Universal Design for Learning is Not Learning Styles

Icons representing universal design for learning
Icons from https://www.flaticon.com

Recently, I had a conversation at a conference with an educator, who claimed universal design for learning is learning styles, so we should use learning styles in instruction or training.

No, they are not the same.

Universal design for learning (UDL) facilitates the achievement of learning goals for individuals with learning differences and capabilities [1], as it provides a blueprint and framework to create instructional goals, content, and assessment that can suit everyone [2].

UDL consists of three main blocks tailored to the instructional environment [3] that addresses learning differences [4]. These are multiple means of:

1) Presentation: using a variety of ways to present the content to help learners acquire knowledge [3], e.g. text to speech [5]

2) Action and expression: encouraging learners to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, such as writing an essay, recording an audio response or creating a video [2]

3) Engagement: using a range of practices and adjustable levels of challenge to enhance learners’ motivation [6], e.g. TheReadingbar software that contains a volume control slider [5]

Considering learning differences and the pace of learning in different individuals, implementing UDL could help learners who cannot keep up with their peers, or have some learning disabilities. UDL does not just provide accessibility, but it eliminates barriers so every learner can succeed [6]. Organizations and instructional designers could use UDL in their learning design process. Extensive research has proven that the use of UDL supports strategic learning and enhance learners’ learning experience [3, 7, 8].

As you see, UDL is different than learning styles, which has been debunked due to not having any supporting evidence. In contrast, research on UDL has been widely replicated and grounded in learning sciences, neuroscience, and cognitive science. It is deeply rooted in Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), scaffolding, and modeling.

If you are interested, learn more about UDL here.



(1) Trostle Brand, S., Favazza, A., & Dalton, E. (2012). Universal design for learning: A blueprint for success for all learners. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48(3), 134-139.

(2) Tobin, T.J. (2014). Increase online student retention with universal design for learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), p13-24. 12 pp.

(3) Schelly, C.L, Davies, P.L. & Spooner, C.L. (2011). Student perceptions of faculty implementation of universal design for learning. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 24(1), 17-30. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ941729.pdf

(4) CAST (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines.Retrieved from www.udlcenter.org

(5) Edyburn, D.L. (2005). Universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.ocali.org/up_doc/UDL_SETP7.pdf

(6) Novak, K. (2016). UDL now!: A teacher’s guide to applying universal design for learning in today’s classrooms. CAST Professional Publishing, 45, 237-238.

(7) Smith, F.G. (2012). Analyzing a Ccollege course that adheres to the universal design for learning (UDL) framework. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(3), 31 – 61. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ992116.pdf

(8) Spencer, J. &Whittaker, C.R. (2017). UDL A Blueprint for Learning Success. Educational Leadership, 74(7), 59-63.

A Brief History of Learning & How it All Started

History of human learning from Greek philosophers, to ecology, to EEG
Image source: pixabay.com

“History is for human self-knowledge. The only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” ~R. G, Collingwood

Throughout centuries, humans have always wanted to learn about the world, and how we think and behave. The efforts of all the early philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have resulted in significant progress in how we learn. Let’s see what we learn from the history of learning.

The rise of epistemologies

Since man started to wonder how human beings think, perceive and recall information, we have seen ongoing advancements in the field of science and psychology. In The Story of Psychology, you learn how these advancements started by a number of Greek forerunners from the early 5thcentury [1]. These philosophers were interested to learn about human cognition and proposed some explanations of human mental processes that eventually led to Western psychology. For example, Alcmaeon’s theory of perception, despite being thoroughly incorrect, led to the beginning of epistemology. Alcmaeon believed humans derive ideas through the perceptions in their brains sent via air channels from their organs. Or, Democritus believed knowledge is constructed in human brain via interaction of images of atoms transmitted to it. Continue reading A Brief History of Learning & How it All Started

Diffusion: L&D Innovations

What makes a change slow or fast in some organizations?

By change, I’m referring to adopting a new strategy, working model, software, and best practices in learning and development. My focus here is on the role of L&D in these changes.

Recently, I read Everett Rogers’ book, Diffusion of Innovations, and it occurred to me that diffusion of innovations requires some principles that apply not only to marketers, but also to learning and development professionals. After all, learning professionals have to, at some point in their career, convince their stakeholders of doing things differently to achieve better results.

The rule of thumb, repeatedly stressed in the book , is learning about the culture and customs of a place before promoting a new idea there. No matter what something seems a brilliant idea to us, it might seem completely pointless to others somewhere else. That’s what L&D professionals who play the role of change agents in companies should consider as well.

Continue reading Diffusion: L&D Innovations

When can you trust the experts?

We have all been, in one way or another, persuaded by advertisers to buy something, or induced by salesmen to buy their revolutionary software, or even convinced by researchers that a model or tool is effective. Many of these with none or limited evidence. We are all aware that advertisements include meticulously chosen subliminal effects to influence our decisions. In other words, you are made believe in what ‘experts’ want you to believe in, and you are surrounded by these peripheral persuasions at home, at work, or on the streets. The question is when you can trust them.

In his book, When can you trust the experts, Willingham contends that we should take a more scientific stand toward the things that would affect us, and he offers to distinguish between good science and bad science. After all, with the hype of social media, we are exposed to a large amount of information which could influence our way of thinking and working.

In the first chapter of the book, why smart people believe dumb things, Willingham lays out how an individual behaves or thinks in certain ways because of unconscious persuasion of ads, propaganda, and even social interactions with others. He highlights that we tend to believe things that others believe and this social proof makes the persuasive messages more credible.

Moreover, many of these persuaders use the term “research-based” to persuade us. But, do these “empirical” research offer warrants for the credibility of their claims? Are all the papers published in peer-reviewed journals reliable? It is a known fact that many studies, particularly in health care and education, make sweeping claims which are influenced by conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, the problem is many of these unwarranted studies become widely accepted: for example, “learning styles” or “twenty-first-century skills” in education and schooling. Willingham remarks:

Education researchers have never united as a filed to agree on methods or practices that have sound scientific backing.

So he invites us to tell between good science and bad science. He highlights that in order to protect ourselves from believing false claims, we need to be aware of the peripheral cues in the persuasive messages, so we can discount them, and be aware of our own beliefs, which might bias how we evaluate new information. Besides, he recommends four steps to identify false claims and make the right decision, so that you’ll become more analytical and critical of what you are offered by persuaders around you. These are:

  1. Strip it and Flip it: To strip a claim you should use this sentence “If I do X, then there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen.” X is the persuasive message, Y is the value, and Z is the desired outcome. For example, “if we use online training instead of traditional training, there is a 50 percent chance that our employees’ productivity will increase.”Then flip the outcome. In this technique, flip the outcome or what you are to do. In the above example, the flipped message will be “if we use online training instead of traditional training, there is a 50 percent chance that our employees’ productivity will decrease.” Sometimes, you might have to flip both the persuasive message and outcome to analyze better.
  2. Trace it: To ensure if a claim is scientifically supported, you shouldn’t rely on credentials only. While someone’s status as a professor may indicate that his/her work has scholarly integrity, it doesn’t necessarily signify that the person applied scientific methods in evaluating the recommended change. Moreover, sometimes ‘experts’ or, in this context, persuaders misunderstand other researchers’ claims.
  3. Analyze it: Do not generalize a change based on your experience. Willingham’s main message of his book is “You can’t trust your own experience. You need scientific proof!”
  4. Should I do it: Using the previous three steps, you should ask yourself if  sufficient evidence is provided for the change that the persuader claims. Then consider all the factors that involve the change, and then make a decision.

I don’t personally find it feasible to apply all these steps, but if you are making a decision that involves your health or a substantial amount of money for your company, you might want to consider all of them. When can you trust the experts makes you somewhat more analytical of what you read and hear which concerns your health, work, and education.

Reference: Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Situational Leadership & Workplace Learning

I have shared in multiple posts that leadership in organizations plays an important role in employees’ performance support including their learning. I recently attended a Workshop on situational leadership created by Ken Blanchard. I’m sharing my key takeaway from the workshop as well as my reflections on how situational leadership can relate to workplace learning. Continue reading Situational Leadership & Workplace Learning