The Medium is the Message: Using UDL to Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Canadian philosopher and author Marshall McLuhan introduced the popular phrase “the medium is the message” in his groundbreaking 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan suggested that mediums carry more than just a message; they also can shape our learning experiences, memories, and comprehension.


Michael and Just (2001) of Carnegie Mellon University used brain imaging to show that our brains process spoken and written language differently. The study suggested that listening and reading create different memories and activate different brain regions. For instance, listening activates more working memory than reading, likely because spoken language is fleeting and requires immediate processing. The study doesn't say which method is better, but rather that the best method depends on the individual, the content, and the purpose.

Designing Accessible Materials and Methods:

Learners are highly variable in how they perceive information and construct meaning, meaning the way information is presented (text, video, lecture, etc.) dramatically impacts how well we learn it. This idea echoes the famous quote, "The medium is the message," meaning the format can shape the content. Research indicates that the Recognition Network, a specialized region located in the back portion of the brain, is heavily involved in how learners process information and turn it into learning.

The Recognition Network is like a filing system in the brain, helping learners identify, interpret, and build connections, which ultimately help construct meaning. This brain region excels at interpreting information and recognizing patterns in new information, such as identifying a red apple. Then, information is further broken down into categories (red color, round shape) and connected with background information and similar patterns stored in your memory (other red objects). The initial groundwork of identifying familiar elements lays the foundation for higher-level brain regions to operate.


Therefore, educators should consider providing learners with multiple options and formats to represent new information. This approach can assist learners in identifying, interpreting, making connections, and constructing meaning more efficiently. Additionally, the accessibility of materials and communication mediums should be considered, as each has its distinct advantages and limitations. For instance, offering learners only printed text can create unintentional barriers to learning (see graphic below).

Multiple Means of Representation

Educators can create a more inclusive and engaging learning environment if they understand that each communication medium has distinct characteristics. Additionally, learners need information offered through multiple formats through the UDL principle of Multiple Means of Representation and its supporting guidelines.

A table containing tips for applying UDL

Applying UDL

Here are a few tips and tricks for increasing the accessibility of instructional materials.
  • Multiple Formats: Offer information in various formats beyond just text. Include audio recordings of written content, captions and transcripts for videos, and visuals with clear descriptions.
  • Closed Captioning. Utilize closed-captioning when showing videos or having a synchronous video discussion through platforms like Zoom.
  • Digital Accessibility. Ensure digital materials are compatible with screen readers and other assistive technologies. Use clear formatting, proper heading structures, and alt text for images.
  • Visual Design: Use high-contrast colors and clear fonts in presentations and documents. Avoid relying solely on color to convey information.
  • Variety of Instruction: Present information in multiple ways, using verbal explanations, written instructions, and visual aids.
  • Flexible Learning Materials: Offer options for taking notes or completing assignments. This could include allowing recordings of lectures, providing graphic organizers, or offering alternative assignment formats.

Here is a blog post on 5 Tips for Redesigning Your Reading Assignments with UDL in Mind.

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Matt Bergman (2024)

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