Strategies for Engaging Students with Different Learning Needs

This article is Part Two of four in a series about Universal Design for Learning.

In our previous article about Universal Design for Learning, we introduced the basic principles of UDL and how approaching course design with accessibility and flexibility in mind can lead to better learning outcomes. This second article gives more detail on the first principle of UDL, Multiple Means of Engagement, and examples of how to incorporate it into your curriculum.

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” ― Albert Einstein

Gaining Momentum with Multiple Means of Engagement

Students feel motivated to learn by a variety of factors depending on their personality, background, abilities, and interests. This is true whether or not a student has a documented disability with accommodation needs. The principle of Engagement addresses the multitude of ways that an individual might vary in how they are motivated and stay engaged with learning content. Classrooms are now more diverse than ever, and presenting instruction that addresses their different perspectives is key to student success. 

Keep in mind that there is no one right way to engage all learners. Universal Design empowers educators to provide multiple options that will meet the needs of students coming from any perspective. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean a lot more effort on the part of the instructor, but it requires some critical and creative thinking to design lessons and assessments that resonate with all of their students. 

Strategies for Engagement

Getting students interested in the course content early on can make a big difference in the quality of their overall learning experience. There are three sets of strategies for Engagement in UDL: 1) Recruiting Interest, 2) Sustaining Effort and Persistence, and 3) Self-Regulation. Consider the strategies for each guideline below when considering how to make content engaging and provide continuous motivation throughout a course.

Note that UDL has a lot of best practices, but you don’t need to try all of these at once for them to be effective. Incorporate some of these strategies into your teaching approach and gradually build upon them as you see fit. 

Recruiting Interest

If you don’t have a student’s interest, they won’t learn effectively and may “go through the motions” just to get a grade. Who wants that? Instructors can recruit interest by making information accessible by developing content that is relevant, timely, and appealing to your audience, and offering variety in how they develop skills and knowledge.

Each class will be different, each student will be different, and factors that influence interest can change over time. Giving students choices in their learning, optimizing authentic, participatory, and experiential learning, and creating a supportive learning environment that minimizes distraction and unnecessary stressors will make it easier to gain and keep their attention.

Some specific strategies for recruiting interest include:

  • Give learners as much choice and autonomy as possible (not in what they learn, but how they learn – such as the tools they use to complete assignments and the sequence and timings of tasks)
  • Allow learners to participate in the design of class activities where possible
  • Guide learners in settings their own goals
  • Vary activities and sources of information to connect with students from different backgrounds with different abilities and interests
  • Create course content that is socially, culturally, and personally relevant to students
  • Invite students to give their personal responses and perspectives   
  • Design and maintain a predictable course structure
  • Involve all students in class discussions
  • Provide variety in types of assignment, types of interactions, and pace of work throughout the course
  • Maintain continuous communication with students, including alerts and announcements to help them anticipate what’s next (no surprises)

Sustaining Effort and Persistence 

Many tasks in learning require students to sustain their effort and persistence in order to achieve a goal. Some students can achieve this more readily than others. Variances in attention, effort, and focus can be influenced by factors such as motivation, ability to self-regulate, and confidence level with the material. Helping students build self-regulating skills, providing conducive learning tools and environments, and augmenting their self-determination with continuous motivation will allow them to best demonstrate consistent performance throughout their learning.

In some cases, students may feel a lack of motivation or internal organization when they don’t fully understand the goal or purpose of an activity. Others may need a sense of community to feel engaged in the course. Sometimes, more structure is needed to feel that they will be able to succeed. Regardless of the reasons, clear communication and consistent evaluation of student progress will help you adapt to their learning needs.

Some specific strategies for sustaining effort and persistence include:

  • Prompt students to put learning goals in their own words to solidify understanding
  • Present learning goals and the purpose of activities in multiple ways
  • Break up larger goals into smaller goals and break up assessments accordingly
  • Use visualizations like timelines to explain goals
  • Demonstrate scheduling and planning tools in the LMS
  • Show students example of successfully completed assessments
  • Adjust the degree of difficulty and complexity according to student performance
  • Offer alternative formats, tools, and pathways to learning
  • Create a class culture of cooperation and peer learning
  • Encourage peer support opportunities like tutoring and study groups
  • Generate clear expectations for group work (rubrics, agreements, etc.)
  • Provide frequent, timely, and specific feedback that focuses on improvement and encouragement


Instructor involvement in engaging and motivating learners through course design and culture helps students get their footing and stay on task. However, it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to regulate their own attention, focus, and motivations. Self-regulation involves managing one’s emotions and mental state to be able to fully participate in one’s environment.

Some students may struggle with self-regulation even at the postsecondary level, due to personal aptitude, environmental factors, or lack of guidance in their prior education. At the same time, there is a certain level of expectation that college students can mitigate their thoughts and actions independent of their instructors and classmates. College instructors can integrate support for learner variance in self-regulation without excessive hand-holding by anticipating student needs, allowing for flexibility by planning ahead, and monitoring the aptitude and behavior of individual students.

Some specific strategies for sustaining effort and persistence include:

  • Establish expectations on conduct, interaction, and timelines and provide reminders
  • Always use rubrics and communicate assessment requirements
  • Allow for extra time on assessments when appropriate
  • Integrate self-reflection and persona goal-setting into assessments
  • Connect students with campus resources for academic success, such as tutoring
  • Maintain open dialog about student questions, challenges, and frustrations
  • Provide guidance and correction on areas of student improvement when giving feedback

Creating an Environment for Success

The principle of Engagement centers on providing students with conditions that allow them to develop a motivated and optimistic outlook toward their learning. It’s a two-way street, and students need to take advantage of the opportunities they are given in order to be successful. Being mindful about differences in factors that motivate students and planning accordingly using these strategies will prepare you to teach any student. By incorporating the principle of Engagement, instructors can develop materials that offer flexibility and shape a learning environment in which any student using their full capabilities can master the content.