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Creating Inclusive Courses with Universal Design

By Alicia Brandon (Student Accessibility Services) and Adam Nemeroff (Instructional Design)

This post is the first in a series of collaborations between Student Accessibility Services and EdTech where we will explore the role of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) and its role in creating an inclusive classroom environment. In this first post, we will introduce UDI and its principles, frame definitions for each principle, and provide examples of the principles in use.

UDI is a set of principles meant to address the needs of all learners. A classroom that adopts these principles seeks to not only support the needs of students requiring accommodations, but the needs of all learners to allow them to learn at their best. These principles, introduced by Scott, McGuire, and Shaw (2001), are increasingly being embraced by educators across the nation.

The Principles

According to Scott, McGuire, and Shaw (2001), there are nine principles of UDI. The following is a brief overview of each principle:

  1. Equitable use: Accessible and usable by everyone.
  2. Flexibility in use: Accommodated to individual needs with choices provided.
  3. Simple and intuitive: Clear and easily understood regardless of students' experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: Accessible regardless of students’ sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: Anticipates learning pace and prerequisite skills. Instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills.
  6. Low physical effort: Minimizes nonessential physical effort (unless physical effort is integral to the essential requirements of a course).
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Considers physical and sensory access to environment, equipment, tasks.
  8. A community of learners: Promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty.
  9. Instructional climate: Welcoming and inclusive.

In the table below, we include descriptions of the definitions for each principle as well as examples of that principle in use.

Principle Definition Examples
1. Equitable use Instruction is designed to be useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities. Provide the same means of use for all students; identical whenever possible, equivalent when not.
  • Providing students with multiple options to demonstrate mastery of the subject (website design, oral presentations, research papers).
  • Use multiple/alternate sources to explain complex concepts (in print, audio, diagrams/images, easier reading levels).
2. Flexibility in use Instruction is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual abilities. Provide choice in both instructional methods and learning experiences.
  • Use varied instructional methods (mind/concept maps, group activities, projects, outlines) to provide different ways of learning and constructing knowledge.
3. Simple and intuitive Instruction is designed in a straightforward and predictable manner, regardless of the students’ experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  • Provide grading rubrics that clearly explain expectations for assessment performance, papers, or projects; a syllabus with links to reading materials.
  • Simplify information and remove distracting information.
  • Add context around instructional items that includes your purpose for assigning it.
  • Explain to your students how your course is structured.
4. Perceptible information Instruction is designed so that necessary information is communicated effectively to the student, regardless of ambient conditions or the student's sensory abilities.
  • Select reading material and other instructional supports, including websites, that are accessible via screen readers, text formatting, zoom text.
  • Use standard headings and formatting features in both Canvas and Microsoft Word.
  • Include alternative tag (also known as “alt tags”) for information that is visual in nature and inaccessible to screen readers.
  • Use font styles, colors, and sizes that promote readability.
  • Include accurate captions for all time-based audio media.
5. Tolerance for error Instruction anticipates variation in individual student learning pace and prerequisite skills.
  • Share logs of threaded discussions for students to reference over the course of the semester.
  • Provide the option of turning in multiple drafts of an assignment in order for the student to demonstrate his/her learning progress; provisioning of “practice” exercises or tests.
  • Design assessments and evaluations to embrace a growth mindset using tools like learning portfolios.
6. Low physical effort Instruction is designed to minimize nonessential physical effort in order to allow maximum attention to learning. This includes not only the physical efforts but also the energy that goes into cognitive and decoding tasks

Note: This principle does not apply when physical effort is integral to essential requirements of a course.

  • Fostering maximum attention to learning by being aware of screen structure and layout of website features (breaking down a construct into multiple pages with headings).
  • Include clear expectations with your assignments that allow students to see the purpose.
  • Design instructional materials (including videos) to reflect attention spans, varying sensory processing abilities, and varied use.
7. Size and space for approach and use Instruction is designed with consideration for appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulations, and use regardless of a student's body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs.
  • Being aware of diverse communication needs in deciding to incorporate examples and graphics (moderately combine visuals with text).
  • Consider the needs of students who might have hearing, language processing, cultural differences, or other processing approach needs.
8. A community of learners The instructional environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty.
  • Fostering communication among students in and out of class by structuring study groups, discussion groups, project groups, chat rooms.
  • Making a personal connection with students through office hours, video meetings, or phone.
  • Create spaces to allow students to introduce themselves during class and on your Canvas site.
  • Leverage collaborative learning and peer instruction pedagogies.
  • Create opportunities for students to engage with course conversations and materials both inside and outside of class.
9. Instructional climate Instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive. High expectations are espoused for all students.
  • Including a statement in the class syllabus affirming the need for class members to respect diversity in order to establish the expectation of tolerance as well as encourage students to discuss any special learning needs.
  • Highlight diverse thinkers who have made significant contributions to the field.
  • Provide direct feedback on and share innovative approaches developed by students in the class.
  • Establish norms for conversation in the classroom and online.
  • Make explicit any “hidden” expectations of the course.

This table is adapted from Examples of UDI in Online and Blended Courses from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education’s Center for Postsecondary Education and Disability.

This was meant to be a brief introduction to Universal Design for Instruction. In future posts, we will explore topics, tools, and strategies designed to help you to create an inclusive classroom with these principles. Please contact Student Accessibility Services or EdTech if you have questions or would like to explore the topic of Universal Design in your courses.

References and Additional Resources

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 17

Universal Design of Instruction in Postsecondary Education ... (2016). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

Burgstahler, S., & Cory, R. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press.

Universal Design for Instruction in Postsecondary Education. (2012, April 25). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

Scott, S., Shaw, S., & McGuire, J. (in press). Universal Design for Instruction: A new paradigm for adult instruction in postsecondary education. Remedial and Special Education. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

CAST: About Universal Design for Learning. (2015). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

CAST. (2011). UDL Guidelines 2.0 - Organizer with links to examples. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2012). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

UDL-Universe: Universal Design for Learning Professional ... (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2016, from   

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