UDL Awareness Month: Multiple Means of Action and Expression

May is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Month at Langara.

Universal Design for Learning (CC0 1.0)
Public Domain Dedication

The UDL Working Group has organized a series of events and posts for the entire month of May to get our community involved with UDL in a variety of ways—big and small. To get the UDL momentum going, a new article, event, or resources will be shared each week of May. Last week’s post highlighted the second principle of UDL: Multiple Means of Representation. This week will focus on the third, and final, principle of UDL: Multiple Means of Action and Expression.

Universal Design for Learning

The concept of UDL offers a framework in which design, development, delivery, and evaluation of learning can by reimagined by drawing from three core principles: engagement (the why of learning), representation (the what of learning), and action and expression (the how of learning). Each principle aligns with a particular brain network and the UDL principles are designed to specifically address the learning related with each neural network. UDL is designed to meet the unique needs of all learners through challenging instruction that is both flexible and varied.

What is the strategic network and why is it important to learning?

The strategic network is made up of the executive functions that allow people to plan, direct their attention, and be intentional about the way they approach a task. This is the “How” of learning (CAST, 2018). The strategic network relates to how students demonstrate mastery of what they’ve learned. Many students can express themselves more skillfully in one medium than they can in another. We can attend to students’ strategic network by providing them with multiple means of action and expression. In other words, allowing them to express what they know in variety of ways.

To think about how your students learn in your courses, ask yourself these questions.

  • How will my learners show me what they have learned?
  • How will they demonstrate mastery of learning?

Why use multiple means of action and expression?

The strategic network correlates to how students show their learning and learning outcomes can be met in a variety of ways. Often learners who struggle with tests or writing, excel at other types of assessments. In order to provide opportunities for all learners, it’s important to consider and include a variety of assessment types.

When you’re able, provide learners with a choice of the way they express mastery of learning. As long as the grading criteria focuses on the learning goals, and not the format, one rubric can be used to assess a variety of options. When designing assessments, ask yourself, “What is the goal of this assignment and how can it be modified to provide choices and/or support?”

In addition, consider supporting students to become strategic, goal-directed learners by teaching them effective ways to set goals, plan, reflect, and monitor their progress.

You can provide your students with multiple means of action and expression using the following strategies:

  • Providing Choices
  • Providing Support

How can I implement multiple means of action and expression using the “plus-one” approach?

The adoption of UDL can be iterative and incremental. In their book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling suggest adopting the “Plus-One Mindset” when implementing UDL. Use the suggestions below to provide one more way students can get to materials or one more way you can engage them in the learning.

Course Outline

Coure outlines are used to inform learners of the intent of the course, by offering a description of the content and curriculum expectations, describing the evaluation methods and material requirements, and identifying important policies that learners must be aware of.

  • Include an accommodation or accessibility statement. An important part of any course syllabus is the accommodation or accessibility statement. It ensures learners are aware of the accommodations available to them and how to request assistance if needed.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes clearly describe the competencies that learners should be able to demonstrate upon the successful completion of the course. Outcomes inform course design, including the development and selection of assessments, course activities, instructional materials, multimedia, and support resources.

  • Develop clear learning outcomes. By developing clear learning outcomes for the course, activities and assessment strategies can be directly aligned to measure learner progress. In sharing the learning outcomes, learners become aware of what is expected of them and will understand the direction of the course.


Assessments document and measure an individual learner’s progress towards the learning outcomes of the course. Assessment methods may vary and include, but are not limited to, written tests or reports, presentations, activities, discussions, and exams.

  • Consider if time restrictions are necessary. Having a time limit imposed on learners in a testing environment can invoke test anxiety and increase the levels of stress associated with the assessment. When planning assessments within a course determine if time restrictions are necessary; are you looking to assess how quickly they can complete a task, or if they can complete it correctly? If time is not a key factor of the assessment, consider removing time limits or providing sufficient time for all learners eliminating the need to request special accommodations. Keep in mind that learners will have different levels of connectivity to the online environment, individual differences in processing and performance times or may be using assistive technologies to interact with the assessment content.
  • Offer choices. By allowing learners to present their opinions, as well as their understanding and knowledge in a manner of their own choosing, instructors can better assess a learner’s progress within a course. However, depending on the outcomes learners are to achieve, not all assessments offer flexibility of choice. Nonetheless offering choice where possible allows learners to engage in the course in a way that suits their learning style and lets them present what they know to the best of their abilities.

Consider whether your assessments can offer flexibility and choice in medium (e.g., written expression, video/audio recording, and graphics), topic, etc.

  • Provide rubrics. Rubrics clearly outline how a project, or an assignment will be assessed by communicating the expectations surrounding each component and describing different levels of quality. With a rubric, instructors can ensure the assignment is aligned with course learning outcomes and create a valuable grading tool, ensuring consistency and structured feedback. For learners, rubrics lead to success, clarifying performance expectations and facilitating self-assessment according to the various criteria aligned to the assessment’s learning outcomes.

Course Materials

Resources such as audio, video, tables, graphics, and readings, are often an integral part of a course. The resources chosen should be carefully selected in support of the content, as well as be accessible and usable by the wide variety of learners in the online environment.

  • Choose resources relevant to content, activities, and assessments. Any materials selected for the course should be relevant and support the learning outcomes, content, activities, and assessments of the course. The resources should provide the learner with opportunities to link concepts, establish new concepts and strategies, and solidify understanding.

Layout, Structure, Sequence

Layout, structure, and sequence are important design factors to consider when building an online course as they can impact the accessibility, usability, and comprehensiveness of content by learners. Layout is the visual representation of materials. Course content that is organized and makes use of headings and subheadings is important to helping learners to engage with and understand the information being communicated. Content organized in this fashion creates scannable blocks of content to help readers mentally group similar topics. Page layouts should consider such elements as, whitespace, placement of graphics and media, and font size and colour.

Structure refers to the conceptual organization of materials. For instance, a consistent overarching course structure that includes modules or units allows for the organization of key topics in the course. These topics can then be tied to the weeks of the course’s duration and provide learners with areas of focus. Modules should also be structured similarly to support a pattern of learning and reinforce expectations of the course.

Sequencing is the order the in which materials are presented. Appropriate sequencing allows for smooth transitions between topics and facilitates scaffolding of content to allow students to develop foundational knowledge and continually develop their learning to take on more challenging tasks.

  • Ensure ease of use. A well-thought out and well-designed layout will be usable by everyone, taking into account the diversity of today’s learners. Consider the degree of scrolling and clicking required to access information; is the amount appropriate for the amount of information learners are receiving? Learners with limited motion may find navigating and clicking a mouse difficult. Does the design allow for navigation with the keyboard? Do the course pages have appropriate headings and tags to allow easy reading with a screen reader?

Communication and Feedback

Communication between the instructor and learners, both at a course and individual level, is essential in an online course to establish presence and to develop a sense of community. The instructor’s role is to convey information and news about the course schedule, assignments and content and provide encouragement and feedback to learners.

  • Be available and approachable. To help build your connection with the learners in your course, be available and encourage them to ask questions. Let learners know when and how they can connect with you, and how quickly they can expect a response. Be open to connecting through multiple methods.
  • This interaction benefits individual learners by allowing them to discuss and clarify content, assignments, and their individual progress. The instructor receives insight about how the course is progressing for individuals and the class as a whole, and has an opportunity to identify difficult areas or topics that may require more attention.
CAST (2018). UDL and the learning brain. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/products-services/resources/2018/udl-learning-brain-neuroscience
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license. It remixes Universal Design – Best Practices for Online Learning, Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners (HE), and The K-12 Educational Technology Handbook.