alternate formats, reschedule classroom locations, and arrange for other accommodations.


So, is this "perfect-world" scenario of Dr. Sunders impossible to emulate? Perhaps flexible textbooks are not always available; funding is not always available for adapted computers and lab equipment; there is not enough time to create academic support materials; adequate services for students with disabilities are not always provided on campus or in the community. This may be true, but even one step toward an ideal brings us closer to it. The good news about UDI is that many teachers are already applying some of its strategies and that it can be adopted in incremental steps and. UDI is a process as well as a product, and may require a new way of thinking. But the rewards of UDI are great. Its widespread application has the potential for increasing the participation of all citizens in challenging academic and career fields and to enhance these fields with broader perspectives.


The checklist referred to in this article is a working document http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html). To increase its usefulness, send suggestions to sherylb@u.washington.edu. For more information about universal design of instruction, visit The Center for Universal Design in Education (CUDE) at http://www.washington.edu/doit/CUDE/. The content of this article is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education (grant number P333A050064). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the United States Federal Government, and you should not assume their endorsement.


Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler directs DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) and Accessible Technology of UW Technology Services at the University of Washington in Seattle. DO-IT promotes the success of students with disabilities in postsecondary programs and careers. Dr. Burgstahler is an affiliate associate professor in education and has written many books and articles on the application of universal design to educational settings. http://staff.washington.edu/sherylb/

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