Universal design for learning: How does it support competency-based education?


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum and instruction where equal learning opportunities are provided to all students in an inclusive environment. Every student is valued, respected, and supported to succeed regardless of his or her background (CAST- Center for Applied Special Technology, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). UDL instruction customizes learning experiences to every student, allowing them multiple ways to engage with learning content, multiple ways to process and practice learning, and multiple ways to demonstrate what they have learned. Competency-based education (CBE), on the other hand, is an approach where “learning competencies predetermined, learner characteristics (e.g., weaknesses, strengths, interests, learning styles, and cognitive styles) identified, personalized instruction for every student provided, and mastery of target competencies demonstrated by every student before advancing to the next level, course, or grade” (Shawer, 2022a p. 1).

Obviously, UDL and CBE share a common goal. Both aim to help every student to succeed through an inclusive and equitable learning environment. For example, UDL multiple ways of engagement, representation, and action and expression create the customized instruction CBE requires to help every student to demonstrate mastery of competencies. This makes UDL principles necessary for a successful CBE implementation. In CBE, every student becomes clear about what they need to achieve and how they will be assessed. Moreover, every student learns at their own pace until they demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge and skills in meaningful situations, not just to show understanding of content as the case with general education. This means slow students would not be forced to keep up with the average group pace before they are ready. Nor would fast learners be held back by the average group or slow students’ performance (Shawer, 2022a). In other words, fast, talented, slow and average students, as well as students with learning and attention issues would have an equal opportunity to learn and grow (Nisbet, 2020). In summary, UDL should be an integral part of CBE because UDL seeks to:

  • achieve social justice, remove barriers, and provide supports.
  • give all students an equal opportunity to succeed.
  • motivate students and facilitate learning processing in multiple ways.
  • demonstrate learning in multiple ways.

UDL principles for CBE

UDL has three basic principles: multiple ways of engagement, multiple ways of representation, and multiple ways of action and expression (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). Since these principles address key education questions, they are necessary for inclusive education programs, including CBE, to function properly. The first principle focuses on motivating students as it shows them why they should learn what we want them to learn. The second principle suggests a variety of ways to facilitate learning processing and cognitive functioning, whereas the third guides educators to use flexible and various assessment tasks that allow each student to demonstrate their learning. Again, these UDL principles fit perfectly with CBE programs (Shawer, 2022b). In this article, I discuss why the three UDL principles are necessary for an effective CBE program implementation in the following order:

  • Multiple ways of engagement for CBE
  • Multiple ways of representation for CBE
  • Multiple ways of action and expression for CBE

Multiple ways of engagement for CBE

The UDL principle of multiple was of engagement addresses the “why of learning” issue (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020); a key curriculum component for convincing learners of the learning value so that they willingly invest the time and effort to achieve it. In this section, I discuss these points:

  • The end goal of this principle
  • How to implement this principle

The goal of applying multiple ways of engagement is to motivate and give a purpose to every student (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). This encourages students to become more strategic (goal-directed), as they become aware of the relevance of what they are going to learn. When students know what they learn is going to help them become more successful in their academic study and the workplace, they are more likely to engage with that learning. No doubt learners differ in the ways they get engaged with learning. Among the factors that influence perseverance and motivation is personal relevance, culture, interests, prior knowledge, and learning novelty. Since there is no a single method for motivating all students, educators need to use multiple ways to motivate them (CAST, 2018; Shawer, 2017). Without active engagement with course content, students cannot pursue or demonstrate mastery in a CBE program (Shawer, 2022a).

As for how to implement this principle, instructors need to build on student interests and show the course relevance to their lives. One way is to list the reasons for students to learn that course or lesson. Helping students to create personal goals is a way to engage students (Nisbet, 2020). For example, you can explain how the course prepares students to a particular career and how it connects to the program VLOs (vocational learning outcomes). You could also explain how the course helps the students to develop transferrable skills, a competency highly required and valued in the workplace. A list of the course EESOs (essential employability skills outcomes) should be also explained to the students and linked to those of the program. This way, you help students create personal goals, increase their internal motivation to pursue learning, and show your course value. These multiple ways of engagement should be always achieved at the lesson level so that students perceive how each lesson helps them grow and succeed now and in the future.

Other ways to engage students is to help students set learning goals and, as they go, monitor their own progress toward these goals (Nisbet, 2020). This encourages and maintains engagement with the course materials. However, students should learn how to self-assess and self-monitor their work to be able to set and monitor their goals. For example, your activities might require them to self-assess and use learning logs or journals to monitor progress toward goals. Moreover, using multi-media content (e.g., text, graph, audio, and video material) appeals to different learning styles and senses. In particular, active learning strategies, where learning activities are carried out by the students, play a key role in their engagement with learning. In addition, the design of formative and summative assessments has a huge impact on how your students will approach and engage with learning. In this respect, using interactive classroom assessment techniques (CATs) is essential not only to generate formative and immediate feedback for adjusting learning experiences in real time, but also to encourage more student participation (Shawer, 2022b; Shawer, 2017).

CAST (2018) suggested providing three types of options to allow students multiple ways of engagement: recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self-regulation. To recruit student interest, teachers need to provide students with learning options to choose from. Although learning objectives must be shared with students, achieving or changing them is not a matter of negotiation. However, teachers need to optimize course relevance and value, and minimize learning threats and distractions to maintain motivation. On the other hand, sustaining effort and persistence can be achieved by sharing and stressing the value of learning goals, varying goal demands, providing cooperative learning activities, helping students develop cooperative learning skills, and providing timely and personalized feedback to help every student to demonstrate mastery. Finally, teachers need to provide options for self-regulation by asking students to set the goals they think they can achieve and teaching them coping skills and strategies to overcome obstacles and frustration. Likewise, students need to develop self-assessment and reflection skills to keep working toward their goals (CAST, 2018). Since CBE seeks to help every single student to demonstrate mastery, this UDL principle is essential to help each student set feasible and relevant learning and personal goals toward mastery goals (Shawer, 2022b). To engage students with learning in multiple ways, you need to:

  • give every student a purpose and motivate them to learn.
  • encourage students to be strategic and goal-directed.
  • provide students with learning pathways/ options as well as how to approach them.
  • help students to set personal and learning goals.
  • encourage self assessment and monitoring of learning.
  • minimize threats and frustration and optimize learning demands.
  • show the reasons behind learning to show course relevance.
  • highlight the VLOs and EESOs relevant to the students.
  • show relevance of learning to students’ needs (e.g., future career).
  • use multi-media content and technology.
  • build student interests into learning.
  • address learner differences (e.g., learning styles, ability, culture, and learning preferences).
  • use active learning strategies and vary assessment tasks.

 Multiple ways of representation for CBE

This UDL principle addresses the “what of learning” issue (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020); another key curriculum component for facilitating information processing and skills development. It is not possible to help all students to achieve the same learning outcome (LO) using the same content (Shawer, 2017). For example, written texts cannot help deaf and blind students who have a sensory/ physical disability to learn. Nor can written texts help dyslexic students who have a learning disability. Even average students would not find it easy to process the same content. For example, auditory students would take in audio input quicker than visual students. Since no specific means of representation can be optimal for all learners, it is not an option for teachers not to use multiple ways of content representation (CAST, 2018; Shawer, 2017). In this section, I discuss these points:

  • The end goal of this principle
  • How to implement this principle

The goal of applying multiple ways of representation is to help learners become resourceful and knowledgeable (CAST, 2018). Precisely, this principle is necessary to allow every student to process learning through the channels compatible with their psychological makeup/ style (Shawer, 2022bb). Since one-size-fits-all is not working, students need multiple content formats, including text, audio, video, image, and graph. For example, audio materials are required to help auditory students to process information through the sensory channel compatible with their inborn psychological makeup. Providing auditory students written texts only, for example, would make it difficult for them to process information and develop skills. So is the case with visual students who better process learning through visual materials, such as videos and graphs (Shawer, 2017; Tomlinson, 2011). Since CBE aims to help every student to succeed, this UDL principle must underlie any competency-based learning design (Shawer, 2022b). To engage students with multiple ways of representation, you need to:

  • provide multiple content formats (e.g., text, audio, video, image, and graph).
  • have content written in comprehensible language.
  • have content culturally relevant .
  • have difficult content supported with notations and explanations.
  • provide background knowledge in appendices or through hypermedia.
  • provide explanations/ definitions of vocabulary, terms, and symbols.

Multiple ways of action and expression for CBE

The multiple ways of action and expression principle addresses the “how of learning” issue (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). This third key curriculum component requires use of multiple learning activities and assessment tasks to allow different students to process and demonstrate learning in ways compatible with their processors (Shawer, 2022b). In this section, I discuss these points:

  • The end goal of this principle
  • How to implement this principle

The goal of applying multiple ways of action and expression is to help learners become strategic and goal-directed (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). In particular, it aims to address two objectives. The first objective is to provide all students with multiple learning activities so that they can take in information and master the required skills and behaviors. Moreover, the second objective seeks to provide students with multiple assessment opportunities so that they can express learning through multiple assessment tasks suitable for them (Shawer, 2022b).

As for how to implement this principle, teachers need to vary both learning activities (instruction) as well as assessment tasks/ activities. The question now is how can teachers provide multiple learning activities? The answer depends on the LOs you want to achieve as well as the students who would achieve them. Typically, a single classroom would have different cognitive styles of organizing and processing information, such as the wholistic and analytic styles (Riding & Rayner, 1998). These two broad cognitive styles mean you have learners who tend to process learning either in wholes or in parts. As a result, you need to use different learning activities to help these different students take in information through their preferred learning channel.  To achieve a LO, you need to provide wholistic learners with tasks that allow them to organize information into wholes. Similarly, analytic learners need tasks that allow them to process information in parts. On the other hand, you would have students who better process learning while interacting with others (field-dependent), as well as others who process information more effectively in solo activities (field-independent). Again, you need to provide solo and collaborative activities to cater for both styles. For example, you may set up learning stations and use task cards. Yet, you would have other students who better process small information pieces, and others who better handle whole chunks by linking different parts together (Shawer, 2017).

This means, you must provide multiple learning tasks and activities to achieve the same LO, including solo, pair, group, pair groups, peer tutoring, and whole class activities to adapt to different student channels of preference. Every teacher needs to use numerous active learning strategies (e.g., jigsaw, fishbowl, and snowball) to cater for these differences in the ways that help students process learning. On varying learning activities at the lesson level, teachers are more able to address student differences. You should provide multiple activities for students to choose from, as well as multiple options regarding how to do them. However, the LOs would stay the same for all learners (Shawer, 2022b).

As regards allowing multiple ways of action and expression through multiple assessment tasks, you would again have different cognitive styles of representing learning. For example, you would have verbal students, who prefer representing information verbally. You would also have imagery students, who prefer representing learning in mental images (Shawer, 2017). To make sure students demonstrate learning mastery, teachers need to use a variety of assessment tasks to allow every single student to express and show what they’ve learned in their preferred assessment method. Not all students are good at expressing their learning on a single assessment task. While one student has an average performance on a writing essay, the same student can demonstrate high performance through a presentation. Using multiple assessment tasks would therefore allow every student to apply knowledge and skills in their preferred tasks. To provide multiple ways of action and expression, instructors also need to use various formative and summative assessment tasks. They would also need to use data-driven assessment, a blend of assessment approaches, including traditional, outcomes-based, flexible, and alternative (performance, authentic and portfolio) assessment. Moreover, multiple assessment strategies (diagnostic, formative, and summative) and tasks (e.g., poster presentation, logs, journals, task performance, and tests) would be also used to allow multiple ways of learning expression (Shawer, 2022b).

Flexible assessment, for example, provides students with multiple ways of expression. It allows students to choose not to take some assessment tasks, not to count them into the final grade, self and peer assess, and to decide on assessment weights. Other ways to provide multiple ways of expression is to create multiple options for assignment completion. However, if performance is required to demonstrate mastery, multiple performance tasks must be provided to allow students to perform in different ways. For example, a student can choose between a learning contract, product portfolio, poster presentation, or a presentation. A test or quiz is not an option here, as traditional testing does not allow the student to perform (apply skills and knowledge in real or simulated situations). It is, however, possible for students to choose from traditional assessment tasks for concept checking. For example, they can choose to take a multiple response, multiple choice, or a short answer test (Shawer, 2021).

On the other hand, CATs offer multiple and effective ways of learning expression through allowing students to express learning on the spot. For example, think-pair-share, minute paper, application cards, and self-assessment are effective techniques in checking understanding. In contrast, fishbowl, snowball, classroom-based case studies, and jigsaw assess actual performance. It is vital for instructors to give regular, timely, and immediate feedback when using immediate formative assessment. Since the goal of CBE is to help every single student to demonstrate mastery, UDL multiple ways of action and expression are essential to CBE assessments (Shawer, 2022b). To engage students with multiple ways of action and expression, you need to:

  • facilitate learning processing in multiple ways.
  • use multiple learning activities to achieve the same LO.
  • demonstrate learning expression in multiple ways.
  • use multiple assessment tasks to measure the same LO.
  • vary process objectives for each student but keep outcome objectives constant.
  • adjust task demands to student ability and pace.


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Riding, R., & Rayner, S. (1998). Cognitive styles and learning strategies: Understanding style differences in learning and behavior. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Shawer, S. F. (2017). Teacher-driven curriculum development at the classroom level: Implications for curriculum, pedagogy and teacher training. Teaching and Teacher Education, 63, 296-313. doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.12.017.

Shawer, S. F. (2021). Flexible Assessment: Learner voices on assessment weights. Retrieved on February 2, 2022 from: Flexible Assessment: Learner voices on assessment weights – Nova Science Publishers (novapublishers.com).

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