The UDL Lens: Empower Teachers and Learners to Transform Education

Practice  08 September 2016
By Kathleen McClaskey


If we want to transform education and have each learner develop agency, personalized learning needs to start with the learner.

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION SO THAT EVERY LEARNER IS EMPOWERED TO DIRECT THEIR LEARNING and experience a great education is a vision we can all embrace. We have transformational models around the country where learner-centered, personalized learning environments are creating proactive learners—directing their unique learning experiences and monitoring their progress, while simultaneously using the latest technologies to support their learning.

In these models, trust and respect are embedded in the school culture. These characteristics are developed in schools where teachers are empowered to create learner-centered environments relevant to their community of learners and to personalize their professional learning where they are designing their learning experiences.

But the big question is, how can we transform education so that every learner gains the skills to be a self-directed, independent learner—a learner with agency?

Personalized Learning Starts with the Learner

First and foremost, we must believe that “every child on the planet is a learner.” Creating learner-centered environments begins with that belief. For too long, we have been using learning styles to determine how a child learns—labeling them as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Over the last 40 years, the research around learning styles has shown that these labels perpetuate the stereotyping of learners (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2008). As a result, many children have developed a fixed mindset on how they learn. It is also common practice to use these labels in developing how we perceive who these learners are or who they could be.

If we want to transform education and have each learner develop agency, personalized learning needs to start with the learner. So, we need to turn the page from “learning styles” to neuroscience, which shows us how we actually learn.

Over two decades ago, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was introduced by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) as a set of three principles, based on the study of neuroscience, to guide the design of learning environments and curricula that could reduce the barriers to learning and maximize the levels of support and challenge to all learners. For the UDL principles to be used in practice by both teacher and learner—such that they would become a part of the common language—new terms needed to be developed. Thus, in 2012, Personalize Learning introduced the UDL lens of Access, Engage, and Express.

• Access for Multiple Means of Representation

• Engage for Multiple Means of Engagement

• Express for Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Less than a year ago, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defined and endorsed UDL as a scientifically-based approach for personalizing learning. The question now becomes: How can we use the UDL lens to transform education to create sustainable, personalized, learner-centered environments?


When a learner is able to tell their story about how they learn, a partnership in learning begins.

Empower Teachers and Learners with the UDL Lens

The UDL lens of Access, Engage, and Express is designed to show us the learner in every child. It offers key information about how a learner accesses and processes information, engages with content, and expresses what they know and understand.

Using the UDL lens can empower both teacher and learner. For the teacher, they can use it to develop a better perception and understanding on how each learner learns. With this understanding of their learners, they can now employ universally designed instructional methods that can engage learners in the content, and they can design accessible lesson materials for the diverse needs and preferences of the learners. Teachers can now offer choices to learners in how they access content and express what they know.

For the learners, they can create a Learner Profile to share their strengths and challenges in learning; followed by their preferences or needs to access, engage, and express; and ending with their aspirations, talents, and interests.

What Could a Learner Profile Look Like

When a learner is able to tell their story about how they learn, a partnership in learning begins. This opens the door for a conversation about the learning goals, skills, and strategies the learner needs to develop to support their own learning and, in turn, become an independent and self-directed learner—a learner with agency.

Learner Agency for all Learners

Learner agency has been receiving attention among educators in the midst of a transformational shift in education. For too long, we have embraced the teacher-driven classroom with learners being the recipients of daily lectures and scripted instruction intended to improve test scores. The casualty of this great experiment are learners, who have become less engaged as they progress on their educational path (Gallup, 2013).

How can we help every learner achieve agency? Agency can be demonstrated in the choice of almost anything—learning environment, pace, pathway, and/or content. Using the UDL lens can be the first step in developing learner agency where each learner is valued and respected in the way they learn. But, where do you begin?

Discover who your learners are and build a partnership with them to:

• initiate goal setting and action steps so they can develop skills with tools and apps to support their learning and monitor their progress;

• create flexible ways for them to access content, engage in learning, and express what they know;

contribute to the design of new learning spaces;

offer opportunities to collaborate on lessons and projects that give more voice and choice;

• co-design rubrics for peer- and self-assessment;

provide extended learning opportunities based on their interests, talents, or aspirations; and

become a pro-active learner.

As the year moves forward and various challenges result in the development of the learner’s strengths and skills, the partnership with the teacher grows stronger. When this happens, the learner is truly on the path to becoming a learner with agency.

Busteed, B. (2013, January 7). The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from

Pashler, H., Mcdaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008, December). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Access, Engage and Express is a trademark of Personalize Learning, LLC (
Universal Design for Learning is a registered trademark of CAST, Inc. (

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