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In developing Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the researchers at CAST identified three main areas or “networks” in the brain:

  • The recognition network is where we process information gathered by our senses, e.g. words that we have read or heard, images that we have seen and objects that we have touched. This network is all about the information coming INTO our brains and represents the “what” of learning.
  • The strategic network helps us to organize our ideas and then plan and carry out tasks based on these ideas. When we answer a question on a test or build a diorama, we are using the strategic network. This network is largely about information going from our brains OUT TO our muscles so that we can act. It is the “how” of learning.
  • The affective network is about which things interest and challenge us. For example, when a child becomes excited about math because he can use it to measure the speed of a rocket (as opposed to using numbers in a more abstract way), it is because his affective network is engaged by the idea of the rocket. The affective network is about the “why” of learning, the activities or ideas that MOTIVATE us to learn.

The CAST researchers discovered that everyone – non-disabled and disabled alike – exhibits differences in the way each of these networks function. It turns out that the activity in these networks is actually as unique as each person’s fingerprints. And that means that there is no such thing as a “typical learner” and that any kind of “one-size-fits-all” educational approach does not reach all learners. Research has shown that every person’s brain, even at the broadest of perspectives, is just as unique as his or her fingerprints.

UDL was developed in response to this. It does not ask the diverse learners in every classroom to adjust to the curriculum. Instead, UDL asks that the curriculum be designed to address the diversity of the learners to whom it will be presented.  It addresses the differences among learners based on the three brain networks. And it uses “many sizes” rather than “one-size”:


  • The curriculum is to provide multiple and flexible means of presenting what is to be learned (representation) so that all students will be able to access the content of the curriculum; e.g., some students may read the textbook, while others use a digital version of the text that includes text-to-speech software


  • The curriculum is to provide multiple and flexible means of action and expression so that all students will be able to demonstrate what they have learned; e.g., some students write a paper on a topic, while others give an oral presentation


  • The curriculum is to provide multiple and flexible means of engaging the learner in what is to be learned so that all students will be motivated to learn; e.g., some students work on a project individually, while others, who are more stimulated by collaboration, work in teams.

UDL is about understanding your students and taking into account their varied differences so that they all have opportunities to learn. It asks you to be flexible and to give your students multiple ways to learn and show what they have learned by using UDL’s three main principles:

  • Representation
  • Action and Expression
  • Engagement

More examples of how you can use UDL to adapt your current curriculum to your students’ needs are found in  UDL in Your Classroom.

Access to Learning

While UDL, of course, involves giving all students physical access to the classroom and to information, it is also critical that students have access to learning. A wheelchair ramp may help a student enter a classroom, but if the content is not presented in an engaging way that the student can grasp and process, then the student is not likely to achieve high standards. It is important to keep in mind as you continue to explore this topic, that the key to student success is the focus on universally designed learning experiences.