Implementing Universal Design of Instruction into Your Classroom

Author: Brenda Christensen (Access Coordinator, Access Resource Centre)


Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) is rooted in the concept of Universal Design (UD). UD has been defined by North Carolina State University’s Centre for Universal Design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (The Center for Universal Design, 1997). From this starting point, the designers at North Carolina developed seven principles of UD as underlying guidelines to apply to past, present and future design disciplines:

  1. Equitable use.
  2. Flexibility in use.
  3. Simple and intuitive use.
  4. Perceptible information.
  5. Tolerance for error.
  6. Low physical effort.
  7. Size and space for approach and use (The Center for Universal Design, 1997).

The concept of UDI incorporates these seven principles of UD as themes and standards within the realm of education and, more specifically, within the instructional approaches taken by educators (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008).


As you may be aware, there are an increasing number of students with diverse backgrounds and needs who are considering or accessing post-secondary education. These learners potentially possess a large number of distinct characteristics:

  • Underprepared students
  • Students with differing academic abilities and learning styles
  • Single parents
  • Working students
  • Mature students
  • Students from varied cultural backgrounds including those whose first language is not English (ESL)
  • Students with visible and/or invisible disabilities (permanent and/or temporary)
  • Any combination of the above!

The increasing diversity of student characteristics seen at post-secondary is requiring instructors to utilize a greater number of instructional strategies than were necessary when teaching to the “average” student of the past. As an instructor, it may be necessary to “cast your web wider” and fill your tool kit with multi-modal teaching methods aimed at “capturing” the interests of all your students.

”The goal of UDI is to maximize the learning of students with a wide range of characteristics by applying UD principles to all aspects of instruction [e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, and assessments] (Burgstahler, 2007).”


Build a class environment that is inclusive and culturally safe:

  • set clear expectations for class conduct
    • model respectful behavior
      • students are more apt to be respectful if the behavior is mutually reciprocated
    • agree to etiquette on appropriate language used within the classroom
    • establish rules for class discussions such as time limits per question (one or two minutes) as well as the number of questions asked (one or two per student) so that all students have an opportunity to participate in class discussions
    • require that cell-phones be turned off or set to silent mode during class time
    • demonstrate your receptiveness to diversity
      • encourage students to be respectful of differing opinions, cultures and abilities
      • add an inclusive statement in your syllabus about your willingness to meet with students with disabilities (see suggestion below)

* Suggested UNBC course syllabus inclusion statement: “If there are students in this course who, because of a disability, may have a need for special academic accommodations, please come and discuss this with me, or contact staff at the Access Resource Centre ( located in the Teaching and Learning Centre, Room 10-1048 on the main campus. Students can also call the ARC at (250) 960-5682. Regional students can call the Centre toll-free at 1(888) 960-5682.”

Be open, approachable and easily accessible to your students:

  • ensure you make yourself available for office hours and/or appointments
    • students are likely to come to you for assistance if they know you are willing to make time to see them
    • ensure your office is physically accessible to all students
  • encourage your students to come to you with questions
    • students who see their instructors as interested and engaged will see the value in approaching them to clarify confusing or difficult course content

Make sure your classroom and learning materials are accessible to all students:

  • provide a physical space that all students can access
    • ensure the room can accommodate a wheelchair
    • use a microphone to amplify your voice
      • students who are hard-of-hearing may request that you also wear an FM microphone so that they can hear what you are saying
    • check that the chairs and desks are adequate size to fit all students
    • PowerPoint slides and overheads should be visible from the back of the room
  • provide learning materials in multiple formats
  • offer your syllabus in print and electronic copy to students
  • be prepared to describe any visual elements of your lecture materials if they are relevant to essential course components – this step is essential to ensure that students with visual impairments or auditory learners have access to important content
    • add descriptive alternative text to electronic pictures and images used for PowerPoint slides or on Blackboard – if you are unsure of the steps required to complete this process, contact Access Resource Centre staff for more information
  • ensure you order all videos with closed or open captions for students who are deaf/hard of hearing or ESL students
  • ask publishers if they provide electronic formats of your textbook for students who use screen readers to access printed materials; if they don’t, consider switching to a different textbook or publisher
  • provide clear learning outcomes in your syllabus
    • ensure your instructions are easily understood by all students
      • some students can quickly become overwhelmed by course outlines that are poorly organized or are too complicated to understand
  • be sure to follow up on students’ understanding of course expectations throughout the semester
  • provide students with frequent and timely feedback regarding academic performance
    • some students will succeed better when assignments are broken up into smaller manageable tasks; supplying advice and comments at each stage of the project will help students to improve their assignment as well as assist in scaffolding your key learning objectives
  • provide a summary of your lecture to students prior to the start of each class
    • attending students will be able to supplement the key points with the additional information learned in class; as well as focus more effectively on the lecture instead of frantically trying to write down everything that they hear – remember students are ultimately responsible for making choices about going to class, hopefully, if they are engaged, attendance concerns will be a moot point

Be creative and flexible:

  • use a variety of instructional methods to encompass the diverse student abilities and learning styles within the classroom
    • use multi-modal means of representation, expression and engagement (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008)
      • use interactive classroom activities that allow for varying types of knowledge expression and engagement
      • provide concrete and real-world examples that are relative to your student audience
  • allow for multiple assessment options
    • give students a choice between a paper or a presentation
    • permit students to work in a group or on their own – this option is particularly important for students with Asperger’s
    • allow alternatives options for class participation – let quieter students send discussion questions via email or Blackboard – you can compile the list and answer them as a group in your next class without putting these students on the spot (this strategy is particularly useful for students who process information more slowly, for anxious students, ESL students or students who may have vocal impairments)
    • give plenty of time for exam completion – if it takes you 20 minutes to complete your exam, give students at least three times as long
    • write tests that include a variety of assessment types such as multiple choice, definitions, short and long answers – weigh them equally


All students need to learn how to take responsibility for the role they play in their own learning experiences. The principles of UDI can help facilitate this process for students. Instructors who are open, approachable and engaged will naturally model the positive attributes they want students to develop within themselves. Academic engagement does not necessarily have to translate to “fun”; rather the term “academic engagement” suggests that an individual or group of individuals (i.e. students, instructors) will be invested or participate together in a learning experience with a goal of gaining greater knowledge. With this in mind, be passionate about what you teach and mindful of your own academic journey within higher education (what experiences worked better, who inspired you and why?); perhaps, you will be the catalyst for sparking one of your students’ academic interests.


The provision of access and accommodation for students with disabilities is a shared responsibility among students, faculty, staff and administration. Instructors play a vital role in the accommodation process for students with disabilities at UNBC. The team at the ARC is responsible for the coordination and implementation of accommodations for students with disabilities.

For additional information regarding universal design strategies within the classroom or questions about accommodating students with disabilities, please contact ARC staff:

Access Resource Centre
Room: TAL 10-1048 (on the main floor of the Teaching and Learning Building)
Phone: (250) 960-5682 or 1-888-960-5682

This document was summarized by Brenda Christensen (Access Coordinator) with collaboration from Dave Barck (Access Assistant) and Susan Morash (Assess Office Assistant).


Burgstahler, S. E. (2007). A checklist for inclusive teaching. Seattle, WA: University of Washington. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from

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

The Center for Universal Design (1997). The principles of universal design, version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from