Universal Design: Course Design

Good course design involves considering the strengths and needs of all learners.  There is no such thing as an “average learner”:  students learn and process information in different ways. Instructors can consider the diversity in their learners by applying the principles of universal design (UD) when they design their courses.

The following design tips focus on four main categories: flexibility, accessibility, variability, and minimization of unnecessary effort.  These tips are by no means exhaustive and are not meant to be implemented all at once.  As you strive to consider the differences in how students learn, start by selecting just one or two ideas that you find easy to adopt and that make sense in your context.  Know that making even one change will benefit a number of students.  Applying UD principles to course design will not eliminate the need for certain academic accommodations, since students are diverse in many ways, but these strategies tend to mitigate the number of requests while supporting learning for all students. 

For example, the usual request for notetakers in one large first year course on campus was already met by the design of a participation grade that included an option for students to write lecture notes using a collaborative online tool, automatically shared with those who could not take notes for themselves or be present in a given lecture due to their particular circumstances.


Build in flexibility where feasible.The extent to which you can incorporate flexibility depends on several factors, including your learning outcomes, class size, TA support, the nature of your course (required or elective), and the timing of assignments.  When writing your course outline, look for places where introducing flexibility makes sense in your course, for example:

  • Provide a ‘slip day’ for assignments: a slip day allows students the ability to submit one assignment after the due date without penalty.  Students chose which assignment they will apply the slip day to. 
  • Avoid inflexible, unduly punitive, or high-risk course policies such as giving students zero if they upload the wrong assignment in a dropbox.
  • Create more than one version of tests and exams to enable make-up options and provide an opportunity to make up a missed midterm rather than adding those marks to the final exam.
  • Allow students to choose from a limited range of topics for a major assignment, but recognize that too much choice can result in undue stress.
  • Allow for flexibility in the weighting of course components.

Identify course requirements where flexibility is and is not feasible. While flexibility benefits all students, it is particularly important for students who qualify for accommodations. Intended learning outcomes may all be deemed essential, while some may be more flexible in terms of either the goals or the means of achieving them. Rarely is a specific type or format of assessment or learning activity absolutely required in a course; in most cases, other comparable options exist that would enable students to demonstrate that they have met the intended learning outcomes. However, in some programs or courses, how students meet the outcomes cannot be altered without fundamentally changing the nature of an essential requirement. 

  • Review your course learning outcomes, assessments, and learning activities carefully and critically so that you can identify any specific essential requirements in your course outline, along with a rationale for why flexibility is not possible.
  • Consider whether skills that students may need to develop later on as professionals can really be deemed essential in your course.  Not all students in your course may end up working in a certain profession: career development on the job can help them to hone the specific skills or knowledge needed for career success.


  • Prepare accessible instructional materials.  Accessible materials enable students with disabilities to be able to access course content in whatever way they need, which is particularly important for students who use adaptive technology (e.g., screenreader, screen enhancement software). There are several steps involved in creating accessible materials; start with making just one small change and build from there as you are able. 
  • The WebAIM Accessibility Guidelines outline four principles of accessibility to consider when creating and selecting instructional materials. In short, these principles state that information must be perceivable, the user interface must be operable and understandable, and content must be robust enough to be used by a wide variety of users.
  • Follow the WebAIM guidelines on the use of colour, size of font, formatting of the document, etc. to create accessible PowerPoint presentationsWord documents and PDFs.
  • Select videos that allow the option to turn on captions. 
  • Select textbooks that are also available in a digital format. 
  • Provide presentation materials online so that students can review the material before or after class and adjust the format as needed. 
  • Chunk large amunts of content into small sections.
  • Plan for accessibility before the start of term:
    • Examine your classroom space for potential barriers (e.g., physical space, acoustics, sightlines)
    • Review your list of students already registered with AccessAbility Services (knowing too that students may require accommodations at various points in their academic career, including issues emerging in the middle or end of term)
    • Explore with AccessAbility Services how required and appropriate accommodations can fit with your course context and its essential requirements.


Include a variety of assessment types in your course. Students can demonstrate their learning in different ways, and have different strengths and areas for development.  

  • Use a variety of assessment methods to provide a more equitable way for learners to show what they know. Rather than having only one type of assessment (e.g., written), include various formats throughout your course, where feasible (e.g., written work, oral presentations, tests, self-assessments, individual projects, group projects, peer evaluation, etc.).  Where possible, give students some choice in which of these formats they will use to show evidence of their learning. This can help them to decide for themselves when, all other things considered, they want to do something familiar or seek out a challenge or build a new strength.
  • Expand on the ways in which you measure and grade class participation so that quiet students can still demonstrate that they are engaged in class. For example, allow students to submit discussion questions in writing before class, or, after class, have them submit a written summary of the class discussion. Consider using some online text-based discussion tools for in-class live discussion, not just for between-class discussion.


Minimize unnecessary effort and stress.The goal is not to reduce effort and stress altogether: learning requires effort and is sometimes stressful.  However, learning can be hindered when students expend too much energy working on tasks that don’t contribute to their learning.  To limit unnecessary effort and stress, you can:

  • Assign readings that are relevant and necessary to meet the intended learning outcomes as “required” readings, and designate other readings as “supplemental”.
  • At the beginning of term, tell students about the types of assessments you will be using and the timing of the assessments so that they can plan ahead. 
  • Post teaching materials before class so that students who need to review the material before class or modify the format to accommodate for a disability can do so.
  • Where possible, allow students to submit their work electronically so that those who have writing difficulties aren’t singled out in class.  
  • In LEARN, especially in online courses, provide sufficient and clear instructions for submitting assignments and taking quizzes.
  • Avoid confusion by ensuring that the name of a LEARN dropbox matches the name of the assignment as it appears on the course outline.
  • Co-ordinate midterm dates with instructors of other required courses that the majority of your students would likely be taking in the same term.
  • Avoid final exams worth more than 30%-35% so that the majority of students’ final grade is not determined by how they perform on one day. 
  • Schedule some assessments early in the term so that students can make informed decisions based on grades and feedback.  If they need to drop a course, this strategy will enable them to decide which course to drop and avoid incurring costly penalties.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

References and Resources

teaching tips

This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Universal Design: Course Design. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.