VIDEO: Katie Novak brings us up to speed on Universal Design for Learning

One-size-fits-all is a convenient shortcut for manufacturing massive amounts of a product but teachers aren’t machines and students aren’t a hat or t-shirt to be churned out, assembly-line style.

So why do so many schools and teachers still cling to old habits when it comes to curriculum, designing their lesson plans for a mythical “average student”?

The idea that effective lesson plans need to take into account the vast array of abilities and learning styles found in every classroom is not a new one. What is relatively new is the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) an evidence-based framework that aims to reinvent how teachers design and implement their lessons for the 21st century. UDL was developed as a response to the need to teach Core Curriculum Standards to classrooms full of students with many different academic levels and learning challenges. It aims to break down barriers to learning while streamlining the teaching process.

“Think about the entrance to a large corporate office building,” said educator and UDL expert Katie Novak, author of the book UDL Now!: A Teacher’s Monday-Morning Guide to Implementing Common Core Standards Using Universal Design for Learning. Novak was the guest speaker at a recent Y.A.L.E. School workshop event for special education teachers in southern New Jersey about how to adopt UDL practice.

Novak continued: “If it’s a well-designed building, you will notice that there are several different doors comprising the main entrance. There’s usually a revolving door that moves lots of people in and out quickly, and sliding or swinging doors for people who can’t use a revolving door. Once inside, one can opt for the stairs, an escalator, a regular elevator, an express elevator to the top floors, or even a freight elevator depending on which part of the building he or she needs to access.”

In this analogy, the people entering the building are students, and the office building’s floors are their individual learning goals. The various methods of getting them into the building and delivering them to the floor where they need to go (of course with ample signs and guides along the way to let them know where they are) can be compared to the way UDL helps students learn.

This includes planning the goal for the lesson, or what the teacher wants students to learn, do, or consider—and what the barriers to those goals might be for the students in the class. Next, teachers should present the information in many different formats and with varied supports. The lesson should also provide as many different choices and opportunities for students to express their engagement and knowledge as possible. Lastly, support and feedback lets students know how they are doing and what knowledge or skills they still need to improve.

Rather than starting from the baseline of an “average learner” and then spending a lot of time and energy making accommodations for students with different levels of proficiency or learning styles, UDL recommends that teachers plan their lessons with flexibility in mind.

“Let’s say you have a room full of twelve students,” said Novak. “Now let’s say you have a lesson plan that you designed to meet the needs of ten out of twelve students. But then you have one kid who’s lost because the lesson plan is too complicated, and one who’s not engaged because it’s too easy. UDL turns traditional lesson planning upside-down because instead of designing for the majority of learners, we’re designing for those two kids on the margins. And everyone benefits as a result.”

Much as the imaginary office building lets individuals make their own choices about which door best suits their needs, UDL reduces barriers to “entrance” by making sure students don’t waste time and effort trying to conform to lesson plans that don’t suit their objectives or learning styles. People entering our fictional office building in a wheelchair, or while carrying a large birthday cake, or pushing a delivery cart aren’t trying to unsuccessfully squeeze through the revolving door with disastrous results. Meanwhile, those who don’t require the extra room are able to move through the revolving door at their own pace, reducing or eliminating any crowding that might have resulted otherwise. The architects have anticipated the different types of visitors to the building and proactively added entrances that improve access for all of them.

Teachers can reap the rewards of UDL by following the framework when preparing lesson plans.   The full set of UDL guidelines are available on and teachers who are beginning to implement UDL can also find more information on the UDL Exchange website at including example lesson plans.

Katie’s tips for special education professionals who want to use UDL right now:

  1. Don’t be intimidated by a sense that you have to start from scratch with all UDL lessons. Download a lesson plan that is already complete and try it out. Slowly you will see the positive benefits and begin to be able to apply UDL to all classroom activities.
  2. Always stimulate student interest and motivation to learn. This creates students who are lifelong learners and explorers rather than just direction-followers.
  3. “Scaffold” mastery of difficult or complex content or skills by breaking down into smaller parts and then providing example work samples for each step.
  4. Provide lots of mastery-oriented feedback to help move students towards their goals.

You can learn more about Katie Novak at her website, on Facebook at and on Twitter at