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Universal Design for Learning
December 2020


What does the research say about Universal Design for Learning and accessible curriculum in support of creating inclusive learning environments for students with disabilities?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Carabajal, I. G., Marshall, A. M., & Atchison, C. L. (2017). A synthesis of instructional strategies in geoscience education literature that address barriers to inclusion for students with disabilities. Journal of Geoscience Education, 65(4), 531-541.

From the Abstract:
"People with disabilities make up the largest minority population in the U.S. yet remain sorely underrepresented in scientific disciplines that require components of field-based training such as the geosciences. This paper provides a critical analysis of broadening participation within geoscience education literature through the use of accessible and inclusive instructional practices that support students with physical and sensory disabilities. Common physical and nonphysical barriers that discourage the full participation of students with disabilities in classroom, laboratory, and field activities are illustrated in this review. In areas of limited reportable data relevant in the geoscience-focused literature, a broader science, technology, engineering, and mathematics perspective is provided. Gaps in the literature were identified to include limited empirical evidence on the effectiveness of inclusive curricular design and the limited opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in advanced, multiday geoscience field trips. The purpose of highlighting this collection of literature is to encourage the use of more equitable and inclusive instructional strategies, including alternative strategies and virtual learning environments that increase access and enhance participation for students with physical and sensory disabilities."

Coyne, P., Pisha, B., Dalton, B., Zeph, L. A., & Smith, N. C. (2012). Literacy by design: A Universal Design for Learning approach for students with significant intellectual disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 33(3), 162-172. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Literacy instruction for students with significant intellectual disabilities traditionally emphasizes isolated skills instruction focusing on sight words and basic vocabulary. Recent research suggests these students benefit from high-quality instruction that includes comprehension and storybook reading. This study examined the effect of a technology-based universal design for learning (UDL) approach to literacy instruction, Literacy by Design (LBD), on the reading achievement of 16 students with significant intellectual disabilities in Grades K–2. The LBD approach emphasizes reading for meaning, combining UDL-scaffolded e-books and letter and word recognition software. Nine teachers received training in research-based literacy practices. Of these, five received LBD training and implemented it four to five times weekly. Controlling for initial reading achievement, the LBD group made significantly greater gains on the Woodcock–Johnson Test of Achievement III Passage Comprehension subtest. Implications for research and practice in beginning reading instruction for children with significant intellectual disabilities are discussed."

Crevecoeur, Y. C., Sorenson, S. E., Mayorga, V., & Gonzalez, A. P. (2014). Universal Design for Learning in K-12 educational settings: A review of group comparison and single-subject intervention studies. The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 3(2), 1-23.

From the Abstract:
"This literature review on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) included articles from January 1984 through June 2014. We (a) investigated the UDL educational framework without the inclusion of other major K-12 educational frameworks in learning environments, (b) reported researchers' scope and depth of use of the UDL principles, and (c) focused our investigation on two research methods: group comparison and single-subject. We used the quality indicators for evidence-based practices (EBPs) in special education to review, not rate, the final pool of five peer-reviewed articles. Results included analyses of the incorporation of UDL principles in all identified studies, highlighting the need for caution in promoting conceptual frameworks until sufficient empirical evidence is available to validate pedagogical utility in educational environments. We conclude that the UDL framework has merit but researchers must conduct studies that use group comparison and single-subject studies to independently test the UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints to increase the likelihood of causation in treatment outcomes."

Edyburn, D. L., & Edyburn, K. D. (2012). Tools for creating accessible, tiered, and multilingual web-based curricula. Intervention in School and Clinic, 47(4), 199-205. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Although inclusion has provided access to the general education classroom for students with disabilities, there are significant questions about whether these students have gained full access to the curriculum. To design curricula for diverse learners, designers must have a clear picture of the obstacles and barriers that some students encounter. This article describes a design process that was used to create a web-based tool that allows teachers to created tiered web-based curricula for their classroom without any programming knowledge. The goal is to allow educators to quickly and easily develop digital instructional materials that are simultaneously accessible, flexible, and engaging for diverse learners such that supports are embedded into the curriculum for all students to use as needed. This article describes the steps, and missteps, along an instructional design journey."

Grigal, M., Cooney, L., & Hart, D. (2019). Promoting college and career readiness with middle school youth with disabilities: Lessons learned from a curriculum development project. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 42(1), 64-71.

From the Abstract:
"Engagement and academic success in middle school is critically important to ensure students with disabilities complete high school and have a viable path to and through postsecondary education. Although most middle school students say they want to pursue postsecondary education or training, a significant proportion are not actively engaged in college and career readiness (CCR) activities in middle school. This transition in practice article highlights the importance of early CCR instruction for middle school youth with and without disabilities. Lessons learned from developing an online CCR curriculum and implementing it with middle school youth in inclusive middle school settings will be shared. Access to and comfort with technology, the need for age-appropriate content, and strategies for universally designed curriculum will be addressed. Recommended practices and available resources will be offered to expand educator focus on CCR with middle school youth with a wide range of disabilities."

Katz, J. (2013). The Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Engaging students in inclusive education. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(1), 153-194. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"When the Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning (Katz, 2012a) is implemented, outcomes related to student academic and social engagement were investigated in this study. 631 students from Grades 1 to 12 attending ten schools located in two rural and three urban school divisions in Manitoba took part in the study. Intervention and control groups were assessed pre and during intervention for academic and social engagement. Student and teacher demographics, types of task and grouping structures being assigned were investigated to determine impacts on engagement. Students completed several measures of classroom climate, belongingness, student autonomy, and inclusivity/exclusivity, and a selected sample were observed to obtain detailed information about their engaged behavior. Data were analyzed using repeated measures MANCOVAs. The intervention significantly increased students' engaged behavior, particularly active engagement, and promoted social engagement through increased peer interactions, student autonomy, and inclusivity."

King-Sears, M. E., Johnson, T., Berkeley, S., Weiss, M., Peters-Burton, E., Evmenova, A., . . . Hursh, J. (2015). An exploratory study of universal design for teaching chemistry to students with and without disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38(2), 84-96. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In this exploratory study, students in four co-taught high school chemistry classes were randomly assigned to a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) treatment or a comparison condition. Each co-teaching team taught one comparison and treatment class. UDL principles were operationalized for treatment: (a) a self-management strategy (using a mnemonic, IDEAS) for the multi-step mole conversion process; (b) multi-media lessons with narration, visuals, and animations; (c) procedural facilitators with IDEAS for conversion support; and (d) student workbooks mirroring video content and containing scaffolded practice problems. All students completed a pre-test, post-test, and a 4-week delayed post-test. There were no significant differences between conditions; however, there was an interaction effect between students with and without disabilities for post-tests. Social validity indicated students found IDEAS helpful. Implications for future research include continued focus on disaggregated learning outcomes for students with and without disabilities for UDL interventions, and refinements for UDL interventions that benefit students with and without disabilities."

Messinger-Willman, J., & Marino, M. T. (2010). Universal Design for Learning and assistive technology: Leadership considerations for promoting inclusive education in today’s secondary schools. NASSP Bulletin, 94(1), 5-16. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The increased number of students with learning disabilities in general education secondary school classrooms presents complex challenges for today's educators. This article describes how the Universal Design for Learning theoretical framework can be used with assistive technology to enhance educational opportunities for secondary students with learning disabilities. Barriers that prevent secondary teachers from effectively selecting, adopting, implementing, and assessing assistive technology devices are discussed and potential solutions are identified. The article concludes with recommendations for enhancing secondary teachers' professional development opportunities."

Morningstar, M. E., Shogren, K. A., Lee, H., & Born, K. (2015). Preliminary lessons about supporting participation and learning in inclusive classrooms. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(3), 192-210. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This descriptive study examined observational data collected in inclusive classrooms from six schools that were operating schoolwide inclusive policies and practices. Illustrative evidence of classroom practices supporting learning and participation of all students, including students with significant disabilities, adds to an understanding of structural methods supporting inclusion, as well as insights into instructional strategies and approaches used to support inclusive practices. Supports for participation were observed in several domains: (a) instructional staffing arrangements and roles, (b) methods of instructional groupings, (c) peer-supported learning, and (d) access to core academic curriculum. Supports for learning were also observed, including (a) universal design for learning, (b) behavioral interventions, and (c) accommodations and modifications. The results are discussed in relation to implementation of essential components of inclusive classrooms and the issues the field is facing with regard to effective practices leading to student learning and inclusion within classrooms and throughout schools."

Ok, M. W., Rao, K., Bryant, B. R., & McDougall, D. (2017). Universal Design for Learning in pre-K to grade 12 classrooms: A systematic review of research. Exceptionality, 25(2), 116-138. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Some researchers have characterized Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a promising framework to provide diverse students with access to the general education curriculum, but to what extent and how have UDL-based interventions fulfilled that promise? The purpose of this review was to analyze studies that investigated impacts of UDL-based instruction on academic and social outcomes for pre-K to grade 12 students. For the 13 studies that qualified for our review, we analyzed how researchers applied UDL principles as well as outcomes and efficacy of UDL-based interventions. Results of this analysis suggest that overall, UDL-based instruction has the potential to increase engagement and access to general education curriculum for students with disabilities, and improve students' academic and social outcomes. However, we found mixed results; the efficacy of UDL-based interventions varied considerably within and across many studies, with effect sizes ranging from small to large. In addition, we found that although authors noted that their interventions were UDL-based, there was considerable variance in how authors reported connections between specific UDL guidelines and components of their interventions."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: "Universal Design for Learning", Accessible AND curriculum AND disabilities, Inclusive or inclusion, "Inclusive classrooms", "Universally designed", "Learning environment"

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.