Faculty Focus


Fostering Inclusivity in the College Classroom: Looking Through a Universal Design for Learning Lens

Student holds camera and looks through lens

What is an inclusive college classroom?

An inclusive college classroom is one in which all students feel supported, valued, and recognized as unique individuals with their varying interests and abilities. Inclusivity is evident when faculty and students demonstrate respect for one another and for the learning process, and inclusive practices can take place in both face-to-face and online class environments. Moreover, students can benefit academically, socially, and emotionally (Kaplan & Miller, 2007) when inclusion is practiced and fostered.

A starting point for ensuring that a university course is practicing inclusivity may include things such as:

  1. Self-evaluate and reflect on current teaching practices and assignments (e.g. investigate whether or not culturally relevant practices and course materials that are being used are updated and that course lectures and assignments include timely research and pedagogy).
  2. Reflect on the extent to which you take time to get to know your students and allow them to know you in an effort to build a collaborative classroom community. Faculty who apply inclusivity recognize that having a “proactive” approach is better than a “reactive” approach; therefore, faculty need to think ahead and look at the broad spectrum of the course trajectory and attend to the individualized needs of the students in order to plan accordingly.

One way of facilitating even more in-depth and robust inclusive practices is by incorporating aspects of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL minimizes obstacles and maximizes learning to support all learners to engage in challenging ways of thinking (CAST, 2020), aims to achieve accessibility and equity, and supports removing barriers by intentionally specifying the need to make goals, methods, tools, and assessments work for all students (Baldwin & Ching, 2021).

What is UDL?

UDL is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn and highlights ways in which individuals access and interact with learning material across various disciplines (CAST, 2022). UDL consists of three major pillars that include: 1) Engagement, 2) Representation, and 3) Action and Expression; all of which provide increasingly equitable opportunities for students based on their individualized learning needs.

UDL categorizes the pillar of engagement as the overarching ‘why’ of learning and ensures that multiple means of access are provided to students that allow for active learning in course content, while providing differentiated opportunities based on student differences and interests. Faculty can maintain awareness of students’ motivation in an effort to sustain learning by providing instructional goals that provide accessibility in equalizing learning opportunities and promote motivation and self-regulation (e.g., student planning, goal setting, self-reflection) skills. When extrinsic motivation is fostered throughout a course through varied support, student self-regulation is enhanced (CAST, 2022). When faculty take time to foster the ‘why’ of learning within a course, student engagement will increase.

The UDL representation category acts as the ‘what’ of learning and takes into consideration that students have various ways in which they perceive and comprehend course content. When students have accessible options in which they can interact with course content that provides options for accessing material (e.g., auditory, visual, etc.), students will have more opportunities to construct meaning and actively learn for increased clarity and comprehension of course content (CAST, 2022). Faculty who provide varied means for students through multiple representations of learning give students heightened opportunities to access and learn course content.

The UDL action & expression category acts as the ‘how’ of learning and ensures that students have opportunities to navigate the course content and react to their learning in varied modalities. When students are provided with materials to better interact with course content, it provides inclusive access in student representation of learned knowledge and scaffolding skills (CAST, 2022). By addressing the ‘how’ of learning, college faculty are better able to allow various students opportunities for successful navigation and completion of course objectives, based on the specific needs of the students.

Incorporating UDL into a college course

There are numerous ways that UDL can be embedded into college courses to promote increased inclusive student learning. The table below outlines the three pillars of UDL with practical ideas on how they can be embedded into a college course and take little time to incorporate.

UDL Guideline (CAST, 2022)Practical Ideas for Use in a College CourseResources for More Information
Provide multiple means of engagementEnsure that your online and in class materials are presented in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (e.g., video captions, color scheme, visual layout)Provide explicit feedback and allow students to utilize feedback for improvement.Accessibility- https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/education_accessibility.pdfhttps://www.microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility/windowshttps://support.apple.com/accessibility Explicit Feedback https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/udl/cresource/q2/p06/
Provide multiple means of representationReview relevant course vocabulary. Use examples and non-examples to emphasize course content.Technology to Support Vocabulary https://sites.google.com/a/kcs.k12.nc.us/vocabulary-strategies-in-the-content-areas/teacher-led-strategies/using-technology Example/Non-Example https://lvp.digitalpromiseglobal.org/content-area/adult-learner/strategies/pairing-non-examples-with-examples-adult-learner/summary
Provide multiple means of action & expressionEmbed ‘stop and think’ opportunities during class or in online modules. Provide a checklist and/or rubric for  assignment objectives.Stop and Think https://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/stop-and-jot Rubric Development https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/improve/evaluate-course-level-learning/rubrics
Table 1: Strategies for UDL Implementation into a College Course


The utilization of UDL allows opportunities for all students to feel valued, respected, and confident in their contributions to the college classroom environment. This approach ensures that students are recognized as unique individuals with varying skill sets and strengths while simultaneously providing explicit and complete guidance to support academic success. The use of UDL is often seen within P-12 environments, but perhaps now more than ever, the power of engagement, representation, and action and expression is critical in creating and sustaining inclusive practices in higher education.

Maria B. Peterson-Ahmad, PhD, is an associate professor of Special Education with a research concentration in teacher preparation, particularly for general and special education teachers of students with mild/moderate disabilities. Additional research interests include technology to support teacher preparation and high leverage practices. Dr. Peterson-Ahmad serves as a member of the Council for Exceptional Children Professional Standards & Practices Committee, is a member of the Council for Learning Disabilities Board of Trustees, and has collaborated with the CEEDAR Center to develop professional development materials on high leverage practices.

Vicki L. Luther, EdD, is an associate professor in Mercer University’s Tift College of Education, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Her research focuses on teacher preparation and retention, co-teaching, inclusive practices, and teaching reading in the elementary grades. Dr. Luther is a member of the Council for Learning Disabilities Board of Trustees and currently serves on two committees for the International Literacy Association.


Baldwin, Sally J. and Ching, Yu-Hui (2021). “Accessibility in Online Courses: A Review of National and Statewide Evaluation Instruments.” TechTrends. 65, no. 5: 731-42.

Kaplan, Matthew and A.T. Miller (2007). Scholarship of Multicultural Teaching and Learning: New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

“The UDL Guidelines” (2022). CAST online. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/