Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that is based on a scientific understanding of how people learn. The goal of UDL is to design “barrier-free, instructionally rich learning environments and lessons that provide access to all students” (Nelson, 2). The UDL framework helps educators think about and design learning experiences that allow all students to be successful.

When I work with schools that have already adopted the UDL framework, they immediately recognize how blended learning can help teachers to implement many of the principles of UDL more effectively. Instead of thinking about UDL and blended learning as two separate disconnected approaches to teaching and learning, it is worth exploring the overlap between the two. I believe that blended learning models can make putting UDL into practice more manageable. When teachers shift from a one-size-all approach to differentiating and personalizing learning, it is natural to consider what individual learners need to make progress toward learning goals.

The UDL framework is grounded in three main principles: 1) engagement, 2) representation, and 3) action and expression.

EngagementActive involvement in learning that is relevant, valuable, and interesting
RepresentationAccess to multiple ways to experience or receive information
Action and ExpressionSet goals, monitor and track progress toward goals, engage in metacognitive skill-building through self-assessment and demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways


In this first of three blog posts focused on UDL and blended learning, I’ll be focusing specifically on the first principle of engagement. Engagement is the students’ active involvement in learning that they perceive as relevant, valuable, and interesting.

Within the principle of engagement there are three guidelines: 1) providing options for self-regulation, 2) providing options for sustaining effort and persistence, and 3) providing options for recruiting interest.


Teachers can use blended learning to create the time and space necessary for students to:

  • Set personal, academic, and behavioral goals.
  • Track and monitor their progress toward goals.
  • Bring their goals to conferencing sessions with their teachers.

These routines can help students to develop critical self-regulation skills necessary to succeed both in and beyond school.

In my last book, Balance with Blended Learning, I share a range of goal setting strategies and encourage teachers to build ongoing self-assessment routines into their classrooms that encourage students to think critically about their work and their progress. These routines shift students from a passive role in receiving learning objectives, academic goals, and assessment scores to generating their own.

One strategy I like for helping students think about goal setting is using the three-part progression of 1) Where am I going? 2) How will I get there? 3) When will I know I’ve arrived?

Once students have set their academic, personal, or behavior goals, they can revisit these goals to track their progress toward them. Teachers can use this goal-setting document to ground their conferences about student progress, anchoring the conversation in goals that the students have set for themselves.

In addition to revisiting and revising their goals, I encourage teachers to engage students in an ongoing process of self-assessment and reflection. Students need to get comfortable thinking about their learning and evaluating the development of specific skills. Creating an ongoing self-assessment document can help students regularly engage in this metacognitive skill-building.

Sustaining Effort and Persistence

Students are more likely to expend effort and remain persistent in the face of challenges if they feel they are part of a dynamic learning community. I have anchored my own research and work in the fields of blended and online learning in the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework because I appreciate the emphasis on the role of community in constructing and confirming meaning.

Teachers can create a support network for students if they design lessons that encourage communication and collaboration. For example, teachers using the station rotation model can effectively shift the focus from the teacher to the learners so that groups of students must negotiate tasks together. As pictured in the image below, stations can be used to engage students in small group discussions (face-to-face or online) and encourage collaboration by presenting the group with a shared task or challenge.

In addition to encouraging students to learn with and from each other, they need timely, mastery-oriented feedback from the teacher to continue making progress, appreciate the role the effort and practice play in improvement, and develop confidence in their abilities. I encourage teachers to design lessons that allow them to pull feedback into the classroom so that students received focused feedback while they are working. Building this into a station rotation lesson, as pictured above, it one strategy. Instead of focusing myopically on our role as “instructor” transferring information, I’d love to see teachers embrace their role as a coach in the classroom, helping students to develop specific skills. That is much easier to do when teachers are not shepherding an entire class through a single lesson.

Recruiting Interest

Different learners have different interests, strengths, and values. That’s why teachers must prioritize student agency. Teachers will have more success in engaging students if they build “choice and voice” into the curriculum. What decisions can learners make about their learning?

In my research of teacher engagement in blended learning courses, teachers identified student agency as a significant benefit of blended learning. Teachers believed that moving away from a teacher-centered whole group lesson made it easier to provide students with choice and voice.

One of my favorite strategies for integrating student agency into a blended learning course is through the use of project choice boards that invite students to decide how they want to demonstrate their learning at the end of a unit of study.

Blended learning provides a pathway for teachers looking to plan and implement learning experiences that align with UDL principles. Teachers can use the time, space, and flexibility afforded by blended learning to increase student engagement by teaching self-regulation skills, fostering communication and collaboration among a community of learners, and prioritizing student agency. In my next blog, I will explore the UDL principle of representation using the lens of blended learning.

Nelson, L. (2014). Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company, Inc.

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22 Responses

  1. Love the goal-setting page! I’ve used something similar but added in barriers/supports to help students identify what things might slow them down and who they can rely on to continue to support them to their goal!

  2. I love the idea of the digital choice board! Choice is so powerful for our students, and having a variety of ways to be creative, through movies, videos, even books!

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love the project choice boards! I’ve been utilizing Google slides and screenshotting the entire box to make it an image. That way, they can click on the whole box instead of the URL. Simple, but it seems to make it easier for my students. Allowing students the freedom to choose requires some teacher preparation, but it all pays off with their independence and creativity!

  4. Hello Catlin.
    Hope you are well. I was very excited to see your presentation on the recent Study Sync Symposium. I am a big fan of yours. I have been following you since my school adopted Study Sync 6 years ago. In your recent post about Universal Design for learning, you shared a picture of the argument paragraph graphic organizer you use. Does this follow the writing structure Study Sync uses in the writing lessons? Would you be willing to share it or tell me how you outline your graphic organizer for argumentative writing?

  5. Wow! This blog post was very informative and truly helped me feel more confident in my ability to use Universal Design for Learning as a way to incorporate more blended learning within my classroom. Ensuring my students are engaged and actively learning is something I strive for when using technology. I believe using the Project Choice Board that you included at the end of your post will allow my students the freedom to select a tool they find interesting, while actively learning and having the opportunity to collaborate with others. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

    • You’re welcome, Ashley! I’m thrilled you can use the choice board with your students to give them agency over how they share or demonstrate their learning!

      Take care.

  6. Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning: Engagement
    One of the main goals of UDL is to create expert learners. We want to “shift students from a passive role in receiving learning objectives, academic goals, and assessment scores to generating their own.” (Tucker 9/7/20)

    Connect: How do the ideas and information in this reading connect to what you already know about engagement?
    “The UDL framework is grounded in three main principles: 1) engagement, 2) representation and 3) action and expression. .” (Tucker 9/7/20)
    Engagement/connection is the first principle. It is critical. Nothing else will matter if the students aren’t engaged in their learning. UDL is something we train on all the time in the world of special education. This article tapped into my prior knowledge but also into my interest area.
    UDL is all about looking at the learner and how the learner engages with the content. The connection is engagement. It also talks about how each learner is different and how we need to provide options to address the individual needs of the learner.
    This article talks about the three guidelines of engagement 1) providing options for self-regulation, 2) providing options for sustaining effort and persistence, and 3) providing options for recruiting interest. If a student is not interested in the content and its delivery, they will not sustain their interest.

    Canvas allows teachers to create routines around content delivery and how students respond to content. Students can set goals, see their grades in Canvas, monitor the assignments, as well as the ability to conference with their teacher and others when needed. This supports a student’s self-regulation needs.

    Extend: How does this reading extend or broaden your thinking about engagement?
    While I am creating a course in Canvas, I try to create a variety of options to anticipate the needs and barriers of my students the best I can. They can access content through live Zoom, video recording, and PowerPoint. They can respond to homework with artifacts, conversational in the chat or they can submit a video with their responses. For some students, these options are enough to support engagement while others still struggle with investing in the content.
    When we talk about sustaining interest and offering choice, I feel like I do that to an extent, but I don’t make it as visible as I could. I love the idea of the choice board and I will definitely start implementing that in the assignments.
    When I look at Canvas and engagement defined in UDL, I want to make sure that the learning is meaningful. To expand my thinking on the subject of engagement, I need to start having them set a goal for themselves. We talk about what the course will cover, what they want to learn about, but I haven’t had them set a personal goal related to the learning yet. I will definitely start adding that into my courses.

    Challenge: Does this reading challenge or complicate your understanding of engagement? What new questions does it raise for you?
    It definitely challenges it. I want to make sure that I am meeting their needs and that they are invested in the learning. I also want them to become expert learners in the content giving them choice and building a learning cohort with each other. I know I have a lot to improve upon, but now I know where to go and what I need to do to get the engagement I wanted to see from them.

  7. I copied this phrase, ” Different learners have different interests, strengths, and values.” I am putting it on my computer as a reminder everyday. It really spoke to me and reminded me that I need to keep this in mind at all times.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      I’m glad that line spoke to you! One of my favorite aspects of blended learning is that it makes it possible to design and facilitate learning that strives to meet kids where they are at.


  8. Connection- Engagement happens when students are interested and feel like what they are learning is relevant to their own lives. The UDL framework focuses on provided this type of learning situations.

    Extend- The idea of self-regulation being linked to engagement connected several concepts for me. I knew that self-regulation, such as students tracking and monitoring their own goals is very high on Hattie’s scale and a powerful tool in the classroom. I knew that it had a positive impact on academic growth. I didn’t really think about how this also has an impact on their engagement. It makes sense that students who are seeing growth would feel more motivated to learn and continue that growth.

    My question about self-regulation and goal tracking is what about the students who “don’t care?” I know that differentiation allows us to have students working on goals that are specific to themselves and that this will help ensure that they are showing progress and not getting discourage most of the time. But what about that student that doesn’t put forth the effort and doesn’t see that growth. In their mind they are “working hard” but then not seeing the growth just proves to them that there isn’t any point in trying. I have also had students who do excel and grow but really don’t care about their positive growth. It isn’t of interest to them, so it isn’t engaging. Now, I understand that not every technique works for every student, and that students self-tracking is a powerful tool overall, but I am curious is anyone has found a way to reach this small handful of students.

  9. Several years ago, I had taken a professional development course about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). With connecting this to engagement, the UDL framework is a great motivator for students because the teacher is able to provide students with goal-oriented tasks. In my class, I’ve always helped students to set goals. Goal setting is a very valuable tool that teaches students self-motivation. When we reach our goals, we feel great about ourselves and this provides so many more benefits as well. This reading extended my thinking about engagement, because I want to incorporate the choice boards. Choice boards would allow the student to demonstrate their understanding of a lesson/unit. I have used these in the past, but not in recent years. The challenge for me is to just make sure I’m providing choice for all of my students. I want all to be successful in each academic area.

  10. I like the station rotation model. I was thinking how this could be setup on zoom and you give students the option which room they would want to go into and work on. In the visual above you have one section that says “real time feedback”. What excactly do you mean by that and what would that look like in the blended learning environment?

    • Hi Marc,

      Real-time feedback is a teacher-led station dedicated to feedback within a station rotation (in person or virtual). If you wanted to allow students to select their two stations as I suggest in this blog, that might be work they do in a specific breakout room, or you may want to allow them to work asynchronously offline if the task does not require conversation, collaboration, or peer support.

      The teacher can stay in the main room with their “group,” allowing students to continue work on something in progress (writing assignment, project, etc.) and jump into and out of documents to give focused, actionable feedback as students work. Alternatively, the teacher can pull individual students into a breakout room designated for real-time feedback if you want these sessions to be a verbal check-in or conversation about their progress.

      These real-time feedback sessions are an opportunity to provide mastery-based feedback and help students feel seen and supported as they work.

      Take care.

  11. Connect: Students are more engaged in what they are doing when they can establish ownership as part of it. The digital choice board and the station rotation would lend themselves well to this.
    Extend: I tend to have the notion that engagement only happens when the teacher is with their students directly. I think that it is an important realization that engagement can be just as prevalent when students are working together or when they are working alone.
    Challenge: I need to take a deeper look into what I am asking of my students and ways that I can allow them to demonstrate their understanding/learning differently. I need to remember that learning doesn’t always fit into a one-size fits all box.

    • Wow, Ashley! I love that you use the connect, extend, challenge thinking routine to share your thoughts on this post! Such a fun way to engage with a text, but I’ve never had someone do it in response to one of my blogs. I especially appreciate your “extend” and recognizing that kids engage with and without us. They are capable of engaging without us. I think the key is to give them agency, allow them to select a lens of interest when approaching a topic, and making real connections to life beyond the classroom.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I enjoyed reading it 🙂

      Take care.

  12. I really enjoyed reading the articles and linking universal design and blended learning . My favorite is the choice board and using the goals to meet my students . The where?? How and when questions.

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