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UDL On Campus · Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

Learning Goals


What is this resource about? This resource discusses the ways in which learning goals can be constructed through the lens of Universal Design for Learning. Within instructional design, goals are expectations for knowledge, skills, or outcomes. These expectations can be communicated as performance goals -- which focus on proving ability -- or as learning goals (also known as mastery goals), which emphasize developing and improving an ability.1 Read more about Learning Goals from a UDL Perspective, and Separating the Means from the Ends.


Why is this important in higher education? Learners at all stages benefit from being aware of their own goals and the goals instructors and institutions hold for them.2 Some instructional circumstances call for performance goals; but learning goals, oriented towards growth, are more likely to support course completion, persistence through challenging transitions, and change in deeply-held conceptions.3

UDL Connections

Consider how goals are articulated and communicated: goals that unnecessarily prescribe narrow means of achievement will inadvertently privilege, exclude, and under-engage learners.4 Clear goals are the cornerstone of well-designed curricula, as only through clarification of what learners are expected to accomplish, and by when, can instructors begin to consider which assessments, methods and materials will be most effective.

Learning Goals from a UDL Perspective

In the UDL model, goals move beyond their traditional role in curriculum planning as mere content or performance markers. A UDL approach seeks to create clear learning goals and support the development of expert, lifelong learners that are strategic, resourceful, and motivated.5 A UDL approach to effective learning goals in postsecondary settings consists of three key components:

  • separating the means from the ends
  • addressing variability in learning
  • providing UDL options in the materials, methods, and assessments

Separating the Means from the Ends

From a UDL perspective, goals and objectives should be attainable by different learners in different ways. In some instances, linking a goal with the means for achievement may be intentional; however, often times we unintentionally embed the means of achievement into a goal, thereby restricting the pathways students can take to meet it.


The following sample curricular goal is articulated as: “Write a paragraph about how the circulatory system works.” What are the barriers this goal might pose for students?


Writing a paragraph is an additional task layered over mastery of the content knowledge that you want your students to attain. Rephrasing this goal into something like, “Describe a complete cycle in the circulatory system” is more explicit about what students should be able to explain, and allows flexibility in terms of how students convey their knowledge (create a diagram, label an image, write out the steps in the process, make a short video explaining an image, etc.). It is also more of a learning goal than a performance goal in that it invites students to demonstrate the fullest extent of their understanding – rather than asking them to prove that they can write a paragraph.



In your College Writing Seminar, the learning goal (learning how to write strong essays) is frequently linked to the production means (writing essays). Given the wide variability of writing abilities in the classroom, you want to be sure that your students first get a strong understanding of the concept of a thesis statement first before adding the additional challenge of writing one.


In the case of this learning objective, the desired outcome is that students understand the concept of a strong thesis statement--perhaps as a prerequisite to writing one. Therefore, the means by which students demonstrate this ability can be more flexible, since the concept of a thesis statement and the ability to write one are not always one in the same. Students could write a thesis statement, but they could also put forward a video with a narrative, or some sort of visual. Requiring that students fulfill this objective through only one modality would, for some students, add task-irrelevant demands that pose a barrier to their fundamental understanding of a thesis statement.


The solutions above illustrate a key characteristics of well-designed goals: to make explicit the desired outcomes, rather than the means of achieving those outcomes. By focusing on the desired outcomes, instructors are able to maintain high expectations for students while opening multiple pathways towards achievement. This focus also capitalizes on the varied strengths of a wider range of students. Such support encourages persistence and content mastery that otherwise might be inadvertently deterred.


Goals need to be relevant to students. Especially at the postsecondary level -- where there is a focus on functioning independently in professions or life after school -- educators must consider that “students will never use knowledge they don't care about, nor will they practice or apply skills they don't find valuable.”6


1Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040; Rusk, N., Tamir, M., & Rothbaum, F. (2011). Performance and learning goals for emotion regulation. Motivation and Emotion, 35(4), 444-460.

2Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals. Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(2), 52-57.

3Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314; Ranellucci, J., Muis, K. R., Duffy, M., Wang, X., Sampasivam, L., & Franco, G. M. (2013). To master or perform? Exploring relations between achievement goals and conceptual change learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(3), 431-451.

4Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield MA: CAST Professional Publishing.


6Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on Principles and their Application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 135-151.


UDL is an educational approach based on the learning sciences with three primary principles—multiple means of representation of information, multiple means of student action and expression, and multiple means of student engagement.


Assessment is the process of gathering information about a learner’s performance using a variety of methods and materials in order to determine learners’ knowledge, skills, and motivation for the purpose of making informed educational decisions.


Video is the recording, reproducing, or broadcasting of moving visual images.