Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the new Learning Styles

A new paper draws parallels between the two theories


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an increasingly popular approach to classroom teaching. The original idea was to remove barriers preventing children with disabilities from participating in regular classrooms, much as buildings can be designed with all abilities in mind. However, it has now expanded into a framework for all students in K-12 education while making inroads into universities.

UDL is a complicated way to teach. It involves giving multiple representations of the same information to students which they then choose from. Students also choose to work collaboratively or individually. And they decide how to demonstrate their learning through written work, a video, a poster or some other means. Imagine the moderation meetings…

Despite the practical challenges and planning workload that UDL implies, it has been repeatedly promoted to teachers. For instance, in an article in The Conversation in 2016, two Australian academics recommended UDL as a form of classroom differentiation. Differentiation - the process of giving different students in the same classroom different forms of instruction - has a scant evidence-base and UDL certainly does not add much to it.

This last point is emphasised in a new paper by Dr. Guy A. Boysen of McKendree University in the U.S. Boysen claims that this lack of evidence is one of the five ways in which UDL parallels debunked learning styles theories. The latter are a class of theories that suggests students have different styles of learning and teachers should cater to those styles. Learning styles theories are still remarkably popular despite most serious researchers classing them as a ‘neuromyth’.

Boysen notes five close parallels between UDL and Learning Styles:

“First, both learning styles and UDL lack evidence showing that their implementation increases student learning. Ultimately, this lack of research support is the most important similarity. Second, although direct support for the approaches requires research in educational settings, the operationalization of learning styles and UDL makes it difficult to assess their outcomes. Third, both learning styles and UDL emphasize the importance of diversity, rather than universality, in how people learn. Fourth, because of their emphasis on diversity in learning, both assert that instruction should match students’ specific ways of learning. Fifth, to justify the existence of students’ unique learning needs, both rely on overgeneralizations from neuroscience.”

Boysen makes a point that I have argued before: There is substantial evidence that should cast doubt on one of the key principles - student choice. As early as 1982, Richard Clark demonstrated that students tend to enjoy the instructional methods that are least effective for them.

As Boysen explains:

“UDL asserts that students will learn more if they can select from instructional options, but this matching hypothesis was not supported in learning-styles research, has yet to be supported in UDL research, and is contradicted by research on how people perceive and choose learning strategies.”

If you visit the CAST website - the organisation that promotes UDL internationally - you will be confronted with multi-coloured brain diagrams. As Boysen explains, where learning actually takes in the brain is largely irrelevant to the learning sciences. Instead, we should draw on more traditional cognitive science research. However, the use of brain images may be helpful to the cause of UDL because:

“People are seduced into thinking that explanations for psychological phenomena are more credible when they contain neuroscience information, even if that information is irrelevant… As such, it seems likely that presentation of UDL as a brain-based framework artificially inflates perceptions of its validity.”

The brain diagrams used by UDL strike Boysen as similar to those used in Kolb’s Learning Styles inventory:

“It is illuminating to compare the brain diagram justifying Kolb’s learning-styles theory and the diagram justifying UDL. They offer similarly low levels of specificity about brain anatomy and appropriate the same areas of the brain for different ends. Only through oversimplification can such overlap occur.”

Nevertheless, Boysen is generous to UDL. He takes the view that, despite the lack of evidence so far, there is the potential for UDL to generate positive evidence of effectiveness in the future and lists a series of suggestions for doing so such using control groups and conducting proper randomised trials. You know, basic science.

Given the evidence we have against student choice and its central role in UDL, I am inclined to take a less generous stance and call it a neuromyth until proven otherwise.

However, proponents of UDL can rest largely untroubled by such a label, as well as by Boysen’s more measured critique. UDL does not need, and never has needed, evidence of effectiveness. As Boysen explains:

“…UDL principles became part of Federal laws regulating the design of K-12 programs and the training of teachers.”

It doesn’t matter whether or not it is effective if it is the law.

I predict that well-intentioned legislation will be used to coerce teachers into using this deeply flawed approach.