Photo Patricia Ritschel-Trifilo, Director of Online at Wayland Baptist University

Embracing Diversity with Universal Design for Learning



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on March 22, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Universal Design for Learning provides accessible course content, materials, and interactions that benefit all students and enhances inclusive learning experiences. Its approach improves student engagement with fewer barriers to learning, and a flexible class setup provides all learners equal opportunities to succeed.

Students arrange information and learn in different ways, whether due to language or cultural differences, sensory or learning disabilities, or even simply due to a matter of preferences and style, like understanding information more efficiently through visual or auditory modalities rather than printed text, for example.

According to Patricia Ritschel-Trifilo, director of Online at Wayland Baptist University, “The fact is that people learn in lots of different ways, and depending on the subject, you may choose a different method to learn along the way.” To reduce barriers in learning, it is important to provide appropriate support, making information equally accessible to all learners by presenting the same content in varying materials. “For example: If I like to read, I tend to gain a lot of knowledge by reading. But if I have to lay tile in my kitchen, reading about it is good, but I would also like a video and actually see how it is done, so I combine all that information to be able to lay tile,” explains Trifilo.

Before becoming an educator and getting involved with instructional design, Trifilo was a neuroanatomist and studied brain pathways. Today, with the aim of improving university courses by applying UDL principles, she provides faculty training on Blackboard Learn and in pedagogy for online courses, where she oversees the Plainview campus as well as 12 external campuses virtually – a system with up to 1,000 faculty members and over 5,000 students.

She explains that a portion of everyone’s skills and abilities come from genetics but are also defined by culture and environment. “Basically, when you are born you have a pathway, a neural network, that allows you to bring in information through your five senses. Children who were born of famous musicians tend to do well playing an instrument, and those born of professional athletes tend to do well in sports. It may not be the same sports, but they tend to be able to gain and develop certain skills based on that framework they are born with, and then you are exposed to people and situations that influence how you learn,” explains Trifilo.

One of her first research works was about learning styles, looking at the idea that if materials are presented to students in ways that are familiar to the way they learn, they will do better. In order to prove her thesis, she divided 100 individuals into experimental and control groups and provided them with a Canfield assessment that looked at their strengths in learning. Focused on eight learning styles, she analyzed each student from the experimental group and determined, based on Canfield, what their dominant learning style was, along with two of their subdominant learning styles as alternatives.

“We gave them an online classroom with all the different ways materials are presented and asked the experimental group to do their dominant learning style and then the two subdominants, and then take the assessment in the end. The controlled group could just use any materials they wanted and take the assessment, without knowing what their dominant and subdominants styles were,” explains Trifilo. The results showed that those who followed the order by using dominant first and then the two subdominants scored the highest in all the assessments. Those who employed all the three choices but didn’t use their dominant first scored fairly well – they passed and had the second highest scores. The students that chose one of their subdominants along with any other two methods that were not dominant, or subdominant tended to fail, and those who didn’t follow the suggested pathway failed the assessments. “This experiment told me that there are different pathways to learning, and that providing different materials and different ways of acquiring that knowledge is important. If you make sure that students are aware of how they learn, and you provide them with opportunities to get their main pathways of learning, they can be successful,” comments Trifilo

The Traditional Approach Versus UDL

A curriculum designed to meet the needs of an average visual learner does not take variability into account and excludes different abilities, backgrounds and motivations. The UDL framework looks at all four parts of curriculum – institutional goals, materials, methods and assignments – and addresses all of them for goals with appropriate challenges that meet the needs of all learners.

Universal Design for Learning provides different means of representation, expression and engagement, and that helps learners that would otherwise struggle, as well as those who will benefit from having interesting options to choose from.

“If we design a course for the average learner, some students will be outstanding, the majority will achieve reasonable performance, and some of them will fail. That is considered an accepted type of classroom, but I don’t think it has to be that way. In a UDL classroom, the opportunity to learn is there. The only reason a student should fail is if they do not take the initiative or effort to learn,” states Trifilo.

Putting Universal Design for Learning into Practice at WBU

Trifilo is also responsible for face-to-face classes that use a virtual learning environment. Her aim is to help instructors be inclusive and to increase student engagement. According to her, the most important and difficult aspect about introducing UDL was the cultural change. “Presenting the idea of multiple means of representation, of interaction, and of expression, was challenging at first. Changing the culture was a difficult task, and I told the instructors – when there was push back – to add one element and then another if they saw positive results. So, after a few terms, they had a universally designed course,” explains Trifilo.

Incoming students at Wayland Baptist University have an orientation course where they take an assessment that reveals their learning strengths. It provides them an idea about how they acquire information, which helps them to choose from the multiple means of representation available to them. “The student has to make choices, but that’s part of the satisfaction. When students feel they can make choices, that they are in control of their learning, they become more engaged and successful,” says Trifilo.

Today, WBU has an entire training area where staff learn about the different UDL tools available to them, how they work, and examples of how other instructors use them in their classroom. “We call them exemplary examples, and they can go through a lesson, see how another instructor is using UDL to get a specific outcome in their classroom, what they have done and achieved,” comments Trifilo.

Technology and UDL

Technology has played a significant role in disseminating UDL practices, providing students with multiple means of representation, engagement and expression, and enabling easier and more effective curriculum customization. “It is amazing how we have grown. When I started teaching online in 1995, we were coming from correspondence courses, and I would fill up an assignment that would then be sent to the students and they would then mail it back to me,” recalls Trifilo.

However, with the advent of technology, simply using technology in the classroom should not be considered an implementation of UDL. Many technologies have the same accessibility problems that non-tech options, so it needs to be planned into the curriculum as a way to achieve specific goals, and that is accomplished by applying UDL principles. In short, technology is not synonymous with UDL, but it does play a valuable role in its implementation.1

At Wayland, all face-to-face classes have a digital learning environment component to them that provides alternative resources, and the learning management system structures teaching for the benefit of students. “Many of our instructors use Blackboard Collaborate in the classroom for presentations because it connects students, bringing them all together in one location. Office hours are then used to get that one-to-one interaction between the student and the instructor. Thus, one tool opens up the door to several different types of engagement that will improve learning, because it is a vehicle for different tools to be able to interact in different ways,” adds Trifilo.

In order for content to be inclusive, good navigation is needed, and stylized documents with headings and table of contents help students to move through the materials easily. “Technology can make things a lot easier, but we have to be careful because we don’t want to overload the student with so many things that they get confused. That’s another aspect of UDL, making sure that what you choose is appropriate and that there are not so many choices that it loses meaning,” explains Trifilo.

Applying UDL Principles to Increase Engagement

Teaching and learning something new requires physical, emotional and intellectual interaction, hence, content has to be accessible and also meaningful. UDL helps teachers engage students by providing them with choices and options that fit their needs and preferences. One of the main tactics is to provide materials in different ways of representation but focused on challenging tasks.

“If you set the bar high enough, students are challenged and have to struggle a little bit, and when they reach that bar, they feel motivated. UDL helps them reach that bar, but it has to be set high enough to make it challenging, so it is a satisfaction reaching that goal,” says Trifilo. She believes the many interesting tools available like video, quizzes, audio, games, captions and readers can be used to increase engagement and make the classroom more attractive. “It is easy for the online student to sit back and do the minimum amount of work possible, so you need UDL to give them something they find interesting. I think that instructors with that traditional approach are not aware of the idea of the different learning styles and it is not a dynamic learning situation,” concludes Trifilo.


Assessments help instructors measure academic effectiveness, and, to be useful, must evaluate knowledge relevant to the determined goals. This can be difficult to achieve when the same test is given to the entire class. Also, certain assessments can be difficult for some students. Multiple-choice, for example, can be a challenge, especially for learners with dyslexia. So, universal design provides options and helps instructors to think about those options, like e-portfolios, surveys, presentations, games, rubric, and many others.2

As a student, Trifilo went through a situation that illustrates a good example of how providing multiple means of assessment can be decisive to learners’ success, as the ability to work with particular methods may confound the evaluation of knowledge and skills. “When I was in college, I was taking a chemistry course and I would just do terribly on the multiple-choice task. I knew chemistry, but when I read the possible answers, I always got confused and came up with something in my mind that could make more than one choice possible. So, I went to my instructor and asked him about it. He said: ‘You think you know it?’ And started to ask me questions about the materials we had just been tested on, and I was able to answer his questions. And he said: ‘You really do know this. Why are you having problems with multiple-choice?’ We don’t want that for our students,” recalls Trifilo. In essence, UDL assessments allow teachers to observe whether learners have achieved the intended goal, support individual needs, and provide an accurate measure of students’ progress.


Accessibility is an important aspect of Universal Design for Learning and is part of the first principle (multiple means of representation), the second principle (expression – referring to the ability of making an environment usable by everyone but also enjoyable and meaningful), and the third principle (engaging). UDL provides accessibility by expanding the usability of the learning environment and technology by making it more accessible and addressing the various learning styles. To be accessible, information has to be presented in a variety of ways, such as video, audio, text, and graphics, to name a few, in order to ensure that all students can access course content information.

“We are a faith-based university and we want our students to become good citizens and to be able to contribute to their communities. That requires respect for each other, respect for different talents, different ways of learning, different opinions… that can be nurtured in the classroom, and that is the best practice that we have,” concludes Trifilo.



1 National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (n.d.). UDL and Technology. Retrieved February 20, 2018, from

2 Rose, D.H., and Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved February, 20, 2018, from

Photos by: AFP – Brad Tollefson