Inclusive Teaching: An Approach to Meeting Diverse Learning Needs

students in classAll 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.

More information from the National Center on UDL


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

Class discussions - offer the possibility of participating both orally and in writing.  Possibilities include letting students submit questions before class, asking students for one minute reflection papers at the end of class, or simply conducting some of your discussion in D2L.

Written assignments - essays are a fairly traditional way of asking students to show you what they’ve learned, but it certainly isn’t the only way they can demonstrate their knowledge on paper.  Some alternatives include, visualizations of information (diagrams, concept maps, etc.), case studies, and practice guidelines.

Tests and exams - different types of tests are great for measuring different types of learning, but sometimes what a test is really measuring is how well students take the test, not necessarily the material.  Be sure to vary your test types to help your students show what they know in a variety of ways.

Multimedia - oral reports are a standard option for in-person class, but what about letting students record an oral report to turn in online.  That’s just the beginning.  Once you open the door to video, you can let your students make videos for patient education, “how-to” demonstrations, live action case studies, and more.

Web 2.0 - Don’t forget the multitude of new and emerging tools that you can put to work for you and your students.  Things like wikis, blogs,, and so much more.  Take a look at the Learn It In 5 site for more ideas.

More ideas to help you implement UDL

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.

Further Reading

MGH Institute of Health Professions Information

MGH Institute Disability Services
MGH Institute Nondiscrimination Policy
MGH Institute Diversity & Cultural Competence Education Resources

Universal Design for Learning

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

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)

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