UDL and Deeper Learning: The Intersection of the Cognitive and Affective Domains of Learning

Written by Kristan Rodriguez, Ph.D.

In a series of blogs, I’m going to explore different aspects of the intersection of Deeper Learning with the UDL framework. Below is the first in the series. 

Deeper learning has been defined in multiple ways. Some cognitive scientists such as Bransford, Brown, & Cocking refer to it as learning for understanding (1999).  Here they focus on the transfer of knowledge as a key component of deeper learning.

For me, deeper learning it is the antithesis of a weekly vocabulary quiz where students are provided with words (out of context) and written definitions and asked to regurgitate those words back to the teacher each Friday morning. After all, we have computers for that now.

The Hewlett Foundation (2013) says, “The foundation of deeper learning is mastery of core academic content, whether in traditional subjects such as mathematics or in interdisciplinary fields which merge several key fields of study. Students are expected to be active participants in their education. Ideally, they are immersed in a challenging curriculum that requires them to seek out and acquire new knowledge, apply what they have learned, and build upon that to create new knowledge.”

In their landmark book titled, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Mehta and Fine (2019) discuss the core components of deeper learning. In the text, they discuss the integration of the cognitive and the affective aspects of deeper learning. They write, “while deeper learning stems from increasing the level of rigor of the cognitive processes, it also relies in part on cultivating motivation and identity of the students involved” (p.14).  

If I asked you to remember something special about your education, I hazard a guess that it does not involve rote memorization or a weekly spelling quiz. It was likely something that you cared about. It’s that “caring” component that locked it into your memory. While the importance of academic challenge and motivation are easy for us to recognize as teachers, we are often ill-equipped with strategies for how to effectively implement this within our classes.  I have found that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a very effective framework to support this intersection of the cognitive and affective domains. 

For those of you not familiar with UDL, it  is a framework that reduces barriers in instruction, proactively provides appropriate accommodations and supports, and allows for high- achievement expectations for all students, regardless of their unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, by providing options and choices for students to personalize their learning. UDL is an educational framework based on research in cognitive neuroscience that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate learner variability.

The UDL framework, first defined by David Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990’s, calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn,
  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, and,
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners options for demonstrating knowledge and skills.

Let’s focus this blog on the concepts of providing appropriate challenge for all (resulting in cognitive stretching) and in fostering student motivation. 

According to the UDL Guidelines (2018):  “Learners vary not only in their skills and abilities, but also in the kinds of challenges that motivate them to do their best work. All learners need to be challenged, but not always in the same way. In addition to providing appropriately varied levels and types of demands, learners also need to be provided with the right kinds of resources necessary for successful completion of the task. Learners cannot meet a demand without appropriate, and flexible, resources. Providing a range of demands, and a range of possible resources, allows all learners to find challenges that are optimally motivating. Balancing the resources available to meet the challenge is vital.”

They define the following of what this might look like in practice. 

  • Differentiate the degree of difficulty or complexity within which core activities can be completed
  • Provide alternatives in the permissible tools and scaffolds
  • Vary the degrees of freedom for acceptable performance
  • Emphasize process, effort, improvement in meeting standards as alternatives to external evaluation and competition

The Hewlett Foundation (2013) lays the foundation for the value of engagement in learning when they articulate how “cognitive research shows that students learn more when they are engaged in their studies and see them as important.” Lepper and Woolverton (2002) discussed how engagement and curiosity are interrelated with providing students choices in their learning. A lot of teachers resonate with this concept, but yearn to know what that looks like in practice. Below is a sample taken from the UDL Progression Rubric (2018). 

When you are just beginning with UDL perhaps you can provide options for students to learn content with clear degrees of difficulty. For example, “Explore one of the following resources to learn about the Civil War…” and there may be a rigorous primary source document and a video.  As you move toward more proficient UDL practice, you may provide multiple options for students to learn content with clear degrees of difficulty which will require them to reflect on the standard and their own strategy for learning. For example, “Choose two of the following six resources to learn about the Civil War…” and there may be rigorous primary source documents, summary documents, videos, and/ or a podcasts from a professor. As you move into expert range, you are playing a less central role in the process, and your students are playing a more primary role.  For example, you might empower students to select their own content and/or own assessments, based on standards, and encourage them to collaborate to add to the multiple options offered to challenge themselves and identify appropriate resources that connect to their interests and passions. 

Within the sphere of motivation, one strategy is to promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation. 

According to the UDL Guidelines (2018): “One important aspect of self-regulation is the personal knowledge each learner has about what he or she finds motivating, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. To accomplish this, learners need to be able to set personal goals that can be realistically reached, as well as fostering positive beliefs that their goals can be met. However, learners also need to be able to deal with frustration and avoid anxiety when they are in the process of meeting their goals. Multiple options need to be given to learners to help them stay motivated.” The guidelines provide the following examples of what this looks like in practice. 

  • Provide prompts, reminders, guides, rubrics, checklists that focus on:
    • Self-regulatory goals like reducing the frequency of aggressive outbursts in response to frustration
    • Increasing the length of on-task orientation in the face of distractions
    • Elevating the frequency of self-reflection and self-reinforcements
  • Provide coaches, mentors, or agents that model the process of setting personally appropriate goals that take into account both strengths and weaknesses
  • Support activities that encourage self-reflection and identification of personal goals

If you wish to know more about how this manifests in practice, here too we can go to the UDL Progression Rubric (2018).

As a new UDL instructor, we want to at least teach students about the power of perseverance and use language and feedback that will allow all students to see themselves as capable learners. Moving into the proficient range, we want to foster conversations with students to develop relationships and make authentic connections and use their personal passions and interests to help inspire them and push them toward success. As we progress toward expert practice we create a classroom culture where students are empowered and able to support their own self-talk and support one another’s positive attitudes toward learning.

Want to dive a bit deeper in the concept of helping our students become expert learners?  If so, feel free to read this peer-reviewed article, Helping Students become Expert Learners discusses three specific strategies that align to UDL: 1) meta-attention, 2) meta-comprehension and 3) metacognitive reflection.



Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R., eds. 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Hewlett Foundations. (2013). Deeper Learning Defined. Retrieved from https://hewlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Deeper_Learning_Defined__April_2013.pdf

Lepper, M.R. and Woolverton, M. (2002) ‘The wisdom of practice: Lessons learned from the study of highly effective tutors’, in J. Aronson (Ed.) Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of Psychological Factors on Education, Orlando, FL: Academic Press, pp.135–158.

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning. The quest to remake the American high school. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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