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Universal Design

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students placing hands on each others in the middle of a circle


The philosophy that educational excellence is achieved by offering multiple paths to understanding is vividly illustrated by the talk by L. Todd Rose called The Myth of Average

To make the learning of History and Social Studies accessible for all, educators have increasingly built upon the research program of CAST, the organization that first articulated and developed the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Primary sources—including from the Library of Congress—offer distinctive, powerful tools to expand choices and means of access that support and mesh well with UDL principles. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy draws upon brain-based research on learning to encourage educators to provide multiple means of engagement,  representation, action and expression for all students. (A good place to start is CAST’s detailed graphic explaining the three principles: UDL Guidelines.) 

Chart with check boxes for features of a lesson Minarik & Lintner, p. 45. Adapted from Glenna Gustafson and Tamara Wallace, “Radford University Lesson Planning Template with UDL,” 2010.

Emerging America courses employ a lesson plan design tool from Darren Minarik and Timothy Lintner’s excellent book, Social Studies and Exceptional Learners, published by the National Council for the Social Studies. (2016). Their checklist incorporates all three elements of UDL with a fourth element, “Cultural Considerations.” Find many examples of accessible lesson plans with the tool fully fleshed out in our Teaching Resources Library.

Resources – A rich list of classroom strategies linked to the CAST model of UDL by an organization called Goalbook can be found here. Featured below are strategies that address learning through primary sources by students whose strengths and abilities may cluster in diverse areas. 



Young girl with a crown, flowers, and flowing, colorful gown seated in a wicker "throne". Princess at a Puerto Rican festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1987

Students engage with course content in a variety of ways. Teachers can be thoughtful about how to increase engagement in a way that is responsive to the needs of the particular learners in their classrooms—not every method of engagement suggested will be helpful for every student.  Engagement may be heightened through the type of classroom activity, the personalization of the content, and the ownership the student feels for the specific project or broader learning.

Some students can access challenging material best when it is offered within consistent classroom routines. Engagement methods that boost consistent engagement include 

  • selecting topics that are likely to engage intrinsic student interest
    • primary sources that feature the voices, perspectives, or experiences of young people (journals, newspaper accounts, visual depictions)
    • topics connected to current events
    • questions and topics with a dramatic flair
  • personalization of the content to maximize student interest
    • topics of study that have cultural relevance to the student’s own environment, heritage, location, or situation
    • topics or sources in an area of interest or mastery of the student (will vary with each student)


Model Lesson: Using primary sources, students examine documents showing various generations of Puerto Ricans engaging with Anglo-American culture while preserving their cultural identity. Puerto Rican Identity  

Within a structure of established routines, varying classroom routines to add choices and hands-on experiences can offer rewards for those students who thrive on novelty and/or tangible experience. If structured with clarity and good preparation, variation can heighten engagement for a wide range of students. There are many resources for experiential activities. Some examples include

  • Having students move around the room in teams as they examine primary sources 
  • Offering independent project development with research support
  • Paired activities for analysis of sources, completion of graphic organizers


Resources – Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Using Primary Sources instructional modules from the Minnesota Historical Society:



Educators who follow Universal Design for Learning principles provide multiple ways to represent concepts to students of differing ability levels. When working with primary sources, teachers use variety both in the sources themselves and in the formats used to examine the sources.

Martin, D. S. (1943)
Above and beyond the call of duty--
Dorie Miller received the Navy Cross
at Pearl Harbor, David Stone Martin.
Hawaii Pearl Harbor, 1943. [Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office]
[Photograph] Retrieved from
the Library of Congress,

Primary source representations can include:

  • Text passages (with related translations and transcriptions)
  • Formal documents
  • Personal narratives and letters
  • Newspapers, books, log books
  • Maps and blueprints produced at the time of study
  • Photos, paintings, drawings that document a perspective
  • Cartoons that use symbolism and captions
  • Sound recordings of interviews or songs
  • Objects  from the past–actual or reproductions, such as a rotary telephone, clothing, ink well, medals, etc.


Secondary sources and teaching techniques can extend the variety in the means of representation:

  • Teacher presentations of information, with or without audiovisual aids
  • Text presentation of information, including textbooks, non-fiction books, period fiction and poetry, historical novels
  • Produced audio and video presentation of information, with mix of sounds and images (podcasts, films)
  • Maps produced for various purposes
  • Graphic organizers that use text and groups of lists
  • Manipulative models and representations of information (for example: laminated country shapes to be placed on maps, color coded to represent categories being represented)
  • Whole-body activities that represent information, as in when students stand in groups to represent economic data, or move to show rotation and orbit of a planet around a star
  • Graphic organizers that use spatial relationships, diagrams, and aggregate charts.
    Table of Visualization Methods
    distinguishing Data, Information,
    Concept,Strategy, and Metaphor
    visualizations, by Ralph Lengler
    & Martin J. Eppler


Model Lesson:  See how oral histories and a mix of maps and other documents are used to represent the Pearl Harbor bombing.  Pearl Harbor Lesson

Additional tools and approaches for Representation are woven throughout the pages on Disability History through Primary SourcesAssistive Technology, and Inquiry Strategies


Action and Expression

How students can take action to use what they are learning and express what they have learned is a distinctive element in Universal Design for Learning. Just as the means of representing and conveying information to students should be varied, student expressions of learning should be varied to allow students with differing strengths and abilities to display learning in alternative ways. (See the Assessment Strategies page on our website for detailed ideas and tools.) 

Harris & Ewing, photographer. (1915)
[Photograph] Retrieved from
the Library of Congress,

Developing additions and alternatives to expository writing as a the traditional and primary means of summarizing and expressing learning will enhance teaching of History and the Social Sciences for all students.  Following the principles of UDL, students should be given the chance to express themselves using written and spoken word, visuals, and technology.  

Model Lesson:   Monuments in Washington D.C. Students design a brochure of the Monuments of Washington D.C.

Alternative forms of expression of learning can include

  • drawing simple (or elaborate) comic strips or graphic novel pages
  • preparing skits, radio-play episodes, or talking tableau presentations
  • writing diary entries or letters to the editor in the persona of a person from the events being studied
  • creating annotated maps or diagrams related to places or events under study
  • preparing a poster that advertises, educates, or dramatizes
  • creating a data summary (weather data, population data, widows pension applications, number of ships)


The critical element is creating alternatives that allow students to show different strengths, and to work around any barriers that prevent some students from being able to express learning in one way that they can show in another.


Upcoming Workshops

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