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Profound Learning Through Universal Design

By Carol Rogers-Shaw, Michael Kroth, Davin Carr-Chellman, Jinhee Choi / December 2022

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Distance educators can initiate, facilitate, and maintain “profound learning” by encouraging deep learning through the practices of universal design for learning (UDL). Through the application of profound learning principles and processes, the practices of UDL can develop more substance, depth, and durable utility. The profound learner is not limited to searching for the quick fact but has a predilection for greater and more meaningful insight. The inclusive nature of UDL provides multiple mechanisms to find deeper meaning. Designing profound learning opportunities for online courses is not necessarily an intuitive process; there are specific distance learning practices that can lead online learners to become deeper learners.

We suggest ways to integrate profound learning principles and practices into online instruction that applies UDL, increasing the opportunity for deep learning in distance education while recognizing that educators and practitioners may not be adept at implementing approaches and techniques that engage learners in deep and meaningful learning [1]. Educators can use guidelines [2] or instructional strategies [3] to apply UDL lessons to distance education that deepen learning. To date, the opportunities for applying Profound Learning concepts and practices to UDL to promote profound learners have scarcely been explored. A discussion connecting profound learning and UDL is timely and overdue. This article presents an understanding of the links between profound learning and UDL that can illuminate opportunities to promote deep learning in online settings.

Supporting Deep Learning in Distance Education

Profound learning can take place in any learning environment whether it is face-to-face, online, individual, or collaborative. An understanding of the theory of profound learning, an acknowledgment of significant characteristics of distance education, and a familiarity with the principles of UDL are necessary to elevate learning for all students.

Profound learning. Profound learning has been recently introduced [4, 5, 6, 7] as an ongoing, never-ending approach to learning, which results in deeper and more complex perspectives and competencies in all areas of life. All transformative learning is theorized to be profound yet learning not included within the confines of transformative learning theory may also be profound. Transformative learning is seen as a subset of lifelong, incremental, and episodic, profound, ever deepening, learning. Profound learning includes all forms of learning: cognitive, socio-emotional, embodied, and spiritual. It is built upon the disciplines of and dispositions for continuing inquiry and curiosity. Profound learning draws from and fills broader and deeper wells of knowledge and understanding in all aspects of life. Profound learning relies upon practices which may evolve into dispositions, or perhaps even traits. Foundational to profound learning is the assumption that neither truth nor perfection can ever be achieved; practices, which may never end, are a cornerstone of lifelong, profound learning. Profound learning is both continuous and incremental and includes disjuncture, disruption, and discontinuous learning. It is a deepening process that changes learners, moving them toward more authentic truths [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

For designers and adult educators, the implications of a profound learning approach are that course development should incorporate opportunities for practices which enrich learning and do more to accomplish learning objectives than checking off boxes. Profound learning incorporates every learner, arguing that every individual can be a profound learner and that every individual has what we are conceptualizing as “profoundabilities,” regardless of how one has been labeled in more traditional learning environments. Significantly, this vision of learning highlights abilities, which, from a deficit lens, are often overlooked, under-valued, perhaps even disparaged, and developed haphazardly, if at all.

Developing profound learning pedagogies and considering learners to have bottomless potential can be important in a time of uncertainty and crisis. During a pandemic, civil unrest, or climate catastrophes, educators and students may encounter personal, technical, and organizational challenges and become unable to control unanticipated situations in their distance education [10, 11, 12]. One way to mitigate disruption, interruption, and disconnection and expand learning potential is to incorporate profound learning approaches that can broaden horizons of learning. Profound learning pedagogy, an approach which is built on long term, lifelong, deep learning, acknowledges challenges, offers opportunities, and suggests ways to face crises. Instructional providers and designers, capitalizing on new institutional awareness of the efficacy of distance education, can incorporate profound learning approaches into a broadened norm. The structure of distance education presents spaces for effectively linking profound learning and UDL. 

Distance education. With traditional distance education, there is a separation in time or place between the instructor and the learner. Today, technology overcomes the separation and accelerates the development of online education. It allows instructors and learners to meet and communicate seamlessly synchronously and/or asynchronously as the situation calls for despite being in different places and sometimes at different times.

Distance education appeals to many adult learners because of its potential to create a more supportive learning environment for contemporary adults who must meet multiple role expectations and work-family demands. Although social, contextual, and personal factors can either hinder or foster learners’ distance learning experiences, some scholars [13, 14] attempt to embrace distance education as an integral part of lifelong learning. Indeed, adult learners already engage in informal learning through desktop and mobile devices without time and locational barriers, and they build knowledge in online learning communities. This is a pervasive and customary way people learn, and it will become more integrated as technology advances. Online education has become widespread and opportunities to learn have increased. Having an advanced technological infrastructure and a potential to create a supportive learning environment, distance education has embraced UDL as a systematic foundation and performative potential for all learners [2, 15]. Adding the processes and disciplines of Profound Learning can enhance the application of UDL in online education.

Universal design for learning. UDL has been used with “students with atypical backgrounds in the dominant language, cognitive strategies, culture, or history of the average classroom who, therefore, face barriers in accessing information when presented in a manner that assumes a common background among all students'' [16]. It effectively offers multiple means of representation that give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge; multiple means of engagement that tap into learners’ interests, challenging and motivating them; and multiple means of expression that provide learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know [17].

Research suggests UDL is employed in educational design by applying specific features to course design; there are many journal articles that provide checklists for the use of UDL [18, 19, 20, 21, 22] Some scholars argue that there are not substantial studies on the effectiveness of UDL practices and claims of UDL’s success are largely anecdotal [23]. While researchers have argued that the use of UDL strategies improve educational outcomes, the application of UDL comes in many forms that “present a challenge for defining when and how UDL is effective” [24]. The approach to UDL seems to have moved away from its theoretical foundation and instead now focuses largely on compliance regarding the teaching of learners with disabilities. Adding a focus on Profound Learning to the application of UDL brings instructors and designers back to the theoretical foundation of UDL. An epistemological shift in mindset is necessary for the successful application of UDL to profound learning. The basis for using UDL to facilitate profound learning is not the process of checking off items on a compliance list, for example, by simply inserting a transcript for a video or providing an audio version of a book. It is being able to “reimagine the ways learning occurs and is assessed in an online classroom” [25]. Adding multiple forms of assessment such as presentations, arts-based projects, and collaborative work allows learners to reveal their acquired knowledge outside the limits of a standard exam or traditional written essay. Technology offers unique options, yet true universal design requires more than simply using technology tools such as closed captioning or screen readers. If educators change the way they approach learning, they can offer learners the option of discovering content through social media, collaborative documents, and multimedia resources. While UDL promotes access for and inclusivity of all learners, it also offers varied pathways and opportunities for learners to pursue enhanced understanding and become profound learners.

Elements of Profound Learning in Universal Design

UDL provides instructors and course designers with specific guidelines to “improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people … [that] increase access and participat[ion] in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities” [17]. Examining essential elements of profound learning reveals ways to focus the application of UDL on the theory behind the checklists; it provides ways to approach instruction broadly with the goal of facilitating deeper learning at the forefront.

We propose using the guidelines for UDL and the theory of profound learning to offer adult educators instructional suggestions that will spark meaningful interaction in online courses. Table 1 offers an example of how to use the techniques of UDL and connect the scientific research on learning with the theory of profound learning. This provides a way to ensure that not only will all types of learners have access to online courses through UDL, but that they will also have opportunities to develop the practices and dispositions of profound learners.

Table 1. Building profound learning practices through the application of universal design for learning guidelines.




Develop practices, routines, and habits.

Use charts, calendars, schedules that increase predictability of daily activities. Create class routines.

Model learning practices within the course.

Encourage continual exploration and promote learner agency.

Provide learners with discretion and autonomy in the level of perceived challenge, the type of rewards or recognition available, the context or content used for practicing and assessing skills, and the tools used for information gathering or production.

Ask questions and ask learners to ask questions they care about in the module.

Increase thoughtfulness, clarity, and openness through reflection

Invite personal response, evaluation and self-reflection to content and activities.

Consider discussion group reflection. Encourage multiple perspectives, processes, and values.

Establish community relationships in the learning environment.

Create cooperative learning groups with clear goals, roles, expectations, and responsibilities that enable communities of learners to engage in common interests or activities.

Develop safe, trusting discussion environments, where learners are more likely to engage in deep and meaningful exploration and sharing.

Emphasize that there is no single truth, but rather that learning is a continual exploration and deepening of knowledge.

Emphasize process, effort, improvement in meeting standards as alternatives to external evaluation and competition.

 Develop a growth mindset culture, wherein perfect knowledge is not the goal, but rather deepening understanding.

Stress the continuous nature of learning that takes place over a lifetime.

Focus on goals of adult learners. Make connections to previously learned structures.

Include application of take-aways, and reflection about future learning opportunities and anticipated needs.

Engage in meaningful reflection.

Embed prompts to “stop and think” before acting to “show and explain your work.” Embed coaches and mentors that model think-alouds of the process. Ask questions to guide self-monitoring and reflection.

Incorporate meta-cognition and critical reflection skills/assumption-testing into course material and exercises.

Seek breadth and depth in learning.

Introduce graduated scaffolds that support information processing strategies. Provide multiple entry points to a lesson and optional pathways through content.

Practice taking on differing roles, perspectives, contexts to develop expertise in learning-to-learn how to approach learning in more complex ways.

Continuously reevaluate previous ideas and values.

Incorporate explicit opportunities for review and practice. Embed new ideas in familiar ideas and contexts, using analogy and metaphor.

Model formative evaluation and action learning/action research in the course.


































*The UDL Guidelines are drawn from CAST (2018), a nonprofit educational research organization that provides guidelines for educators and designers to use when implementing UDL. They include specific application ideas that can be incorporated in course and lesson design so that the educational content and experiences are available to all learners.         

The UDL characteristics of developing learners who are “purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed” [17] are representative of profound learners. Instructors can facilitate Profound Learning in online settings by incorporating disciplines of inquiry, relationship building, individual exploration, increased engagement, attention to self-direction and goal setting, personal agency, and long-term scaffolded learning.

Disciplines of inquiry and relationship building. Profound learners develop “practices, habits, or routines which result in continual exploration, skill development, and growth in understanding” [4]. These practices can be initiated in distance education. The application of UDL supports profound learning where there are “. . . no completely correct answers . . . Learning then becomes a process of exploration rather than one of accomplishment” [4]. Likewise, UDL supports profound learning when “. . . the pursuit of deeper learning never has an endpoint [as] learners will continue to develop learning capacity over a lifetime” [4]. Finally, UDL supports profound learning when practices for delving more deeply are incorporated into the instructional plan. While these practices are visible in spiritual disciplines such as prayer,  meditation, fasting, solitude, study, or worship [26], they are also present in other areas of human experience such as the disciplines of inquiry and relationship-building. Specific UDL principles including the use of cooperative learning groups and an emphasis on process, effort, and improvement enhance inquiry and relationship building.

Individualized exploration. Profound learning theory contends that people can learn to be profound learners. The qualities and processes of ongoing deepening can become dispositions, or perhaps even traits developed over time through practices. In the context of spiritual development, Goleman and Davidson discussed how extended meditation practices can lead to ingrained and enduring traits [27]. Profound learning emphasizes shifts and deep changes occurring incrementally, and at times epiphanically, through life experiences and ongoing explorations that seek insight, depth, and breadth through practices or disciplines, but also serendipitously.

Multiple means of representation and access can engage adult learners’ curiosity, inspiration, and open-mindedness through the strategic execution of distance education design and delivery. By offering multiple means of gaining, expressing, and using new knowledge, such as multiple entry points and varied pathways through content, learners have options for pursuing their own deep learning.

Deeper engagement. Emphasis on real-life tasks and flexibility in UDL is designed to increase engagement. Learners who have clear, personal learning objectives will likely choose to study what they find relevant to their goals, and this becomes an opportunity to link the content they study to real-life contexts they experience. Adult learners are less interested in “information and activities that have no relevance or value [and] one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility and relevance of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities” [17]. Adult learners are more likely to be motivated to delve deeply into content that is personalized and corresponds to the context within which they work and live. They respond to active learning explorations that are culturally and socially relevant and provide meaningful opportunities to understand their learning in relation to their living.

Content that makes clear the connection between the learning and personal goals and concerns can enhance autonomy and self-determination, preparing learners for lifelong learning. Providing learning experiences that are relevant, that enhance independence, and that offer options contribute to self-directed and more meaningful learning [28, 29]. Profound learning links broader life experiences and learning as the “fluidity and integrity between personal and professional contexts is a vital characteristic of profound learning” [5]. This learning process stretches over a lifetime and reflects lifelong real-life changes in learning goals and interests. The lifelong nature of Profound Learning and the time constraints of a normal course offering provides a particular challenge for course designers who must figure out ways to incorporate and build processes and practices that will carry on well after the course is over; these include focusing on future goals, learning opportunities, and anticipated needs through self-reflection and making connections to previous learning. Incorporating self-evaluation, a core element of both UDL and Profound Learning, can also encourage learners to move toward deeper meaning through praxis and the exploration of evolving identities. Learners develop an awareness of how they are learning and why the learning is significant for them. Learning is more “authentic, communicate[s] to real audiences, and reflect[s] a purpose that is clear to the participants” [17]. It is holistic and cumulative [5]. Deeper engagement as a characteristic of Profound Learning advanced via UDL practices is further confirmed by Gravani who analyzed distance learning experiences and emphasized deeper engagement in the learning process (e.g., personality, mutuality, emotionality, and formality) by sharing power and building trust. In this way, vested interest, relevance, and motivation can be maximized [30]. 

Shared goals. In following UDL guidelines, the goal of engagement is to develop learners who are self-directed and motivated to meet varying demands both individually and collaboratively. When interest is sparked, learners are likely to become more diligent and determined to set goals, meet expectations, and assess their progress. Multiple means of representation provided by UDL spur increased knowledge and resourcefulness as learners perceive information in ways best suited to their needs. They connect that knowledge to what they already know and transfer it to new contexts. Learners who are deliberate and goal-oriented use multiple means of action and expression in UDL designed settings. They make plans, use varied methods of communication, and implement actions that lead to the realization of their goals [2, 17, 31].

Profound learners have similar characteristics and goals. A profound learner “pursues deeper knowledge regularly over time” [32] by developing practices, being intentional, taking risks, learning from failure, and maintaining an openness to what they encounter in their lives. They possess a strong desire to learn and can recognize multiple perspectives. Their goal is not to find the correct answer on the test but to continually seek enlightenment [6].

Educational Practices in a New Light

While UDL has been a topic of research in the online educational sphere, it has been applied in different ways using varying definitions and with varied results. One way to evaluate the efficacy of UDL guidelines is to apply them when using other successful educational practices. By considering the connections between profound learning and UDL, we follow Rao’s suggestion that researchers “…can be intentional and explicit about how they modify effective practices and what role UDL plays in the adaptation. This allows us to clearly describe the practice and how UDL was applied to its components and also denote the specific UDL guideline(s) used. This clear delineation of practices along with their UDL enhancements and modifications provides a structure to examine how and for whom UDL is effective” [2]. 

By studying the UDL Guidelines [17], it is clear they can support three significant aspects of profound learning. They encourage the cultivation of significant learning practices over a lifetime, they further learner agency, and they address contingent and provisional truths discovered within the learning process.

Developing practices over time. Profound learning emphasizes the importance of developing practices over time; these practices are visible in the UDL guidelines as well. There are several elements of UDL that stretch over a long period of time. Using scaffolding as an approach to learning where concepts and tasks are broken into pieces and then are built upon each other as the learner progresses toward more independence and less instructor guidance is one example. Scaffolding focuses the learner on making connections to background knowledge and structures that were learned earlier [2,17, 31, 33, 34]. It becomes important to access prior knowledge which instructors can do by “using visual imagery, concept anchoring, or concept mastery routines” [17]. Applying previously developed skills to new problems increases the acquisition of knowledge over time as learners become more proficient using acquired skills in multiple ways in multiple contexts, even when the material is new or unfamiliar. This deepening of learning contributes to the support of Profound Learning. Instructors who use analogies and metaphors and embed understood concepts in new contexts can facilitate Profound Learning, particularly when they provide opportunities for learners to review what they have learned and practice skills they have strengthened. These tasks actively involve learners in their own education, increase the exploration as they apply what they know to new areas, and encourage experimentation, all avenues for profound learning [17, 33].

Encouraging agency. Agency is a vital element in both profound learning and UDL. Universal design suggests instructors urge learners to establish their own goals and plans for achieving their aims. It is crucial that online courses offer several learning activities and information sources so that learners can choose those that are the most “personalized and contextualized to [their] lives, culturally relevant and responsive, socially relevant, age and ability appropriate, [as well as] appropriate for different racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups” [17]. Giving students discretion to decide what works best for them in terms of content options, challenge levels, skills practice, rewards, assessments, products, and schedules can lead to more profound learning rather than academic task completion. Courses that include self-reflection, self-monitoring activities, and personal expression with clear objectives and evaluation criteria enhance profound learning by turning the focus of the learners on their own learning [2, 17, 25, 31, 33, 34, 35].

This kind of metacognition unfolds into a virtuous cycle, a self-perpetuating feedback loop in a positive direction, as more deeply relevant and contextualized learning reinforces a learner’s sense of efficacy. For Profound Learning, this process provides a vision of human agency in which the ends animating us as social and embodied beings are more deeply integrated into our lives and purposes. It is commonplace to think of institutionalized learning as alienating. Many forms of distance education fit this description. Profound learning through UDL practices should generate the opposite, a philomathean process in which learning is authentic and integrative. Examples of techniques and small steps for motivating students to examine their goals and processes include prompts to “stop and think” or “show and explain your work” [17]. Assignments whose outcomes “are authentic, communicate to real audiences, and reflect a purpose that is clear to the participants” [17] also lead to more profound experiences in education. 

Recognizing contingent and provisional truths. The idea that truths are contingent and provisional is essential; UDL guidelines also draw attention to these ideas. In profound learning, finding truth is considered an ever-evolving, valuable process, but something which, ultimately, is unattainable. UDL methods  stress the process of learning rather than the result. Determining a test answer is only one aspect of learning. By focusing on “improvement in meeting standards as alternatives to external evaluation and competition” [17], instructors can facilitate profound learning. There are important techniques to accomplish this goal. First, it is necessary to offer feedback that motivates students to be persistent and self-aware so that they take control and become successful learners as they recognize the support they need and create a plan for overcoming obstacles [2, 17,1, 33, 35]. Second, creating “multiple entry points to a lesson and optional pathways through content” [17] is another option for promoting profound learning. Building on the ideas that profound learning encompasses practices over time and human agency, these techniques evolve naturally into stronger interest and further exploration.


It is important that online platforms engage learners in ways that lead to profound learning. By effectively using UDL  methods to deliver content, interaction between students and teachers can facilitate deep learning and enhance student achievement. Using multiple means of engagement, representation and action/expression, students can grow to become profound learners; they can develop meaningful learning practices, become agentic, and fully understand the nature of contingent and provisional truths. If UDL is used to facilitate profound learning, not only will distance education provide more access and opportunity for all students to learn profoundly over their lifetime, but it will also counter the argument that online learning is not as effective, challenging, or engaging as face-to-face education. The integration of universal design for learning and profound learning theory can address the spiritual, philosophical, and pedagogical challenges in distance education. Our conceptual framework can help to expand the horizons and depth of online learning to face the new normal. 


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About the Authors

Carol Rogers-Shaw is an adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton, having earned her doctorate in lifelong learning and adult education at Pennsylvania State University with a research concentration in increasing access to education for disabled adults. She is a co-editor of Adult Learning.

Davin Carr-Chellman is an associate professor of education in the Department of Educational Administration in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. He received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in adult education with a focus on ethical development in community-based organizations. He is a co-editor of Adult Learning.

Michael Kroth is Professor of Education in the Adult, Organizational Learning and Leadership Program at the University of Idaho - Boise. He received his doctorate at University of New Mexico in training and learning technologies. He is the creator, curator, and author for Profound Living with Michael Kroth, an online site dedicated to contemplating what it means to live a profound life.

Jinhee Choi earned her Ph.D. in lifelong learning and adult education at Pennsylvania State University and is an Assistant Professor at Seoul School of Integrated Sciences and Technologies. She is an associate editor of Asia Pacific Educational Review.

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