Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Universal Design

students and professor working on a design projectUniversal Design Overview

There’s a great deal of interest within higher education in general, and KU in particular, that we offer our full range of programs to all capable students. Further, it’s not enough that we offer them, but we want very much to see that students succeed in those programs, regardless of background or identified needs.

Most faculty members are familiar with letters provided by identified students that specify accommodations for their special needs. An emerging understanding about these accommodations is that many of them are valuable enhancements in the way we teach that would benefit all learners. Instead of seeing them as disruptions or details to be worried about, some faculty members have added these ways of teaching into their courses for all students, resulting in greater success all around. This observation is the central idea in what’s known as Universal Design.

Universal design (UD) is a concept embraced by various groups: architects, special educators, AARP, and technologists, to name a few. Ron Mace, who coined the term, defined it 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 intent of UD is to simplify life for everyone. Making products, communications and the built environment usable at little or no extra cost benefits people of all ages and abilities. Some of the impetus for UD was to avoid unsightly add-on architectural fixes for inaccessible buildings, but in the long run people have come to see that enhanced access built into any activity makes life better for us all.

An instructive example

We all know the expression “It’s not rocket science,” which suggests that rocket science is really hard to understand. Physics teachers have been engaged in decades of research to make it possible for more people to succeed in studying their field. Some of that concern came because certain categories of students were failing physics at much higher rates than other students. The idea was to see if there were different ways to teach physics, while still holding the same rigorous standards of achievement, that would bring all students up to comparable levels of success. For example, women and students of color had historically higher rates of failure in introductory physics (as much as six times higher) than the overall average for college students. Is there a way to teach physics that eliminates those differences?

Many methods have been tried successfully, but one example is especially interesting. It’s called Studio Physics, pioneered by Robert Beichner of North Carolina State University, and it’s a very hands on, inductive approach to teaching. Instead of sitting in lecture halls taking notes, students work in groups at round tables solving problems with materials right in front of them. It is VERY carefully constructed, not just random hanging out, and the professor and TAs are available for questions, consultation, and mini-lectures. They use the SAME exams as the traditional lecture courses, not a substitute criterion for knowledge, and students in studio classes do as well as or better than students in conventional courses. Most importantly, failure rates among women and students of color were lowered such that they were now indistinguishable from the overall student population.

It’s a classic example of universal design; there was an access problem for some students, the whole course was redesigned, and everyone benefited. This method is used in many places, ranging from highly selective MIT to community colleges. Beichner examined lots of evidence to see who benefited the most from having this “accommodation” form of teaching designed to help students who could not do rocket science. Overall the group whose understanding of physics was improved the most were the top third of physics students at MIT. Their gains were the largest.


No one expects most KU teachers to undertake massive research or redesign projects like the one at NCSU. We do hope that you’ll take advantage of the diverse learners you encounter to keep your methods as accessible as possible. This will include accommodating special needs for individual students, and perhaps asking yourself whether all students might learn better if you taught them as you teach/measure accommodated students.

Your first responsibility is to make accommodations requested for individual students in your classes; that’s federal law and common courtesy. Beyond that, however, each new student gives you an opportunity to ask about your own practices. Are there ways that you could enhance the learning for your students? We often most enjoy teaching honors students or other students who are most like we were during our education years; these are people who learn easily and quickly from abstract texts, who are prepared to learn from conceptual lectures, and whose intrinsic interest in learning requires little motivation. However, students who are more challenging to teach can motivate us to extend our teaching practices so that we can have a broader impact upon the entire student population.

^Back to top^

professor lecturingUniversal Design Process

  1. Select the course, goals and overall content to which you wish to apply universal design.
  2. Define the “universe,” the group of students who may enroll in your course. Identify potential diversity within the group: gender, age, size, ethnicity/race, native language, and abilities to see, hear, move and manipulate objects, and learn.
  3. Apply UD and standards for good practice to the overall design of instruction (e.g., choose lecture, discussion, cases, online notes and models for delivering a specific topic to maximize learning for students with the wide variety of characteristics identified above).
  4. Apply UD to specific instructional methods and curriculum materials (e.g., assure that the course Web site meets accessibility guidelines).
  5. Develop processes to address accommodation needs of specific students with disabilities for whom the course design does not automatically provide access (e.g., refer students who need sign language interpreters to Disability Resources).
  6. Monitor effectiveness of instruction by gathering feedback from student participation and learning; make modifications based on this feedback. Also include UD questions in the course evaluation and make modifications based on it (Burgstahler 2007).

^Back to top^

student and professor discussing a musical pieceUniversal Design Strategies

  1. Class climate. Reflect high values with respect to diversity and inclusiveness. Invite students to discuss accommodations or other learning needs.
  2. Access, usability and safety. Ensure that activities, materials and equipment are usable by all students and that all student characteristics are addressed regarding safety. Develop safety procedures for all students; label equipment simply, in large print; repeat printed directions orally.
  3. Delivery. Vary methods of instruction. Use multiple modes to deliver content and engage students—lectures, collaborative learning, hands-on activities, etc.
  4. Information resources. Ensure that course materials are accessible. Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students to start readings and assignments before class begins and to allow time to arrange alternate formats.
  5. Interaction. Encourage interactions between students and instructor and among students; ensure that communication methods are accessible. Assign group work for which learners support each other and that values different skills and roles.
  6. Feedback. Provide feedback regularly. Allow students to get feedback on parts of big projects before the final is due.
  7. Assessment. Regularly assess progress with multiple methods; adjust instruction accordingly.
  8. Accommodation. Know how to get materials in alternate formats, reschedule classrooms and arrange other accommodations for students with disabilities (Burgstahler 2007).

Bruce B. Frey, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Research in Education, and graduate student Justin P. Allen prepared a scoring rubric that can be used by faculty members as a way to create exams that follow principals of universal design. For additional information, see this brief overview of their work and the universal test design rubrics (pdf).

^Back to top^