9 UDL in Online Learning – One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Tricia Dwyer-Kuntz


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” (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Recognizing that our classrooms include highly diverse learners – one in five post-secondary students have a disability (Rogers, 2018; Elfein, 2021) – lesson planning needs to be developed from the ground up in a way that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for ALL students.

UDL is a set of principles developed by CAST that provides all individuals with an equal opportunity to learn and thrive by creating learning goals, teaching methods, materials, and assessments that work for all class members. One size does NOT fit all, and therefore, teaching needs to be flexible and customizable to adjust it to accommodate individual needs. The goal of UDL is to adjust the design of the environment, lesson plans, and teaching approach rather than change the learner. By proactively reducing barriers to learning, classroom spaces become fertile grounds empowering learners to grow and reach their maximum potential. Recent studies have shown that students without disabilities benefit from the same strategies that students with disabilities need. (Schreffler et al., 2019; Seok et al., 2018; Thompson & Copeland, 2020). Universal design for learning makes it apparent that what is necessary for a few is good for all. Constantly, we need to address UDL when designing online learning environments.

General Guidelines

Design Principles

UDL was inspired by the universal design (UD) movement in architecture in the 1990s. A group of architects, environmental design researchers, engineers and product designers collaborated to develop a fundamental set of universal design principles, which include (Council for Exceptional Children, 2005):

  • Principle 1 Equitable Use: Equal access for all users.
  • Principle 2 Flexibility in Use: Accommodates a wide range of individual abilities and preferences.
  • Principle 3 Simple and Intuitive: Easy to understand.
  • Principle 4 Perceptible Information: Necessary information is communicated through different modes to reach all users (pictorial, verbal, tactile).
  • Principle 5 Tolerance for Error: The design eliminates the possibility of interpretation errors.
  • Principle 6 Low Physical Effort: Can be used comfortably and efficiently, reducing fatigue.

Differentiated Instruction (DI)

Implementing UDL in the classroom space will help organize instruction and prepare for the teaching of diverse learners. Differentiated instruction (DI) is an instructional method that engages effective teaching practices to provide the flexible, student-centred principles of UDL. Where UDL is the framework, DI is the practice. In a differentiated classroom, “the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs” (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 231).

What Can Educators Differentiate

Differentiation reflects a teacher’s ability to understand where students begin in the context of lesson or course success criteria (Hattie, 2012). Educators can differentiate in four essential areas:

  • Content (The WHAT of learning)
    • Curriculum
    • What the student is expected to learn
    • Materials and/or mechanics through which learning is accomplished
    • Examples:
      • Different vocabulary lists based on student proficiency
      • Use of images/text or audio files to introduce a new concept
  • Process (The HOW of Learning)
    • Design activities to ensure student learning
    • Supports students in making sense of essential ideas and critical information
    • Examples:
      • Provide students with assorted graphic organizers to guide them through the lesson.
      • Allow students to work alone or in groups.
  • Product (How we ASSESS learning)
    • The vehicle by which students demonstrate their learning
    • Evidence of the level of mastery of the content
    • Students should be provided with a choice to support their needs and interests.
    • Examples:
      • Students have the choice of creating an infographic or writing a paragraph.
      • Students can select from teacher-proposed projects – all of which have the same learning goals and success criteria but offer different modes of creation (e.g., poem, rant, digital story, Google Slides presentation).
  • Environment (SETTING – Where learning takes place)
    • The physical environment where a student learns
    • The social/emotional norms of the learning space
    • Examples:
      • Students are given a choice when they will have their cameras on or off.
      • Allow students to move to a break-out room to work independently or in a small group.
      • Create a Discord channel solely for social gatherings.

Critical Features of Differentiated Instruction

  1. Flexible Learning Groups. Students are provided with opportunities to work in various groups that vary throughout the course.
    1. Groupings based on prior assessment.
    2. Takes into account student readiness, interests and learning preferences.
    3. Sometimes determined by the teacher; sometimes determined by the student; sometimes random – depending on the purpose of the activity.
    4. Follows a set of collaborative group norms.
  2. Choice. Students are provided with personalized choices connected to their prior knowledge, interests and learning preferences.
    1. Fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to their learning.
    2. All choices should take the same amount of time to complete.
    3. All choices address the curriculum expectations and learning goals.
    4. The number of choices is reasonable and not overwhelming.
  3. Respectful Tasks. All students are provided with tasks that have high expectations and promote optimal achievement.
    1. Encourages risk-taking.
    2. Develops a sense of security when students see their peers working on tasks equally as challenging as their own.
    3. Requires the students to work at the edge of their current readiness (Vygotsky, 1978).
    4. All tasks are engaging.
  4. Shared Responsibility for Learning.
    1. Students can think and talk about the ways they learn best.
    2. Students can articulate their learning goals.
    3. Students are taught how to self-assess.
    4. Students seek feedback and respond to suggestions.


Activity 1: Choice Boards


A choice board, sometimes referred to as a Tic-Tac-Toe assignment, is a common differentiated instruction structure created to provide students with choice. A choice board can be used as a way for students to choose how they learn or as a way to decide how they will demonstrate their learning. Choice boards address student readiness, interests, and learning preferences and are easily adapted to any level.


  • The teacher creates (or co-creates) nine different lessons or assessment tasks (Figure 1).
  • All tasks have the same learning outcomes and assessment criteria.
  • Tasks are placed on the choice board with a required task (WILD CARD) in the middle.
  • Students choose three tasks, one of which must be the WILD CARD.
  • The student chooses the three tasks.
  • Choice boards can be done individually or in groups.

Figure 1.

Sample Choice Board

Choice 1 Choice 4 Choice 7
Choice 2 Wild card Choice 8
Choice3 Choice 6 Choice 9

Possible Adaptations:

  • Students are assigned tasks based on the roll of digital dice.
  • Assign students to choice boards based on their readiness.
  • Create choice boards based on learning preferences (e.g., one choice board could be all visual tasks).
  • Allow students to complete any three tasks even if they do not complete the tic-tac-toe line.


Activity 2: Cubing


Cubing is a popular differentiated instruction structure that allows students to visualize a concept or idea from six perspectives. Each of the six faces of the cube or die represents a different perspective. Students roll the die or cube and complete the activity that is displayed. The tasks on a single cube can increase in difficulty, or there can be multiple cubes, each with its difficulty level. Cubing addresses student readiness, interests, and learning preferences. It can be easily adapted to any level.


  • The teacher creates (or co-creates) six different prompts per cube used.
  • Each cube focuses on the same learning objectives.
  • The prompts are put onto the face of a digital cube or a digital die, and numbered indexes with corresponding prompts can be used.
  • Students roll the cube and complete the prompt that is displayed.
  • Multiple cubes can be created – each varying in difficulty level or focus. Students can be directed to roll specific cubes based on their readiness, interests or learning preferences.
  • Cubing activities can be done individually or in groups.
  • Example:
    • Side one – Describe it
    • Side two – Compare it
    • Side three – Contrast it
    • Side four – Analyze it
    • Side five – Apply it
    • Side six – Argue for or against it

Possible Adaptations:

  • Students can work with a partner or in a group.
  • Cubes can be created with prompts of different readiness levels (e.g., The green cube could have all the describe it tasks; the red cube the compare it tasks etc.) and students directed to the appropriate cube for their learning needs.


Activity 3: Learning Stations


Learning stations provide different activities in different places (e.g., Break Out Rooms, Google Meets, Discord Channels). Students are not expected to go to each station, but instead, stations are attended only by students who need or are interested in the activities presented. Learning stations address student readiness, interests, and learning preferences. They can be easily adapted to any level.


  • The teacher creates (or co-creates) different instructional tasks for each Learning Station.
  • Learning Stations are located in various locations, and the student must leave the main ‘room’ to work on the tasks (e.g., Break Out Rooms, Google Meets, Discord Channels).
  • Tasks at each station are varied according to student readiness, interest or learning preference.
  • Students are not expected to complete all stations. Instead, they travel to meet their needs. The decision of which stations to visit can be made by the student or in conjunction with the teacher.
  • The Learning Stations have the same learning objectives for all students.

Example of Learning Stations with a growth mindset theme.

  • Station 1 – Students visit a digital library and find picture books with a growth mindset theme. Students share the title, author and brief synopsis on a designated Google Jamboard page.
  • Station 2 – Students listen to a podcast episode of “How I Built This.” Each group is to write a Google Doc’ review’ of the podcast, reflecting on the perseverance of the podcast guest. This review is to be shared in a class Google Folder.
  • Station 3 – Students explore digital magazines to find an article featuring someone who shows a growth mindset. As a group, they create a guided sketchnote [37:00] of that person’s journey. The sketchnote is then scanned or photographed and uploaded to a class Padlet.
  • Station 4 – Using Canva, students create posters of famous growth mindset sayings.

Possible Adaptations:

  • Students can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups.
  • Learning Centres can be created based on student readiness – students could choose between three or four stations geared to their needs.
  • Students can choose to work on the stations in their own time or space.


Activity 4: Tiering


Tiering creates more than one version of a task and allows teachers to fine-tune lessons/activities based on students’ varying readiness levels. Student assessment and knowing each student’s starting point are crucial to tiering. Tiering addresses student readiness, interests, and learning preferences. It can be easily adapted to any level.


  • The teacher chooses or creates a learning task based on the grade or course level.
  • Designed to allow students to succeed at their difficulty level while focusing on the same essential learning goals.
  • The teacher then creates different versions of the lesson to meet the readiness needs (based on pre-assessment) of the students.
  • All tasks are meant to challenge the learners while remaining engaging and based on student interests.
  • Develop enough versions of the original task to challenge the range of learners.

Tier 1

  • Find a way to determine the number of students in the four closest schools.
  • Be ready to demonstrate how you found the answers.

Tier 2 (based on grade level)

  • Find a way to determine the number of students in the four closest schools.
  • Find a way to determine the number of students in a local virtual school.
  • Be ready to share how you found the answers.

Tier 3

  • Find a way to determine the number of students in the four closest schools.
  • Find a way to determine the number of students in a local virtual school.
  • Find a way to determine the number of student absences for the past week.
  • Compare and contrast the number of student absences in a brick and mortar school and a virtual school.

Possible Adaptations:

  • Students can work individually or in groups to complete the tasks.
  • Each task (from all Tiers) can be assigned several points. Students are to complete a specified number of points and choose from all three tiers.
    • Example: Tier 1 Tasks are worth 2, Tier 2 Tasks are worth 5, Tier 3 Tasks are worth 10.
    • Based on readiness, students must complete tasks worth 20/30/50 points from any of the three tiers.


Activity 5: RAFT


RAFT is an acronym for Role, Audience, Format, and Topic. In a RAFT, students take on a particular role in developing a product for a specified audience in a specific format and on a topic that targets the learning outcomes for the lesson. RAFT addresses student readiness, interests, and learning preferences. It can be easily adapted to any level.


  • Create a grid with the headings Role, Audience, Format, and Topic across the top (see Figure 2).
  • The teacher creates several different options for each heading based on the learning outcomes for the lesson or unit.
  • Students choose from the options and create a product based on the headings/options.

Figure 2.

Raft Examples

  • Botanist
  • Kindergarten students
  • Oral presentation
  • Global warming
  • An endangered animal
  • Humans
  • A poster created in Canva
  • How you can help
  • Literary Critic
  • Readers of a specific non-fiction book.
  • Newspaper editorial
  • Credibility

Possible Adaptations

  • Can be done individually or in small groups.
  • Can be incorporated into cubing.
  • Students can roll dice for each heading.
  • Teachers can create headings based on student readiness and interests (e.g., skateboarding or ballet).


Activity 6: Virtual Exit Ticket!


Virtual Exit Tickets are a structure that allows students to consolidate their learning and/or provides the teacher with summative feedback on how students are doing, and where the lesson should go next.


  • Using a feedback tool such as PollEverywhere or a Google Form, provide students with a range of possible responses to the virtual lesson or the end of an assignment. Students choose a response based on their understanding of how they are doing. Responses could include:
    • In progress (I need help)
    • Approaching the finish line (I need more time.)
    • Conquered! (I can do this on my own)
    • I’m the Boss! (I can help others)
  • Knowing where the students think they are, helps the instructor plan for individualized support.
  • By using student responses, the instructor can develop a class profile. This will assist the instructor in developing their starting point for the next lesson or assignment based on student strengths and needs.
  • Student feedback on what level of support they need can aid in distributing students in Break Out rooms:
    • Homogeneous groups with the teacher providing support for struggling students.
    • Heterogeneous groups with stronger students support students who need more time or clarification.

Possible Adaptations

  • Prompts can include possible next steps based on student interests. This can aid in the development of Learning Stations and Tiered activities.
  • Prompts can be directly related to the cohesiveness of a group and act as a peer assessment.


General Resources


Council for Exceptional Children. (2005). Universal design for learning: A guide for teachers and educational professionals. CEC/Merrill Education Resource for Special Education.

den Heijer, A. (2018). Nothing you don’t already know: Remarkable reminders about meaning, purpose, and self-realization. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Elflein, J. (2021, April 06). Percentage of U.S. college students that reported select disabilities or health conditions as of fall 2020. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/827023/disabilities-among-us-college-students/

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Ministry of Education. (2016). Differentiated instruction educator’s package. Edugains. http://www.edugains.ca/newsite/di/edupackages/2016educatorspackage.html

Nilson, L.B., & Goodson, L.A. (2018). Online teaching at its best – Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. Jossey-Bass.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Learning for all: A guide to effective assessment and instruction for all students, kindergarten to grade 12. Ontario Ministry of Education. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/learningforall2013.pdf

Rogers, S. (2018). eLearning accessibility: Best practices, tips, and tricks. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/elearning-accessibility-best-practices-tips-tricks

Rose, D.H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rose, D.H., Meyer, A., Hitchcock, C. (2005). The universally designed classroom. Harvard Education Press.

Saha-Gupta, N., Song, H., & Todd, R. L. (2019). Universal design for learning (UDL) as facilitating access to higher education. Journal of Education and Social Development, 3(2), 5-9. http://www.ibii-us.org/Journals/JESD/

Schreffler, J., Vasquez III, E., Chini, J., & James, W. (2019). Universal design for learning in post-secondary STEM education for students with disabilities: A systematic literature review. International Journal of STEM Education, 6(1), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0161-8

Seok, S., DaCosta, B., & Hodges, R. (2018). A systematic review of empirically based Universal Design for Learning: Implementation and effectiveness of universal design in education for students with and without disabilities at the Postsecondary Level. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 6(05), 171. https://doi.org/10.4236/jss.2018.65014

Thompson, K. M., & Copeland, C. (2020). Inclusive considerations for optimal online learning in times of disasters and crises. Information and Learning Sciences, 121(7/8), 481-486. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0083

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Tomlinson, C.A., (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Turnbull, R., Turnbull, A., Shank, M., Smith S., & Leal D. (2002). Exceptional lives: Special education in today’s schools (3rd ed.). Merill/Prentice-Hall.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Harvard University Press.

Wormeli. R. (2007). Differentiation: From planning to practice, Grades 6-12. Stenhouse Publishers.

About the author

Tricia is currently an Academic Associate in the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Canada, where she has taught courses in the areas of inclusion, digital literacies, and foundations of education to pre-service Teacher Candidates. She came to this position after 30 years as a teacher, administrator and consultant in K-12. Her passion lies in inclusive education and the integration of technology for ALL students. Chosen by Apple to be an international Apple Distinguished Educator (2017), she enjoys pushing technology to its limit, particularly in the area of accessibility.


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Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators Copyright © 2022 by Tricia Dwyer-Kuntz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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