How the 7 Principles apply to a door lever
Equitable Use: The lever handle is useful for diverse abilities.
Flexibility in Use: The lever handle accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the lever handle is intuitive.
Perceptible Information: People can use the lever handle regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
Tolerance for Error: The lever handle does not have adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
Low Physical Effort: The lever handle can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
Size and Space for Approach and Use: The lever handle provides appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.
The 7 principles of Universal Design applied to a door handle lever. North Carolina State – The Center for Universal Design: The Principles of Universal Design

Universal Design applied to a classroom is the concept that structuring your course and course materials can simplify, enhance, and make accessible the learning in your classroom. It originally started with physical spaces and continues to expand into many areas of course design, engagement, assessment, and learning strategies in the classroom. As Caroline highlighted in her previous blog post, many well-meaning faculty members think this is just too demanding and are afraid it will mean making adaptations for every student’s needs. That is actually the opposite of the goal of universal design. The goal is to put structures and practices in place so the need for individual accommodations may be less. It doesn’t mean accommodations won’t be necessary, but many students may find their needed accommodations built into the structure. We have taken the concepts of Universal Design and highlighted a couple of ideas that you could implement now and will have positive impact for you and your students this semester. As with all new practices, start small and see how it goes.

Flexible use: This is the concept that components of the space or the content resources are flexible to meet students’ needs. For example, is there a standing desk in your space or a place for a wheel mobility student? Are there assigned seats or can students pick whether to be close to the front or in the back? For course resources, this could be that readings are accessible to screen readers or easily change size to make larger or smaller. Maybe course assignment types or course topics can be easily identified and sorted in the syllabus and course resources. For example, in Moodle you can put assignments in categories through the gradebook to help students track assignment types but is a little clunky for students who want to organize more than just assignments. Additionally, you can put hashtags in the dynamic syllabus, but that isn’t linked to the learning platform.  Does anyone know learning platforms with tags or tricks that would make it easy to do this?

Equitable use: This is the concept that your course is not set up such that all material introduction, engagement, assignments, and tests look the same, privileging one type of student. For example, all lecture, heavy reading, long papers, and multiple-choice exams is the recipe for students who have always done well in school. It is the “traditional” teaching style. We have more tools to implement in our classroom and many of us are, but can we be intentional with the mix of assignments we give? Can we be flexible in the products or assessments students submit? For example, can the final project be a paper, a podcast, or a video presentation? We would need to think about what is being assessed, but the product type doesn’t have to be the same. This is also a place to think about how students are introduced to or engage in the material. Does it always have to be peer-reviewed journal articles? I (Caroline) am finding more and more researchers have YouTube videos discussing their body of work. For my students, it’s a good introduction and sometimes gets them excited to dive into more resources.

Simple and intuitive: This concept sounds straightforward, but it’s often where people get tripped up. Have you ever tried to navigate your university website as if you were a first-year student? The content is all there, but often embedded in layers of pages in a way that means you essentially have to know where you are going to find it. Focus on your course structure, is it simple and intuitive? Ask students, they are great experts here. Have identifiable parts of the syllabus and your course material platform that is clear and easy to navigate. I (Caroline) have a dynamic schedule as a google doc with the major assignments and topics filled out. But it can easily be updated so students can follow what is expected the next class as the pace may have adjusted or I just found a relevant podcast. 

Perceptible information: Make sure all your course materials (notes, slides, learning platform design) can be perceived by multiple learners. Can screen readers read your documents? Do you have short-hand or abbreviations in materials and a legend, or can you spell out more and skip abbreviations? Let students help you identify these in your courses! Side story, I (Caroline) use 1° in my slides as short-hand for “primary”—a student came up and asked me what that was, not understanding my shorthand. Easy fix—my goal was never for them to have to know that symbol, but I absolutely assumed they did.

Tolerance for error: This is important for many of our learners. What is the goal of the assignment? Are you assessing how a student met that goal or just grading on grammar, spelling, and format? Can these errors be highlighted and corrected in iterative processes or drafts, but tolerance for errors and focus on content be the main show of assignments and assessments? On short answer or essay exams, for example, focus on content and not spelling.

Low physical effort: This is another goal-focused concept that many of us likely don’t think about. Can students write exams on their computers even in class? This would lower the physical demands of writing a test and make it easier for the instructor to read. It is easy to have them close all programs except for a Word document and turn off wi-fi.

Community of learners: Building an inclusive community of learners can mean common accommodations are highlighted as learning strengths and challenges. Shared notes for the course can help lots of students for lots of different reasons. Share in the course learning platform, rotate notetakers, have note reviewers. With many of the smart notebooks (e.g., reMarkable or Rocketbook) these can be easily shared.

Instructional climate: For some component of your course, from building the syllabus to looking at assignment expectations or creating a class set of expectations, creating these together with students builds a shared climate and partnership.

Hopefully these ideas give you a few new tips you can try. What have you implemented in your classroom along these universal design principles, and how has it impacted the culture of learning in your classroom?


Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “A Quick but Necessary Chat.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. August 2, 2022.

Darby, Alexa. “Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom.” National Education Association. Elon University.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

Alexa Darby is an educational psychologist and research methodologist whose teaching and research focus on educating undergraduate and graduate students about underrepresented groups. Dr. Darby began her career as a Learning Specialist working with college students with learning disabilities, and subsequently worked as a Disability Resource Coordinator. As a professor of psychology at Elon, she focuses on educational psychology, service-learning, and neurodiversity.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J., and Alexa Darby. 2022. “Universal Design in the Classroom: Quick Tips to Try.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. August 24, 2022.