The WHY and HOW of UDL: Part I of 3


When we talk about Universal Design for Learning, we are talking about techniques to reduce and remove barriers that students of different learning methods or different abilities may face.  We are not approaching this in the same method that we often approach special education or working with students with disabilities – assessing the deficits of a student and then altering our curriculum or our methods for that particular student –  instead we are approaching our lesson from the perspective of making our lessons accessible to all students.  We are embedding methods of instruction, of delivery, of assessment into our curriculum and lesson plans, in order to reduce barriers that any student may face.

Universal Design for Learning, in essence, can reduce the time spent reacting to the individual students whose barriers to learning became evident AFTER the lesson was taught. We, as teachers, can instruct in ways that may make these barriers less evident, thereby being proactive in our teaching; reaching more students in adequate ways, and even improving the learning of those students who with traditional methods of instruction may have learned adequately, but not to the level that they are capable of.

So, how do we approach Universal Design for Learning?  How do we begin to change our way of thinking; individually or systemically?

I recently attended a conference where the opening speaker was Dr. Judy Willis. Dr. Willis is both a neuroscientist (M.D.) and holds a Master’s in Education. And, yes, she has spent time as a teacher in the classroom as well. She presented a pre-conference session entitle “Neuroscience & the Classroom: Strategies for Maximizing Students’ Engagement, Memory and Potentials”.  The research she talked about serves as an excellent reference for “defending” or “supporting” UDL in the classroom.  When we fully understand how the brain learns (and this is fairly new science), we can promote methods of teaching to achieve the best possible outcomes. When we look at the brain and the methods that we gain information (intake) and move it into long term memory and then are able to demonstrate learning (output), we are better prepared to demonstrate the reason why UDL, from a scientific (data) perspective, makes sense.  Sometimes what drives systemic change (administratively, state wide, or at the federal level) is data, research, “proof”.

For instance, we know, as Dr. Willis points out, that the Prefrontal Cortex of the Brain controls the Executive Functioning. (Video of Dr. Willis’ discussion about Executive Function and the 21st Century Learning: ) We also know that this part of the brain is not yet developed in our students (5 – 25). Furthermore, we know that the way that information is obtained and moved to the Pre-Frontal Cortex (long term memory) is through pathways through the Amygdala.  Stress reduces the ability for this pathway to be “clear”.  However, Dopamine, which occurs with pleasure, increases the strength and speed of this pathway (Willis, 2012).

What does this tell us, as teachers?  This tells us that when we find ways to increase the production of dopamine, we can increase learning!  And, what does this have to do with UDL? Well, some of the best ways to increase the production of dopamine in the brain are to create activities for positive interactions with peers, to incorporate music, being read to, humor, choice, movement, predicting, etc. (Willis, 2012)  And, these are all the same concepts employed by UDL!

Let’s look at another example that Willis shared.  Teens love video games! They will play them for hours. They will lose over and over again, and yet they will continue to play. Why is this?  How many times have kids “quit” when they don’t “get” something in school?  How many times have we felt guilty, as teachers, when a student is continually given a reading test, and we KNOW that they struggle with reading and so they are continually, seemingly, given a test knowing they will not do well? First, we know that video games release dopamine in the brain. They provide predictive actions and they provide feedback. They involve the person and they provide just enough attainable challenge that they will continue to play even when they experience failure.  When we look at implementing UDL in the classroom, we can look at what Willis refers to as the Video Game Model, to justify why we need to use strategies of UDL to reach students; to engage students in their own learning, to build intrinsic motivation, to make learning pleasurable, to reduce barriers to education, and to continue to challenge our students to learn to the highest level possible.

For more information on Dr. Willis’ work:

For a quick reference about your brain by Dr. Willis:  What you should know about your brain.


Willis M.D., J. (2012). Neuroscience & the classroom: Strategies for maximizing students’ engagement, memory and potentials. Integrated Learning Conference, November 7, 2012. Available at

Willis, M.D., J (2002). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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  1. The WHY and HOW of UDL: Part I of 3 | Education Dialogue

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