UDL at The University of Sydney

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a well established concept, but implementation remains at the edges of teaching. A large body of literature researching how to do it is useful but many education systems still treat it as “special” learning especially in schools. But there is some movement on UDL at The University of Sydney.

UDL follows the same concept of universal design found in other disciplines. It is about creating inclusive learning environments, tools, and activities. And in the same way that universal design benefits everyone, UDL does the same.

Two pairs of women sit at a table with paper and pens. One of the pair looks to be explaining something to the other.

There seems to be a little more progress for UDL in higher education where students are adults rather than children. The right to an education becomes more evident at this level and UDL is a good way to create inclusive leaning for everyone. But it does require a change in mindset.

The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) is a good resource for the tertiary education sector. Their one hour webinar on implementing UDL at The University of Sydney tells an interesting story.

Presenter, Sarah Humphreys, introduces the significance of UDL and how she established a pilot project in 2021 at the University of Sydney. The pilot, “Designing for Diversity” focused on one academic and one unit of study. Part of the process was developing relationships with stakeholders to find a common language to support a shift in mindset.

Sarah Humphries provides examples of the evaluation processes to illustrate how the iterative process worked and generated resources. The UDL is still in its early phase because the focus is not to prescribe or standardise how UDL is used. It is more about a cultural change over time.

The title of the ADCET webinar is, Implementing Universal Design for Learning at the University of Sydney – Lessons Learned and Scaling Strategies. It is available on the ADCET website or on YouTube below.

Research in clear language

The Plain Language Movement is supported by information makers and providers who want more people to read their content. Dense academic language meant for other academics is frustrating for others wanting to learn more. So, it is time for clear language now that more universities are producing open access articles.

“… the plain language movement is rooted in the ideal of an inclusive society… ” Language is not for those with social privilege.

An empty page in a notebook with a pencil and sharpener. Doing plain language is a process

Plain language summaries are a good start and sometimes a requirement of research funding. These summaries are often shown as four or five short bullet points before the academic abstract. And now we have a new acronym: Knowledge Mobilization (KMb). The requirement for plain language summaries has given rise to yet another area of research.

Sasha Gaylie at the University of British Columbia explains more about this in her article Clear Language Description. There is a little confusion whether plain language and clear language are the same things. Consequently, there is a move to create an international standard.

The International Plain Language Federation defines plain language as “wording, structure, and design are so clear that readers can easily find what they need”. Easy Read, Easy English or Easy Language, which is for a specific group of readers, is not the same thing. It’s good to see universal design in language as a relatively new frontier in inclusive practice.

Gaylie lists five focus areas for that offer a structure for grouping individual recommendations briefly listed here:

  • Audience: The benchmark is 8th grade reading level.
  • Structure: The most important information should appear first.
  • Design: White space and headers to break up text, and also helps screen readers.
  • Expression: Use an active voice and avoid jargon.
  • Evaluation: Peer review by a non-expert for best feedback.
A blank page of a spiral notebook and and fountain pen.

Inclusive descriptions

This is a growing area of language. Words can hurt and harm. We already see how language has changed when we look at old texts. For example the use of “man” and “he” when meaning all humans.

“A term need not be intentionally harmful to cause harm; the act of description is not neutral, and even when using the “plainest” of language, inherent bias affects output.”

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalities

Sasha Gaylie’s article concludes with a practical guide based on the five focus pointed mentioned earlier.

From the Editor: Writing in plain language is a skill-set that challenges a writer to think really carefully about what they want the reader to know. It is not about what the writer wants to say. Doing plain language is a process. Writing complex ideas in a straightforward way takes time and effort. And it also makes me think about my relationship to the topic.

Law schools and universal design

Aerial view of a large public library with long desks around a central console. Law schools teach law and introduce the values that students take into the legal profession. Unless law schools embrace universal design, they will continue to be inequitable and pose barriers to people who might be good lawyers. This is the basis of an article by Matthew Timko where he says the place to introduce universal design is through law libraries.

Timko says the law library is the ideal testing ground for changes that assist student comprehension and testing. Beginning with the library services, the value of universal design will gradually become apparent to all stakeholders. From there it will enter the legal academy, legal education process and legal profession.

Timko uses the 7 Principles of Universal design as the framework for his proposition. This shows how flexibly the principles can be applied. He then discusses the role of disability legislation in the United States and the supports available. 

Photo of the sign on the grey stone building of The Royal Courts of Justice. Ethical and professional standards provide another opportunity to support individuals. Timko argues that most accommodations pose menial burdens on institutions but provide great benefit to individuals. However, they need to be provided as a general rule, not just when they are asked for. This is the underlying tenet of universal design for learning. 

The article goes into more detail about the role of legislation and how it should apply to law schools. In the conclusion, Timko states:

“Universal design offers the key to not only increased access to legal education and legal knowledge but also a more fundamental shift in the perceptions and thinking that have plagued disability laws and design habits over the last 30 years.”

The types of universal design features discussed can be introduced into the law library gradually and in cost-effective ways. 

The title of the article is, Applying Universal Design in the Legal Academy

From the editor

I was invited to participate in a question and answer interview for the Law Society Journal with Features Editor, Avril Janks. I was encouraged to find that universal design has entered the realms of the legal profession and happy to participate. 

We discussed universal design broadly and then how it might be implemented in legal workplaces. Universal design can be applied to the office design, office systems, and employment practice. So plenty of scope for the profession to be more inclusive. If you want to read the article published in the March 2023 edition, contact journal@lawsociety.com.au 

Jane Bringolf

Time for the majority to step up for inclusion

Promoting the concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging often falls to members of minority groups – people who are not included. But it’s actually up to members of the majority to step up for inclusion and get involved in DEIB.

A mosaic of many different faces and nationalities

Cody J Smith’s article lists 10 actions people in the majority can do to improve DEIB. He writes in the context of the sciences, but these actions apply anywhere. His ten actions are briefly listed below. It’s interesting that Smith has added “belonging” to today’s standard “DEI”. Belonging is how you feel when DEI is happening.

10 actions for inclusion

1. Listen to people’s experiences. Read the growing literature by people from underrepresented groups. If you are in the majority, what can you do to improve matters.
2. Check your implicit biases. Implicit bias is rampant in awards, publications, promotions and speaker selection.
3. Stop interrupting. Take time to watch the dynamics of meeting. If you identify someone overly interrupting, invite the person who was speaking to finish their point.
4. As you take a lead to impact DEIB, you will make mistakes. As in science, learn from them and adapt until you find a solution.
5. People from minority groups are often asked to take on additional responsibilities to represent their minority group. This extra work should be compensated rather than asking them to sign up for “the greater good”.
6. Those in the majority can wait for change, but that is not the case for those in the minority. Start working on solutions for immediate change.
7. Get in the room. Make an effort to attend DEIB events and encourage others in the majority to attend. Be careful to schedule non DEIB events so they don’t conflict with DEIB events.
8. Train others to advocate – start discussions and share literature.
9. Include DEIB in the classroom/staff meetings – is your work inclusive?
10. Find a DEIB champion. Smith explains the impact of Ben Barres who was the first openly transgender member of the National Academy of Sciences. Barres shares experiences of being both a woman and a man, and the impact of sexual harassment.

Learn from discomfort

The ten points are in the context of a science lecturer and researcher but the points are clear. Smith encourages people to “lean into any discomfort” you might experience – it will be how you learn – if you listen. For more detail see Smith’s article.

The main point though is that without the majority taking a lead, the minority cannot do it alone. After all, it is the majority who decide whether “others” will be included, feel validated and like they belong.

The title of the short article is, Members of the majority need to actively promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Making sure everyone can hear

According to Deafness Forum Australia, approximately one in six Australians has a significant hearing loss. Participants of any age in any learning situation might need some assistance to get the best learning experience. It could be a Zoom webinar or lecture, an in-person conference, or a roundtable discussion. The important point is, make sure everyone can hear.

Assistance can be as simple as sitting at the front of a lecture or presentation where lip reading can assist comprehension. Or it could be more complex with assistive listening devices and live captioning. Microphones also have a place as does minimal background noise.

Picture of an ear with sound waves

Most people lose their hearing after they have learned to speak, so they don’t learn Auslan (sign language). However, always check whether one of you participants or learners needs an Auslan interpreter. People who use Auslan often prefer to be referred to as Deaf rather than hard of hearing.

The ADCET website has more information on the impact of hearing loss. Although it is focused on school learners, much of the information is applicable in any learning or information sharing situation.

ADCET strategies for including people with hearing loss include:

  • Always speak facing the audience
  • Provide written materials to supplement lectures
  • Caption videos and provide a transcript
  • Keep hands away from your face
  • Choose venues with a working hearing loop or assistive listening devices
Adults seated at tables in a classroom setting looking forward to the instructor at the front of the room

Supporting participants online

COVID changed almost everything including being together in learning situations. In July 2020 ADCET surveyed disability practitioners from the tertiary sector to find out how this impacted their work. The result of this work was to develop a guideline for supporting Deaf and hard of hearing learners online.

Download the Guidelines from the ADCET website. They have specific instructions for using captions and transcripts and the different web applications that help the learning process. The free automatic AI captioning works adequately most of the time on Zoom. It can be activated in the settings.

The video below explains more.

Learning Styles: Not the same as UDL

If you’ve attended a personal or professional development workshop in the last 30 years you’ve probably heard of learning styles. It’s supposed to help you understand your own style to be a “better learner”. And teachers and instructors design their courses based on these learning styles.

Although this model is thoroughly challenged by research, it is still being promoted. Teachers and instructors believe they will design and deliver better learning experiences. However this is not the case.

A blog article, Learning styles: the limiting power of labels talks about debunking the myths around this topic. The process of labelling is discussed and once you or someone else assigns a label to you it becomes fixed. It becomes the background to your self-talk. It might even hold you back from wanting to learn more or apply for a job. Learning is much more than this and it is affected by our own attitudes. This is a thoughtful article for everyone, not just learners and teachers. And easy to read.

Universal Design for Learning is not learning styles 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a better way to consider the way people learn in all its diversity. A blog article, Universal Design for Learning is Not Learning Styles explains. 

As the article above states, UDL is is not the same as learning styles. It’s been debunked because it doesn’t have supporting evidence. In contrast, research on UDL has been widely replicated and grounded in learning sciences, neuroscience, and cognitive science. And it’s not just for learners with a learning difficulty – it’s good for all learners just like kerb cuts help everyone. 

Implementing UDL could help learners who cannot keep up with their peers, or have some learning disabilities. UDL does not just provide accessibility, but it eliminates barriers so every learner can succeed. Extensive research shows that the use of UDL supports strategic learning and enhance learners’ learning experience. CAST is a lead organisation in the field of UDL – it has many resources and frameworks for teachers and instructors. The video below gives an overview. 

See also the post on the myth of learning styles.  

UDL supports Indigenous culture

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) fits well with Indigenous ways of teaching and learning. That’s what Liz Stone discusses in a podcast – how UDL supports Indigenous culture. Liz is a woman from Turtle Island – the name that the Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking people call the north-eastern part of North America.

A bright yellow background with the words Think UDL.

The cultural iceberg – the feelings we can see at the top. What you can’t see is much bigger: the cultural beliefs, knowledge, and ways of being. They impact the way we learn.

Liz tells the story of when she was hired to provide Indigenous input to academic teaching. She found herself in a team who were using UDL principles in their teaching methods. This was a nice surprise because Indigenous ways of teaching are very similar. She says both are about meeting people where they are and making sure nobody gets left behind.

UDL is often only associated with disability and accessibility, but it is much more than that. Liz found that people with disability experience the same oppression as Indigenous people. Indigenous learning, knowledge ability is minimised similarly to people with disability.

After interacting and learning from the team Liz was set to teach her first class. She felt competent in the role. That was until she saw a student walking towards her who was blind. That was when she realised she had focused on visual content – another learning experience for her. With relief the student walked on to the next class.

UDL disrupts teaching culture

UDL disrupts the culture of academia by offering lots of options and valuing different things. It isn’t just for the classroom either or the written word. It should be looked at when we build our institutions and at times of crisis like COVID. Liz asks “Why aren’t we looking at Universal Design for Learning when we are creating contingency plans for example?”

If we don’t recognise the diversity of UDL and argue there is only one right way, we fall into Western ways of doing things again. Communities differ in the way they live and learn. So there is no one right UDL method.

The hour-long podcast has a transcript, which isn’t perfect because it is auto-generated. There is a long introduction before getting to the UDL content and discussion. It’s a refreshing take on UDL and how closely it links with Indigenous ways of living and learning.

The title of the podcast is Supporting Indigenous Culture with Liz Stone. There are links to other resources for teachers.

This website has a section on Universal Design for Learning where you can find out more.

Student insights into teaching methods

Graphic of first page of an AHEAD video. Student insights into teaching and learning.Much has been written about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the benefits for a broad range of students. The concept is based on teaching methods that allow for different ways of learning. Some students are visual, some like discussion, some like an enthusiastic lecturer and written material. But rarely to we get student insights into teaching methods. 

Using video is one way to engage learners whether they be new students or teachers wanting to improve their skills. The video below is from Ireland where 11 higher education students answer four questions:

      • What kind of learner are you and how do you learn best?
      • What do they think of the standard lecture format and how do they prefer to be taught?
      • We asked them about the traditional exam format and what types of assessment worked for them.
      • What is one piece of advice you can give to academics to help them improve their teaching and learning practice?

See their interesting answers in the video below. 

The website with the video has more information about UDL and how to apply it. It’s part of a lecture series by AHEAD, and there is a section for people who work in education with written and video material.

The CUDA website has a whole section devoted to UDL. The graphic below shows the three pillars of UDL. 

The three pillars of UDL graphic. Multiple means of Engagement, Representation, and Expression.


Universal Design for Learning and Teaching

A group of five students cluster around a computer screen. They look as if they are seeing something important. Universal Design for Learning and Teaching.People have different ways of learning and cultural background can influence a person’s approach to learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is usually associated with school children with learning difficulties. But it is much more than this. Difficulties with learning can also be attributed to teaching methods. Consequently, we need universal design for learning and teaching. 

A good description of UDL is in the Ahead Journal article by Kevin Merry titled, Universal Design for Learning – It’s Just Good Teaching

“UDL is an approach that incorporates a variety of options to allow it to be accessible and inclusive to diverse groups of students possessing a wide variety of learning needs and preferences”. 

Merry discusses both cultural differences and disability and lists the three pillars of UDL. The aim of UDL is to create expert learners who are motivated and goal-orientated.  Merry proposes a Cheese Sandwich analogy. 

The Cheese Sandwich

Merry created the Cheese Sandwich approach to supporting learning. It is a process “that helps students to become expert learners by supporting their mastery over each of the cognitive skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1968).”

Diagram of Blooms Taxonomy, cognitive skills - Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation
zoom Figure 1. Bloom’s Taxonomy

The cheese is the contact time with teachers and the slices of bread are the times spent learning independently. Teacher contact time includes peer support and application of higher order skills and collaborative learning. 

In the slices of bread time, students consolidate their knowledge and understanding. 

Merry explains that UDL was initially focused on classroom-based practice where modifications were made to existing methods. But there is a case for creating universal teaching, not just learning. His article goes on to explain the CUTLAS approach. CUTLAS is Creating Universal Teaching, Learning and Assessment Strategies and the article describes this in some detail. 

This website has a section on Universal Design for Learning, and Lizzie’s UDL File has practical ideas. Lizzie provides the basics of the three pillars in the video below.


Incorporating UDL into the curriculum

The word learning in upper case characters.Universal design for learning (UDL) has three pillars: multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. Previous posts have explained these in more detail. But how does that work out in practice? It’s one thing to talk and read about it. It’s another to actually incorporate UDL into the curriculum. An article in the Learning Innovation Exchange spells it out. 

Christina Galliou has devised a checklist based on the three pillars. She links usual practice to alternatives with particular relevance to online learning. Many of the alternatives are easy to achieve such as providing documents in Word format as well as PDF. 

Multiple means of representation:

Usual practice Alternatives
audios transcripts and visuals
file types for editing provide Word versions
information in one language tools for vocabulary, dictionaries
limited supply of background knowledge concept maps to make connections, bridge concepts

Multiple means of action and expression:

Usual practice

use assistive technologies


alternative keyboards, voice control, text to speech (vice versa) 

use multiple media text, audio, graphics, videos, interactive web tools
provide support in learning strategy development prompts, guides, checklists, planning templates
customised feedback progress charts, hints and cues
flexible assessment, self assessment strategies review, peer feedback, role playing, checklists, rubrics

Multiple means of engagement:

Usual practice Alternatives
purpose of lesson is clear to learner provide learning objectives
capture learner interest relevant material, real world examples
foster self-regulation rubrics, checklists, reflection
maintain effort and persistence scaffolds, group work, differentiated degree of difficulty in activities.

The title of the article is, Applying Universal Design for Learning. The focus is on creating an inclusive online educational environment. However, the principles apply to all learning situations and all age groups. The website has more articles on learning including Designing the ‘experience’ not the lecture

The three pillars

CAST UDL guidelines graphic is a quick reference guide to the three pillars. Click on the picture to download the chart. CAST UDL guide of three pillars.

There is more on UDL in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. 

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