Designing Lessons for Unique Learners

February 24, 2014 / by Katie Novak

I love lesson planning. There is something magical about taking rigorous curriculum and making it accessible to all students. It's an art and a science to blend your knowledge of subject matter, child development, and your students, and create a lesson for them. Regardless of how you plan now, I want you to know that Universal Design Learning (UDL) can help you do it better.

Universal Design for Learning is a framework that allows teachers to meet the needs of all learners in the classroom. With increasingly diverse populations of students, it's never been more important to provide differentiated learning experiences in the same setting. Sometimes this variability may seem overwhelming when sitting down to plan lessons, but it doesn't have to be. Regardless of how you plan now, I want you to know that UDL can help you do it better. Understanding UDL will help you to blend your knowledge of subject matter, child development, and your students, and create a lesson specifically for all of them.

How do I start?

The first thing you'll want to do is examine the UDL Guidelines, a list of teaching strategies to consider before, during, and after planning. Checkpoint 8.1 reminds educators to "Heighten salience of goals and objectives" for students, but this is important for you as well. Knowing your goals and objectives before you plan is critical, so in addition to the Guidelines, have your Common Core or state standards handy. Choose your standard first, and then you're ready to plan. That’s what standards-based design is all about.

What should I include in the plan?

In UDL, all planning is intentional, so every activity, assessment and instructional choice should be deliberately chosen to help all students reach your standard. There is an awesome web site, UDL Exchange, where you can build lessons using provided templates (when you're done, you can print them out and they look fabulous – your evaluator will love them!). The lesson template includes the following components, so regardless of how you format your plan, you'll want to include them. I have provided a sample of the UDL-designed plan I used for my Teaching Channel video on Beowulf.

Goals: Standards, goals, objectives

Variability: When thinking about your goals, always consider the fact that there is no 'average' student but there is an infinite variety of learners for whom this lesson needs to work. Examine all UDL Guidelines and make connections to checkpoints.

Assessments: All students should have an opportunity to show growth, so formative assessments are important to "guide appropriate goal setting" (Checkpoint 6.1) with students throughout the unit. This will also allow students to "develop self-assessment and reflection" (Checkpoint 9.3) after the summative.

Instructional methods: Review the Guidelines before planning your lesson. While you are reading the checkpoints, think about them as strategies to eliminate barriers to learning.

Links to Checkpoints and Principles:

Checkpoints for Representation
Checkpoints for Expression
Checkpoints for Engagement

Once you have planned the UDL way, you are well on your way to student learning! As teachers, it's our job to teach all students. Historically, we did this by making accommodations and modifications to the curriculum, but that took a lot of time and did not give some students equal access to the same curriculum as their peers. When you plan using UDL, you present the same material and the same assessments to all students, and this sends a message that everyone in your room is capable. There is no better lesson we can teach our kids than that.

Read Katie's Book: UDL Now!: A Teacher's Monday-Morning Guide to Implementing Common Core Standards Using Universal Design for Learning

Topics: Professional Learning, Assessment, Lesson Planning, Engagement

Katie Novak

Written by Katie Novak

Katie Novak, Ed.D., works for Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts as the K–12 reading coordinator, Title I director, and ELL director. With more than a decade of teaching experience (including postsecondary), Novak continues to teach and also designs and presents workshops nationally and internationally focusing on teacher implementation of UDL. If you have questions about how to implement UDL contact Katie at

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