Ms. Donaldson teaches high school U.S. History. And she is always looking for ways to make her classes more interesting. This year, she is planning to do that by having her students read Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, to demonstrate their understanding of cultural, economic, political and social development of the 20th century. Ms. Donaldson and her colleagues in the history department are also trying to bring some ideas from Universal Design for Learning to their curriculum. They teach inclusive classes comprised of students with a wide range of abilities and interests and they know that they are not reaching all of the students (test scores and attendance are both down over the past two years). So Ms. Donaldson is going to look at her Invisible Man unit through the prism of UDL; she wants to see if she can use it to increase access to learning for all of her students. And to do this, she knows that she needs to be flexible and proactive in addressing her students’ needs and preferences.

Ms. Donaldson begins by looking at one of her primary goals for the unit:

“The students will read the novel “Invisible Man” and write a three-page, typed paper about its depiction of cultural, economic, political and social development in mid-20th century America.”

And she realizes that there are already some potential barriers there for her students. Ms. Donaldson analyzes the goal in terms of the three principles of UDL:

Potential Barriers

  • Representation
    • Students with visual problems or physical disabilities may not be able to read and hold the book/turn the pages; students with certain learning disabilities may not be able to decode and understand the printed text
  • Action and Expression
    • Students with organizational problems may not be able to put their ideas together to create a coherent paper; some students with physical disabilities may not be able to use a computer to type their paper
  • Strategic
    • Some students may find it uninteresting or just not have an interest in reading fiction

And now Ms. Donaldson takes a step back. Are the essential parts of the goal to have her students read this particular book (Invisible Man) and create a three-page, typed paper? If so, she can probably provide enough scaffolding to help many of her students to complete these tasks. However, if her intent is actually not so specific, then Ms. Donaldson can remove many of the potential barriers here and create a new goal:

“The students will learn about the cultural, economic, political and social development in mid-20th century America U.S. and then create a presentation demonstrating what they have learned.”

Once again, Ms. Donaldson looks at the goal from a UDL perspective:

Potential UDL Solutions

  • Representation
    • Some students may still want to read the print version of Invisible Man, but now students can also choose to access relevant content in other formats such as; audio book, digital text, video, audio speeches, images – to suit their abilities and their learning preferences
  • Action and Expression
    • Some students may still want to write a paper, but now students can also choose to give an oral presentation, make a video or create a short drama – again, based on their abilities and preferences
  • Strategic
    • Some students may still want to read, but some may want to choose from other resources Ms. Donaldson can suggest – a book about Jackie Robinson for students who like sports, a documentary film for particularly visual students – whatever it takes to engage students in the content.

Pulling the learning goal apart and identifying the ultimate intent of the goal (the “what” and not the “how” of the goal) helps Ms. Donaldson build a better goal for all of her students.


When setting learning goals for your students, don’t get bogged down in the “how” of the goal. Different students will inevitably have different ways of reaching the goal (especially if you give them the opportunity). The most important factor in a learning goal is the “what” of the goal. What exactly is it that you want your students to learn?