Shifting Focus

Universal Design for Learning: Shifting Focus

“Think about students being of different readiness, of different interests, of different ability levels. Think about how you can capture those different dynamic features of each student in a meaningful authentic way so that the learning feels powerful.”

– David Hoida (Centennial College & McGill University)

A Shift in Thinking

In order to create optimal learning conditions for the variety of students in the current post-secondary context, it is important to understand how aspects of design in curriculum, instruction, materials, and assessment, interact with the varied characteristics of students, to create barriers. In order to effectively use the UDL framework, a shift in thinking is necessary.  Moving away from the notion that individual students create barriers to learning is the most vital change needed to move toward engaging with the UDL framework.  Often curriculum is designed around the average learner, using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.  Although this may work for some, it will not work for others, nor is it optimal for any. Designing specifically for the average, is similar to designing for no one.

“I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of an educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.”

– Todd Rose


In order to address learner variability, an ideal curriculum is designed with flexibility in mind:

  • flexibility in how students engage with the content
  • flexibility in information presentation
  • flexibility in how students navigate and respond in the environment

Addressing Barriers and Valuing People

  • UDL is based upon the belief that learner variability is the norm. A core tenet being that each student’s learning profile is as individual as his or her fingerprint. This variability and diversity can come in the form of gender differences, cognitive processing speeds, first language, race and cultural background, disability, etc.
  • Movement away from a student needing to ‘fit’ the learning environment, which may or may not have been designed intentionally for an average student in a particular discipline. The change occurs when a learning environment is designed proactively to facilitate access to all course materials, instruction, engagement activities, and evaluations, regardless of learner variability.
  • Identifying potential barriers which students may encounter as they interact with all elements of the course learning environment, and engaging with tools to adjust the environment, rather than requiring the student to adjust via accommodation.