The Implementation of Universal Design for Learning

By Megan A. Senechal, Ed. D.


Megan A. Senechal is an educator with the Edmonton Public School Board and has recently completed her Doctor of Education from the University of Calgary.

The Implementation of Universal Design for Learning


Inclusive education is a priority for schools in Alberta, and as a result some schools have implemented the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDL) to address learner diversity and to help students fulfill their potential. Findings from this case study showed that the factors that challenged the implementation of UDL and affected the current and sustained implementation of UDL aligned with local factors (leadership, time, professional development, resources), external factors (success for all students, systemic pressures, resources), and characteristics of change (practicality and difficulty of UDL). Implications for leadership and future directions are addressed, including the role of leadership in UDL implementation, effective, long-term professional development for teachers implementing UDL, and the role of systemic pressures in UDL implementation.




The education system in Alberta has emphasized providing learning opportunities that allow students to perform to their highest potential, to have equitable access to programs and instructional excellence, to have choice in learning activities, to value diversity in the classroom, and to promote excellence in achievement (Alberta Education, 2010). To ensure all students are successful in their educational experiences, some schools have chosen to adopt new teaching frameworks or basic structures that shape how curriculum, learning activities, and assessment are created: for example, the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDL). This case study of UDL as implemented in one school shows that effectively incorporating UDL goes beyond the initiation phase, that educators experience this change differently, and that different factors (Fullan, 2007) hinder, encourage, and will be required to sustain the UDL innovation in this particular school.

This article serves two purposes. First, it will briefly overview the current state of research in UDL within the K-12 context. Second, it will examine factors that influence the implementation of UDL within one school in an urban context.

Universal Design for Learning in Practice

UDL draws from research that includes the fields of neuroscience, the learning sciences, and cognitive psychology (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). It focuses on incorporating flexibility into learning activities, resources, and assessments by offering multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement (Hall, Meyer, & Rose, 2012; Rose, 2001; Rose & Meyer, 2002). UDL helps teachers “accommodate every student in the classroom by incorporating flexibility into their pedagogy and materials” (Rose, 2001, p. 67). In this case study, the school implemented the UDL framework to address concerns regarding student achievement and engagement.

Studies have shown that incorporating UDL in teaching and learning contexts may be related to improved academic performance in students in a wide variety of subject matter and grade levels (Coyne, Pisha, Dalton, Zeph, & Cook Smith, 2012; Friesen, Clifford, Francis-Poscente, & Martin, 2008; Niedo, Lee, Breznitz, & Berninger, 2014; Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Daley, & Rose, 2013). Similar results were found for studies measuring student engagement in learning environments that incorporated UDL (Abell, Jung, & Taylor, 2011; Katz, 2013; 2015a; 2015b; Schelly, Davies, & Spooner, 2011). These studies, despite inconsistencies in how academic achievement, engagement, and implementation of UDL were measured, indicated that incorporating UDL could influence student achievement and engagement and that incorporating UDL in learning and teaching contexts aided students’ learning.

One critique of UDL research is that UDL is often studied in its initial initiation, and not over the long term. Researchers have developed theories about how to best implement UDL in a school (Abell et al., 2011; Nelson & Basham, 2014; Rose & Meyer, 2002); but to date, this case study was among the first to specifically focus on factors that influence the implementation of UDL beyond first introduction and use. Is important to study the implementation of UDL past the initiation phase to determine factors that might promote or hinder its success because, as Hall and Hord (2001) state, the implementation of an innovation is a process, not an event. For these purposes, the results of this study aligned with Fullan’s (2007) Interactive Factors Affecting Implementation (the characteristics of change, local factors, and external factors).

Implementation and UDL

Introducing innovations in education represents a change for current practice for teachers; and, as a result, this change is experienced on differing levels (Hall & Hord, 2001). Change also has phases: an initiation phase, which leads to implementation; an implementation phase, where new ideas or practices are put into place; and, a continuation phase, in which the change is sustained. This process can take between three and ten years (Fullan, 2007).

Studies have found that some factors increase implementation success of an innovation (Fixsen, Blase, Naoom, & Wallace, 2009; Fullan, 2007; Fullan, Cuttress, & Kilcher, 2005), but to date it has been unclear what these factors are in regard to UDL. Few studies have focused on exploring factors that can hinder or encourage UDL implementation past the initiation stage (Hatley, 2011). This study suggests that factors that influence the implementation of UDL can be aligned to Fullan’s (2007) characteristics of change, local factors, and external factors.

Characteristics of change include: the need for change, the clarity of the innovation, the complexity of the innovation, and the practicality of the innovation. Local factors focus on the setting in which people work, and include the principal, community, parents, teachers, and students (Fullan, 2007). External factors, such as government and other agencies, place the school in question in context in society, in this case on a district and provincial level. By investigating these factors, information can be used to inform specific areas of need for the school and future implementation efforts in regard to UDL.

Case Study

This qualitative case study (Merriam, 2009) was conducted in an urban school district for four reasons. First, Yin (2011) affirmed that case studies were particularly advantageous when the research questions “deal with operational links needing to be traced over time, rather than mere frequencies or incidence” (p. 9). In this context, Fullan’s (2007) factors that influence the implementation phase are more related to the actual use of UDL in educational contexts, rather than whether they are present at all. Second, when the variables to be studied are not particularly well-defined, a qualitative case study is advantageous because the researcher can collect data from multiple sources to attempt to capture the most information possible and in its entirety (Merriam, 2009; Stake, 2010; Yin, 2011). A third related factor that supports the use of a descriptive case study is when the area of study is relatively new, using multiple sources for data collection can offer novel insights (Merriam, 2009; Stake, 2010).  Fourth, the descriptive qualitative case study is appropriate in contexts in which there is little control over contextual variables (Yin, 2011). Because this study took place in a school where UDL was already in place for some time, controlling contextual factors such as years of teacher experience, student assignment to groups, and amounts of professional development (PD) received was not possible. 

The research question that guided the inquiry was: What factors influence the Implementation Phase of the UDL framework in teaching and learning within one urban school setting?

The following three sub-questions were investigated in this research:

•What factors support the implementation of the UDL framework in teaching and learning within one urban school setting?

•What challenges influence the implementation of the UDL framework in one urban school setting?

•What factors support the sustained integration of the UDL framework in teaching and learning in one urban school setting?

One school was selected to take part in the study. Participants included five teachers, the school administrator, and fifteen students in a kindergarten to grade 6 school. Two district administrators were identified as having a role in supporting schools in implementing UDL and participated in the study. The sources of data for this study included focus group interviews, individual interviews, and classroom observations. Transcripts, observations, and field notes were analyzed using Saldana’s (2013) two-cycled approach to determine what factors influenced the implementation of UDL at this school. Strategies used to ensure the credibility of the study included triangulation (Creswell & Miller, 2000) and member checking (Merriam, 2009).


The emergent themes in all data sources confirmed that local factors, external factors, and characteristics of change (Fullan, 2007) were important influences in UDL implementation. Similar ideas were confirmed repeatedly, including issues regarding PD, having adequate time and resources to implement UDL, and overall confusion as to what UDL looks like in the classroom while stating that it is also natural. Some of the most robust findings centered on PD, time and resources, and confusion as to what UDL is.

One district administrator noted that coaching and modeling beyond initial PD is essential for teacher success: “The biggest piece would be to have consistent follow-up, because those things tend to fall off the bus…but until somebody’s there to support consistently over a long period of time, and get dirty with it all, it just doesn’t happen.” All participants noted that understanding how to implement UDL theoretically differed from implementing it in a classroom. As a result, continued coaching and more PD were seen as priorities currently and for sustaining UDL.

The school administrator stated, “I don’t think we have the gift of time anymore.” Participants found it essential to build time for collaboration and planning into the school day. In regard to resources, one participant shared, “A lot of UDL does involve technology, and it does require money…A lot of what we do requires money. If we don’t have the money, it’s hard to offer the quality we like.” Despite resources and infrastructure already available within this school, more support for implementing UDL was seen as crucial.

Several participants stated that using UDL is a natural way to teach and that incorporating the principles becomes easier with time. In fact, many teachers reported they were already using UDL but were simply not aware of it. One participant said, “I don’t think this is new stuff…. It’s just good quality teaching.” However, within the focus group, some teachers asked: “Is that UDL then? … I know we had quite a few arguments when we first brought in UDL…we’d say that’s not an example of UDL…And people were fighting about what is UDL.” It became clear that, even three years after initial training and implementation of UDL, some participants still had difficulty determining what UDL looked like in their classroom teaching, an idea confirmed by Edyburn (2010).

Triangulation of all data indicated that, for participants, local factors, external factors, and characteristics of change played a role in the current and future implementation of UDL, as well as specific challenges, in one urban school setting.

The table below outlines the complete emergent themes for the aggregate teacher, school administrator, and district administrator data sources, and is organized by the research sub-questions.

Table 1


Arrangement of Themes From Teachers, School Administrator, and District Administrators Organized by Research Question


Local factors

External factors

Characteristics of change

Currently support UDL implementation

  • Time
  • Leadership
  • Resources
  • PD
  • Student factors


  • Success for all
  • PD
  • Time
  • Resources
  • Just good teaching
  • Practical
  • Natural
  • Difficult

Challenges for UDL implementation

  • Time
  • Student factors
  • Leadership


  • Curriculum
  • Funding
  • Need

Requirements to


UDL implementation

  • Time
  • Resources
  • PD
  • PD
  • Funding
  • Complexity



This case study shows the importance of analyzing the implementation phase of UDL because, despite three years of UDL use, challenges and opportunities remain. According to participants, the current implementation of UDL at this school was influenced by local factors including leadership, time, PD, resources, and students. External factors were the success for all students in one education system, PD, time, and resources. Characteristics of change included the practicality of UDL and how difficult it is to implement. It would appear that study participants had difficulty determining what UDL looked like in a classroom, were unsure how to implement it, and required more PD, time, and resources to support their endeavors, even years after initial implementation. These findings reflect Fullan’s (2008) belief that implementation “dips,” or   lapses, follow the initiation of an innovation.

The challenges that influenced the implementation of the UDL framework related to local factors included leadership, time, teacher beliefs, resources, and student factors. External challenges included availability of funding and systemic factors, such as the amount of curriculum required to teach. Characteristics of change included whether UDL is necessary to help meet student needs. These challenges, on the surface, would seem to be addressed by offering more PD, time, and resources for educators; however, other factors including systemic factors emerged as important as well, including how much curriculum there is to teach and the influence of provincial exam results. In addition, one participant stated that she had difficulty keeping up with the planning that comes with a new grade level, and that she did not yet have the expertise in connecting different curriculum for her students (a finding mirrored in Friesen et al., 2008). Although not specifically addressed in this study, exploring the systemic factors in more depth could be valuable in order to determine whether creating an ongoing collaboration structure (e.g., a professional learning community) would help alleviate some of these challenges related to UDL, as suggested by studies related to implementation (BC Ministry of Education, 2016; Fixsen et al., 2005; McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006).

If UDL is to be sustained as an innovation, local factors needed to support UDL include time, resources, and PD, which supports research in effective PD (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1992; Gulamhussein, 2013; Guskey, 1986; 2002; Joyce & Showers, 1988; 2002; Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). External factors include the availability of funding and PD. Characteristics of change focused on the complexity of UDL. Participants repeated their need for more time, PD, and resources to support UDL, offering implications for the school if it wishes to continue implementing UDL successfully.


The purpose of this article was to review the current state of research of UDL in K-12 contexts and to determine what factors affect the implementation of UDL. Current research looking at UDL’s effects on academic achievement and engagement has shown that UDL may have promise as a teaching framework to affect student achievement. Local and external factors, as well as characteristics of change, were found to affect UDL implementation and needed to be addressed to better support UDL currently and in the future.

Because research to date has not looked at the implementation phase of UDL in schools, these findings are new. The findings are corroborated in part by research looking at sustaining change in schools (Guskey, 1986; Levin, 2008), effective PD (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1992; Gulamhussein, 2013; Guskey, 1986; 2002; Joyce & Showers, 1988; 2002; Yoon et al., 2007), and leadership in schools (Leithwood & Louis, 2012), in addition to suggestions put forward in the current UDL research base (Abell et al., 2011; Hatley, 2011; Katz, 2013; 2015a; 2015b). These findings show that different educational stakeholders perceive the implementation of UDL differently, and therefore require different levels of implementation support to be successful. Fullan’s (2007) local factors, external factors, and characteristics of change were found to be useful concepts for proactively addressing the implementation stage and to provide educational stakeholders the support needed to effectively support UDL throughout the entire implementation phase.

These findings and their relation to the existing body of literature raised additional questions that can guide the implementation of UDL in learning contexts. Further research might explore the following three areas: the role of leadership in UDL implementation, an effective, long-term PD model for teachers implementing UDL, and the role of systemic pressures in UDL implementation.




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