Universal Design: Instructional Strategies

Good teaching 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.  By using teaching strategies that reflect the principles of universal design (UD), instructors can aim to support all learners. 

The following tips fall into three main categories: accessibilityvariability, and supportive class climate.  The tips and their examples 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. 


Use accessible instructional methods. Reduce the unnecessary barriers related to students’ ability to perceive and understand information. For example,

  • Wear a microphone in classrooms that seat 25 or more students. Classrooms with background noise from projector fans or heating and cooling systems make it challenging – exhausting, even – for students to listen attentively, especially for students who have difficulty hearing or processing what they hear. Even if you think you have a loud voice, avoid making assumptions about how well others can hear you.
  • Always repeat a student’s comment or question into the microphone before responding so that all students can hear the context for your response.
  • Face the class when speaking and speak as clearly as possible. Many students learn best when they see their instructor’s mouth and facial expressions.
  • Reinforce key terms by writing them down so that students can follow the lesson. This strategy will assist students who have difficulty hearing or understanding you and those who are still becoming familiar with the vocabulary of the discipline.
  • When presenting visual aids, give a verbal explanation so that students who have difficulty seeing or processing what they see can follow along.
  • Provide explicit, clear instructions for assignments, in writing, and, if possible, in class.
  • Break assignment instructions into steps and present those steps on one page (or webpage).
  • Provide specific examples to illustrate important concepts so that students can make connections that they will remember.
  • Chunk large amounts of content into small sections and take small breaks between sections so that students don’t become cognitively overloaded.
  • If possible, review the list of students who are registered with AccessAbility Services when planning learning activities, assessments, and experiential learning activities so that appropriate alternatives can be developed for students who need accommodations.
  • If a student requests an accmmodation, refer them to AccessAbility Services so that an appropriate accommodation plan can be established that considers the student’s medical condition and functional limitations.


Use a variety of instructional formats and methods.Increase opportunities to learn by presenting information in different formats throughout the course. For example,

  • Use readings, images, graphics, tables, graphs, videos, timelines, or simulations, as appropriate.
  • In addition to lecturing, include discussions, peer learning activities, problem-solving activities, and other forms of instruction that fit your content/discipline. See Nine Alternatives to Lecturing and Active Learning Activities.

Use a variety of strategies to engage students.Student engagement is linked to a number of positive learning outcomes such as motivation and academic achievement (Gunuc, 2014; Kuh et al., 2008). Throughout the course, use various means of engaging students.  For example,

  • Address students by name. In large classes, strive to learn as many students’ names as possible and let students know that you are trying to learn their names. Even if you forget some names, students will likely appreciate that you are making an effort.
  • Provide opportunities to practice the skills being taught (e.g., self-assessment activities).
  • Model the process involved in an assigned task (e.g., show students the steps you would take if you were completing the assigned task).
  • Avoid giving unnecessary grades for mere attendance or penalizing students for missing class. This is especially important for students who miss class as a result of a disability, as communicated by AccessAbility Services. Even in courses in which attendance is essential due to workshop or group activities, explore ways to have students present in alternative ways (e.g. collaborative online apps).
  • Periodically promptstudents to draw connections between the material and the world around them. 
  • Avoid overusing one type of learning activity (e.g., small group discussions); although that method might engage some students, it could pose barriers to others. 
  • Where feasible, offer some choice. Choice enables students to deepen their engagement with the course material and allows students to use their strengths to more effectively show what they know.
  • Let students know that you care about how they are doing.

Supportive Class Climate

Foster an inclusive class climate that values diversity.Students’ sense of belonging is positively associated with learning (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2007; Strayhorn, T., 2012; Trujillo & Tanner, 2014). There are many ways in which instructors can show their commitment to creating an inclusive learning environment, for example,

  • Put a statement on your course outline that communicates how you, yourself, value inclusivity in your course. Talk to your students at the beginning of term about this written statement.
  • Foster inclusivity in group work by providing students with guidelines and resources for how to work out conflicts with others.
  • Avoid using instructional materials and examples that foster stereotypes.
  • Recognize the importance of respecting students’ choice of pronoun. See Gender Pronouns and Teaching tip sheet.
  • Respect students’ privacy by not discussing their accommodations in front of others and by not causing them to disclose their disability.

Create a supportive learning environment. Instructors can communicate a caring, learner-centred environment by eliminating unnecessary hurdles and by demonstrating an understanding that mistakes are a normal part of learning.  For example,

  • Recognize that Universal Design reduces barriers but it does not eliminate the need for accommodation.
  • Be familiar with protocols and policies related to providing accommodations. See Policy 58, Student Academic Accommodation Procedures [link when live in 2019]  and AccessAbility Services’ information for Faculty & Staff.
  • Don’t “cold call” students in class unless they have indicated that they are comfortable with this.  
  • Encourage students to ask questions and come to office hours.
  • Avoid implementing in-class restrictions on technology (e.g., laptops) that would force students to reveal their need for accommodations to their classmates.
  • Foster metacognitive skill development by providing multiple opportunities to practice skills so that students can assess their readiness for the midterm or end of term assessments.  See Teaching Metacognitive Skills.
  • Avoid high-stakes grading schemes and final exams where the majority of a student’s grade relies on how they perform on one day. 
  • Help students recognize that mistakes and failures are a normal part of the learning process for everyone.
  • When possible, give students opportunities to revise work to learn from their mistakes.
  • Mark for both process and product – reward a good process even if the end product has issues.
  • Provide timely feedback and opportunities to apply feedback.
  • Check your assumptions. There are many reasons why a student might miss class, submit a late assignment, or fail a midterm.


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. 


  • Freeman, T.M., Anderman, L.H., & Jensen, J.M. (2007. Sense of belonging in college freshmen at the classroom and campus levels. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 203-220.
  • Gunuc, S. (2014). The relationships between student engagement and their academic achievement. International Journal on New Trends in Education and Their Implications, 5(4), 216-231.
  • Kuh, G.D., Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R.M. (2008). Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence.  The Journal of Higher Education, 79(5), 540- 563.
  • Strayhorn, T.L. (2012). College Student’ Sense of Belonging. A Key to Educational Success for All Students. Taylor & Francis, New York.
  • Trujillo, G., & Tanner, K.D. (2014). Considering the role of affect in learning: Monitoring students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and science identity. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 13, 6-15.


teaching tips

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