Does Universal Design for Learning turns science upside down?

Lately I received a couple of questions about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), as it gaining popularity in the region I live.

A little introduction from Wikipedia if you’ve never heard about it:

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.

Recognizing that the way individuals learn can be unique, the UDL framework, first defined by the Center for Applied Special Technology(CAST) in the 1990s, calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know, and
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn

But even on the Wikipedia-page, when looking at research, you can read this:

Despite the popularity of UDL among educators and disability support professionals, little research has been conducted to evaluate its effectiveness as a model of good pedagogy. However, a number of studies have appeared in recent years, providing preliminary data in support of this instructional model. For example, a recent study at Colorado State University found “recognizable changes in instructor behavior” from only a few hours of training in UDL principles and teaching practices. The same study described the creation of a research questionnaire for students and instructors, based on UDL’s three principles.

If you go to the website of UDL-center to look for research, adding evidence, you can notice something strange.

There is a large list of research, but is it actual research on UDL? Not quite. There is this question listed:

We realize that these lists are not exhaustive; if you are aware of research that is not listed, please be sure to share it with us by following the “Tell us!” link that can be found for each checkpoint. With your help, we hope to keep these lists as up-to-date as possible as new research becomes available.

So we get a basic idea, with a whole bunch of checkpoints and people are asked if you have some possible evidence for such a checkpoint to submit it. I myself would appreciate if the question also to submit evidence if research dismisses the checkpoint, actually. This could get close to cherry picking and seems to turn science upside down.

For instance if you look at the checkpoint “Offer ways of customizing the display of information”, you get a large list of research on this topic, but this research wasn’t necessarily conducted from a UDL point of view. Again this is isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this doesn’t guarantee that the combination in UDL might have the desired effect.  Compare it with Diet Coke and Mentos. If you want to refresh your breath, than Mentos will do. If you want to quench your thirst, for some Diet Coke will do. If you put a Mentos in a bottle of Coke Light, well, you get this (Btw, this is not a so uncommon problem in educational sciences, but most of the time people don’t pretend to be universal).

I’ve been in touch with some researchers on this topic and one of them added something that might be true: it’s very difficult to investigate the effect of such a comprehensive approach. On the other hand, someone raised the question what in fact the real difference is with what a lot of people are actually already trying to do?

Btw, if you examine the texts and sources you’ll see UDL is deeply rooted in social-constructivism, something that also can be a point of discussion to say the least (this is a nice provocative post by Donald Clark about this).

There is also, almost of course, a link to neurology in UDL, check here, with a very basic explanation as starting point:

Recognition Networks

The “what” of learning

Image of a brain with recognition network shown in purple

Strategic Networks

The “how” of learning

Image of a brain with strategic network shown in blue

Affective Networks

The “why” of learning

Image of a brain with affective network shown in green

Although ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are viable questions, you don’t really need the brain to get this, but it looks more convincing, that is true. But in fact, the brain probably isn’t that straightforward and neuro-education still has a long way to go.

At this stage UDL seems more a vision, or maybe even more a kind of ideology. Nothing wrong with that and taking into account that people differ is very legit to me (if you don’t start talking about learning styles), but one could get a different idea when looking through the many pages of scientific references.

If I missed research on the effect of the broad approach (I’ve searched and contacted other researchers), always welcome!

12 thoughts on “Does Universal Design for Learning turns science upside down?

  1. I would like to suggest that you consider attending the UDL-IRN Summit ( in March to meet those who have conducted research and UDL implementation. Here is that information.

    The UDL Implementation Research Network (UDL-IRN) is hosting a summit focusing on UDL implementation and associated research on March 6 & 7th, 2014 at the Johns Hopkins University Columbia Campus, Baltimore, MD (15-20 minutes from the Baltimore Washington Airport). The intent of this summit is to gather practitioners and researchers to discuss the systematic implementation of UDL in pre-school, K-12, and higher education classrooms. The summit will be a unique opportunity to collaborate with a select group of leaders who are actively engaged in UDL implementation efforts.


    1. Thanks for the information, but I won’t be able to attend as being at the other side of the world and not able to travel at that time. Do hope information will be shared?

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