Classroom Environment

Universal design in learning environments

Variety is the key to universal design. Courses that promote accessible, inclusive learning environments employ multiple methods of representing course concepts, engaging students with course materials and disciplinary skills, and expressing mastery of learning in assessment activities. Here are some examples:

  • Courses use a variety of instructional methods when presenting material, such as a combination of instructor’s text-based materials and video; text-based materials, images, and podcasts; textbook and video; or multimedia presentations with audio.
  • Study guides, transcripts, notes, and/or recordings are available for students to review materials presented in live course meetings.
  • Assessments allow students to use a range of modes of expression and media to demonstrate their understanding of essential course content and skills. Students may be offered a choice of preparing an academic paper or lab report or a video demonstration or presentation. They may have the option to create a research-based website or a podcast interview with a community-based expert. 
  • Instructions for assessments include rubrics that break down expectations and describe characteristics of work at various performance levels. Sample student work or exemplar assignments are also helpful to supplement text-based or oral assignment instructions. Instructions may include a combination of a visual road map, a checklist, a recorded PowerPoint of assignment criteria, a text-based guide, or live, in-class question and answer introduction to the task. 
  • Shorter, more frequent assessments are used to offer greater variety in assessment types and provide timely feedback to help reduce anxiety, increase accountability and routine, and guide students toward meaningful progress.

Resources for Accessible Classroom Environments

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  • The Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support offers workshops as well as recorded webinars and a self-guided course module, Creating an Accessible Course, which are available to faculty and staff through the CAIFS Professional Development Blackboard Course. Please contact if you need assistance to access the professional development course. 

  • Format Guidelines

    • Any documents uploaded to Blackboard have been reviewed for accessibility and are provided in a format that does not require download (ex. text or pdf). Any scanned documents are converted to text, not just a page image, and use headers and other strategies to make them accessible to a screen reader. The built-in Ally Accessibility Rating provides a quick gauge of whether or not documents meet accessibility standards.
    • Web links are created with meaningful descriptions, avoiding terms such as “click here.”
    • Documents use hierarchical headings to enable screen reader users to navigate efficiently through instructional materials.
    • Any text that is copied and pasted from Word in Blackboard is pasted with “remove formatting” to eliminate stray or confusing code for users of screen readers.
    • Tables are not used decoratively or for formatting.
    • Alternative text is included for all images, graphics, tables.
    • Colored fonts are not used to convey meaning.
    • Color contrast includes a dark color font on a light background. Light fonts or poor contrast is avoided.
    • Background patterns are simple.
    • Color is chosen thoughtfully with common issues of colorblindness in mind, esp. red-green colorblindness.

    Learn more about Accessibility at Blackboard

  • What is Universal Design for Learning?

    Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework that rests on a foundation of research in learning science intended to support the creation of inclusive instruction and learning environments that give all individuals – regardless of their differences – equal opportunities to learn.

    UDL suggests customizable approaches that work in a variety of settings and circumstances. UDL helps us think proactively about teaching and learning to build ways to make instructional materials usable by any and all learners from the start – rather than retrofitting later.

    UDL is not about accommodating students who request certain things, but rather more about planning and designing for learning differences.

    The UDL framework is based on the science of how we learn – how we ALL learn. The framework focuses on three brain networks:The UDL framework is based on the science of how we learn – how we ALL learn. The framework focuses on three brain networks:

    1. Affective Networks
      This network influences how learners get engaged and stay motivated. Think about how learners are challenged, excited or interested. This is about the WHY of learning. To activate the affective network in designing learning experiences, think about ways to stimulate interest and motivation.
    2. Recognition Networks
      This network influences how we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear and read. Examples of recognition tasks might be how we identify letters, words or an author’s style. This is about the WHAT of learning. To active the recognition network, present information and content in different ways.
    3. Strategic Networks
      This network influences planning and performing tasks and how we organize and express our ideas. Examples include writing an essay or solving a math problem. This is about the HOW of learning. To activate the strategic network, plan to differentiate the ways that students can express what they have learned and know.

    The most important thing to understand about universal design for learning is that it benefits ALL learners. It helps us to think about how we design learning circumstances and experiences so that learning is most likely to occur. UDL helps everyone.

    How does UDL work?

    Keeping principles of universal design in mind as we develop learning circumstances and experiences helps to create an environment where learning difference is already acknowledged. This approach lessens the possibility that a learner will arrive at an experience and not have opportunity to learn that is equal to every other learner in the class.

    How can we best accomplish this, as we keep the brain networks in mind?
    Our first tip is to start small. Dr. Tom Tobin gave us great advice in his August 18 workshop. He calls this “+1 thinking.” Think about giving students 1 more way to do something. Start with adding 1 more way to interact with content; 1 more way for students to show what they have learned. Dr. Tobin also suggests starting small by thinking in terms of time.

    What can you accomplish in the next 20 minutes, 20 days, 20 months – as you consider ways to incorporate UDL principles: Universal Design for Learning: Way Beyond Accessibility

    What are specific strategies for incorporating difference in representing information, demonstrating learning, or keeping students motivated to learn? Some of the strategies we have explored together include adding image alt. Txt., captioning videos, making assignments in alternative formats and the like. 

    Take a look at Dr. Tobin’s suggestions: Universal Design for Learning Menu

    Why use UDL?

    Thoughtful inclusive design ensures an equal opportunity for all learners – taking into account learning difference from the start.

    References & Additional Information:

    1. What is UDL? National Center on Universal Design for Learning.  
    2. The Three Principles of UDL. National Center on Universal Design for Learning. 
    3. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines National Center on Universal Design for Learning 
    4. UDL on Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education 
    5. Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice
  • Prioritizing Captioning

    This guide is intended to provide practical information to help faculty members make decisions about when and how to caption video instructional materials. As a guiding principle, all learners have an equal right to high-quality captions for all instructional materials; auto-captioned videos are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee equitable access to course content. Just as you would not provide some students with an edited textbook and some with a version that had not been proofread, you should ensure that your video captions have been proofread by a human reader to avoid confusing, unintelligible, or even inappropriate captioning errors. 

    Highest Priority for Captioning

    • A student or university staff member has requested accommodation that requires captioning.
    • The material is to be used in an online course.
    • The material is posted to the university’s public-facing website and access is not restricted (as it might be if posted in Blackboard).
    • The material will be re-used more than one semester.
    • The material is being created new in newly revised segments of existing courses.
    Also Consider:
    • Whenever possible, new multimedia purchases should be in an accessible state. Captions should be present and alt text should be included. If not, permission should be obtained to caption copyrighted material.
    • Captioning is a lower priority for lecture capture (posting a recording of a face-to-face class, or will only be used one semester) and it has been verified that there is no accommodation request on file for the class.

    Captioning Procedures

    Faculty are encouraged to consider universal design principles as they create instructional materials and select multimedia. When making textbook adoption decisions, please inquire of publishers regarding accessibility of any supplemental materials they provide. The USC Upstate Library is an excellent resource to help in locating and providing suggestions for accessible versions of certain materials.

    Keep in mind that copyrighted material that we do no own cannot be captioned without express permission of the content owner, so take care when selecting supplemental media materials from the Internet.

    Consult with your departmental Access Advocate for assistance in making captioning decisions. Members of the Universal Design Committee, and staff in Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support (CAIFS) are also available to help. Request caption editing support from CAIFS Student Accessibility Assistants by emailing your list of videos requiring captions to

    New instructional materials should be made accessible as they are created, including captioning of videos and audio files, such as podcasts. Videos created using video recording applications are always easier to caption than narrated PowerPoint files. Faculty may choose to produce their own captions at the time their video is created or when uploaded to YuJa and/or Panopto.

    Learn more about video capture software.

    1. Captioning Prioritization, California State University
    2. Captioning Guidelines, California State University, Chico

Strengths and Limitations of Common Teaching Activities

Teaching ActivityStrengthsLimitationsUniversal Design Tips
LecturesOnly one activity is taking place. You may practice and craft your lecture delivery to ensure that it is carefully aligned to the course goals. Little, if any opportunity for student participation may pose a challenge to attention spans. Students cannot control the pace of materials. Materials are conveyed orally, one-time only, and distracted students may miss key points.Sign-post key learning objectives. Provide a study guide with questions to answer from the lecture. Flag typical-test questions within the lecture to call attention to major materials. Offer interactive moments, like polls, memes, short video or short audio clips, or ask for relevant real-world examples to keep students’ attention engaged. Offer recordings whenever possible.
Class DiscussionsStudents gain the benefit of hearing multiple perspectives and weighing and revising their own. Students are engaged in social learning.Introverted or anxious students may not perform well or may be too distracted to engage effectively. It may be hard to determine which ideas are best aligned with course learning goals.Prepare for course discussions by defining a course code of conduct for respectful interactions. Offer examples of how to respond to others when we disagree and how to ask questions, make “I” statements (not “you” statements) and practice “Yes, and” instead of “No, but” during class dialogues. Guide the discussion with scaffolded questions. Intersperse reflection and writing notes or answers between periods of talking. Use smaller Think-Ink-Pair-Share groupings before reporting out to the full class. Save a few minutes at the end to draw conclusions about what has been learned.
Role Playing or Class DebateSeeing the course concepts in action can help students exercise empathy and critical thinking and develop a more nuanced understanding. Students can test, predict, model, and revise theoretical concepts in concrete terms.Students may feel like they are being pushed far out of their comfort zones personally, socially, culturally, or in a variety of other ways. Students from underrepresented groups may feel pressured or obligated to embody some of the roles they are asked to play. Students on the autism spectrum or international students may find the social elements of role play particularly challenging.Carefully map the rules and the roles to be played. Provide an instructional guide and have students fill in details about their roles and the roles of others in their groups. Use visual cue cards to represent roles, such as the “many hats strategy” to help students distance themselves from the roles they are exploring and limit vulnerability. Use a shared OneDrive file to allow some preparation to happen in a written format.
Guest SpeakersProvide a community connection, and fosters belonging by offering a voice of authority from a position that may be very different from that of the instructor. Students gain career readiness skills and inspiration by interacting with professionals from other areas of the discipline. Speakers may not align their content with the course goals or may not be experienced in presenting in classroom settings. Students have only one chance to listen, gather the information, reflect on this new perspective, and synthesize the ideas. Students who rely on routine may find it challenging to learn in a situation where the social rules are not yet fully understood.Prepare students with an introduction and background to the speaker in advance. Draw connections between the speaker’s perspective and the course learning goals before the speaker arrives. Provide the student with key questions to consider about the speaker’s address. Provide the speaker in advance with some goals you would like the students to reach from their visit. Offer a recording whenever possible.
Video-Based MaterialsOften videos are high-quality, aesthetically-engaging experiences that can bring students in contact with people, places, and situations that they could not otherwise encounter during class. Students are accustomed to learning from videos and often think of them as social experiences.Students may overestimate their ability to learn from video. Videos shown in class may go too fast for students to understand or remember without the ability to rewind and review. The emphasis on video may disadvantage students with visual or audio processing differences. When possible, allow students to consume video recordings outside of class and integrate show in-video quizzes or reflective pauses to prompt students to consider the main objectives of the materials. Use videos in Perusall or use another commenting tool where students can share their perspectives and observations about particular moments within the video.
Problem-Solving These powerful activities help students test their knowledge and offer opportunities for peer teaching as students work together to achieve a common goal. Some students may dominate while others feel out-paced and overwhelmed. Some students may feel taken advantage of if others sit back while they do the work. Implicit bias and microaggressions may show up as pressures mount to complete the task. Students with dyslexia or other learning differences and English language learners may find it particularly challenging to read and engage quickly with complex materials that are introduced to them on-the-spot. Prepare for problem-solving activities, especially in group work by establishing common course codes of conduct and expectations for the team. It can be helpful for groups to list the social skills needed for productive group problem-solving or define the roles needed to solve this problem prior to engaging in the work itself. When possible, provide any lengthly reading materials to students in advance of the problem-solving course meeting. While problem-solving, provide structure, such as time limits, whiteboards or shared documents where solutions can be shared, as well as tips, resources, or a “phone a friend” index card with common hints to encourage and reward help-seeking behaviors.