Inclusive Teaching: An Approach to Meeting Diverse Learning Needs

All teachers want their students to learn, but not all students learn in the same way.  Sometimes these differences are as simple to define as a visually impaired student needing audio textbooks.  More often than not, however, the need is neither so obvious to define or to address.  In fact, frequently the different learning preferences go unrecognized, even by the students themselves.  

United States law obligates the Institute to provide accommodations for students with documented disabilities, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it is entirely up to each instructor to decide whether and how much to accommodate those other, less well defined, learning needs that each student presents.

Whether you ascribe to the notion of individual learning styles or not, one way to accommodate the diversity in your classroom is to vary your teaching style, the way you present information, and the ways you let students express their learning.  Not only are you more likely to let your students find learning activities at which they excel, but you may also open their eyes to different ways of thinking.  

Ideally, an inclusive class would not only offer variety among assignments and class sessions but also within each of those.  Students would have a chance to choose the way they engage with the information they receive and also choose the way they demonstrate what they’ve learned. Thankfully there is a framework called Universal Design for Learning that can help us approach inclusive teaching.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at its most basic advocates for removing barriers to learning and adding flexibility to your class.

Universal Design originally came out of architecture where it was originally concerned with removing barriers to physical access.  It quickly became obvious that when architects expanded access to those with physical disabilities, many more people benefited.  The typical example is curb cuts.  Originally designed for people in wheelchairs, curb cuts also make life easier for anything on wheels (bicyclists, baby strollers, grocery carts) and anyone with mobility issues.  

In education, think of the audio recording you provide to a student with a visual impairment or a reading disability.  The recording also benefits any student who simply prefers listening to information as well as the time strapped student who lives an hour away and can now listen to the recording in her car, during her commute.  

Still not clear, take a look at this video from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology.

Implementing UDL

At its most basic, UDL emphasizes offering choices in 3 key areas of teaching:
Representation - how you deliver course content
Engagement - how students participate
Expression - how students demonstrate what they have learned


At the most basic level, make sure your learning materials are accessible to all of your students:
Online and in Print:

  • readable fonts
  • simple, high contrast color schemes
  • machine readable text

In-person or recorded audio

  • clear diction at an appropriate volume
  • face the class when speaking
  • allow students to record lectures
  • provide captions for audio recordings

However, the idea of varying representation goes far beyond these basics.  Here are some options you’ll want to consider.  In general it is helpful to represent your content in more than one way, especially when introducing new ideas:
Aural - let your students hear your explanation or read about it.
Visual - show your students images that will help them understand the ideas, things like diagrams, timelines, and concept maps work well.
Verbal - let your students talk or write about the information as they learn it
Kinesthetic - let your students try things out for themselves in ways that use both mind and body; simulations and role plays can be substituted if real practice isn’t possible.

Ways You Might Vary Representation

  • Slides with text

  • Graphs and figures w/ explanatory text

  • Glossary with images

  • Concept map

  • Case Example

  • Medical Records (CERNER)

  • Multimedia Resources

More information from the National Center on UDL


Another way our students are different from one another is by what motivates them to learn. 

Ways You Might Vary Engagement

  • Foster collaboration and communication

  • Group/team work, class discussions, active learning strategies

  • Enhance relevance and authenticity

  • Bring in experts, site visits, framing questions for the course

  • Encourage self-assessments and reflection

  • Self-tests, journaling, learning portfolios

  • Highlight value by connecting ideas to real world Scenarios, cases, examples

  • Increase autonomy by having students make choices Paper topics, grade weighting

  • Provide opportunities for personal goals

  • Ask student to set goals for the course

For more thoughts, take a look at our guide about Motivating Students.


Some students excel at expressing themselves in writing, others in speech, and still others in a whole variety of possibilities.  

Ways You Might Vary Action and Expression

  • Class Discussion / Questioning

  • Clicker Questions

  • In Class Pair Work

  • Short written assignment

  • Team/group projects or presentations

  • Ungraded practice opportunity (practice quiz, virtual lab, self test)

  • Adding small number of essay questions to quizzes/exams

  • Other active learning strategies compatible with large classes

More ideas to help you implement Universal Design for Learning

Differentiated Instruction is one way to think about making UDL work in your classroom.  It is “an approach to teaching and learning that gives students multiple options for taking in information and making sense of ideas” (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2011).

Hall, T., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2011). Differentiated instruction with UDL.

Writing for the Web Tips

  • Use intuitive headings

  • No more than one important idea per paragraph

  • Ample white space

  • Simple, declarative sentences

  • Avoid uncommon acronyms or abbreviations

  • “I” and “You” instead of “the instructor” and “the student”

  • Identify file formats (PPT, WORD, PDF, etc.) in links and titles

  • Reserve underlined text for links, not emphasis - and avoid using non-descriptive links like “Click Here”

For more on this, consider reading How Users Read on the Web

A Checklist for Improving Inclusive Experiences for Students

Adapted from University of Washington’s Disability Resources for Students


  • Are you using MGH Institute’s standard syllabus template?

    • Do you include a statement about support for students with disabilities?

      • “The MGH Institute of Health Professions is committed to providing equal access for students with disabilities.  Students who feel they may need accommodations due to a documented disability should contact the Accessibility Resources ( to set up an appointment as soon as possible.”

  • Do you provide sufficient time on activities that limit time to respond?

  • Does the syllabus have a clear outline for course content and expectations?

  • In addition to your contact information, does the syllabus list contact information for technical assistance?

  • Does the syllabus list a turnaround time for online communication (i.e. 24 hours response on emails)?

  • Does the syllabus state standards of appropriate communication online?


  • Can any text be highlighted, copied, and pasted?

  • Do you avoid all caps or bold for large blocks of text?

  • Are you only using underlining for hyperlinks, not for emphasis?

  • Were headings used?

  • Were headings used properly so that a heading level was NOT skipped?

    • Good: H1, H2, H2, H3, H3, H3, H2, H2

    • Bad: H1, H3, H3, H2, H5, H4. (for example, H2 was skipped)

  • Is there sufficient color contrast between text and background colors?

  • Do images (which offer important information not contained in the text) include text descriptions?

  • Was the built-in MS Office Accessibility Checker used?

View Creating accessible Word documents from Microsoft Office Support for more information.

In Class Lecture & Presentations

  • Do you use a microphone when available?

  • Are presentations recorded for review by students outside of class?

  • Are slides available to students for review and further study?

PowerPoint Presentation Slides

  • Was the PowerPoint created with a template?

  • Is text large and readable?

    • Size: ideally 32pt or bigger, never less than 18pt

    • Font: Arial, Helvetica, or another simple sans-serif font

  • Can the order of the text in the presentation be verified in the “Outline” panel?

  • When tabbing, does the cursor move in a logical order if it were read aloud?

  • Is there sufficient color contrast between text and background colors?

  • Do you avoid conveying information in color alone?

  • Do images (which offer important information not contained in the text) include text descriptions?

  • Was the built-in MS Office Accessibility Checker used?

View Creating accessible PowerPoint presentations from Microsoft Office Support for more information.


  • Are your exams available both electronically and in paper form?

  • Have you considered untimed or extended time exams?

Excel Workbooks


  • Do the images posted or used include text descriptions (ALT text)?

  • Do you avoid conveying information with color alone?

  • Do you avoid using images for text?

  • Are images used to communicate ideas (not for decoration)?

Video and Audio

  • Is all video content captioned or have transcripts?

  • Are transcripts available for audio-based materials?

Online Course Pages

  • Have you used the formatting tool when creating the page?

  • Do all hyperlinks clearly indicate where they are linking? (avoid “click here”)

  • Are all course pages clear, consistently organized, and easy to navigate?

  • Did you use the “Weekly Organizer Pages” in D2L?

  • Do you use large bold fonts with plain backgrounds?


Further Reading

MGH Institute of Health Professions Information

MGH Institute Accessibility Resources
MGH Institute Nondiscrimination Policy
MGH Institute Diversity & Cultural Competence Education Resources

Faculty Quick Guide (Responding to Racism)

Universal Design for Learning

Teaching for Diverse Abilities and Learning Styles (Iowa State University CELT)
A Checklist for Inclusive Teaching (University of Washington)
National Center for Universal Design

Creating Accessible Content

Designing for Accessibility Guide from the UK Home Office
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool
Color Contrast Analyzer
Portland Community College Guide for Making Accessible Word Documents
Portland Community College Guide for PDF Document Accessibility

Students with Disabilities

Teaching Students with Disabilities (Vanderbilt University)
Accessibility of Instructional Web Sites in Higher Education (Educause Quarterly)


Research Evidence (National Center on Universal Design for Learning)
Teaching at its Best: A Research Based Resource for College Instructors, by Linda B. Nilson (available for loan from the Teaching Resources Library)


Back to Top