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Explanation and Comparison of Differentiation and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

                  Educators are challenged with the task of teaching to a diverse group of learners in their classrooms (Tomlinson and McTighe, 2006). Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are two essential pillars of excellence in teaching, which when used in tandem make learning accessible, meaningful, and enriching for all learners. These frameworks help appreciate diversity and make authentic inclusion a reality  in classrooms. 

Universal Design for Learning

                 The idea and the term “universal design” was conceived by Ron Mace from North Carolina State University in the late ’60s. He envisioned this as a means to design products and buildings to be accessible for individuals with disabilities (to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act) and appeal to all people. This concept evolved to education when access to physical spaces alone did not provide true inclusion (Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, n.d). Dr. David Rose and Dr. Anne Meyer in 1984 from Harvard University School of Graduate Education, incorporated CAST. Inc (Center for Applied Specialized Technology) with the goal of teaching students with special needs, using technology to customize their learning experiences (Thibodeau, 2021).

                 Universal Design for Learning is a way of proactively designing the learning experience so the majority of learners can optimally access learning, engage, and express their understanding. It offers a framework for teachers to design goals, assessments, materials, and methods used for teaching so most students can benefit from it. Universal Design for Learning is based on evidence from neuroscience that no two brains are similar and learner variability is the norm (CAST, 2013). To teach to this variability, UDL offers multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression of the curriculum proactively so students can become expert learners. 

                 Based on the works of Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist three brain networks have been identified as prerequisites for learning: The Affective network (engagement with the learning task), the Recognition network (Recognizing the information that needs to be learned), and the Strategic network (applying strategies to process the information)(Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence, n.d). Each person uses these networks uniquely which creates variability between us. Therefore curriculum must be designed accordingly. The goal of UDL is, therefore, to create “Purposeful and Motivated learners who are Resourceful and Knowledgeable and Strategic and Goal-Directed” (Thibodeau, 2021).  Based on the above understanding of the brain networks and the desired goal, CAST (2021) outlines the following three guiding principles of UDL:

  1. Provide Multiple Means for Engagement (Use Affective network to create purpose and motivation)

  2. Provide Multiple Means for Representation (Use Recognition network to create knowledge and resourcefulness)

  3. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (Use Strategic network to create goal-directed outcomes).


Differentiated Instruction

                    Differentiated instruction is responsive teaching, where each student’s unique needs are taken into consideration and the instruction is adapted to fit each student’s learning profile, interests, cultural background, and readiness levels. Differentiated instruction makes learning accessible to each learner at their level. Teachers can choose from a variety of strategies to differentiate learning so each student can meet the curricular goals and understand essential principles and concepts. There are four elements that can be modified to provide differentiated instruction: content, process, product, and the learning environment. Based on sound assessments, the teacher can understand each student’s readiness, interest, and learning profile to help modify these elements (Tomlinson, 2000). 

                 (1) Content refers to what the student needs to learn and how the student will access it. Some examples of differentiated content would be using recorded textbooks for students who have difficulty decoding text, using spelling and vocabulary lists at student’s readiness level; and meeting in small groups to teach advanced learners. (2) Process refers to activities the student engages in to make meaning of the content and master it. Some examples of differentiated processes can be having learning centers that appeal to the interests of different students that are subsets of the topic that is being discussed; offering manipulatives and hands-on materials for students to grasp math concepts; and varying the length of time a student may need to complete a task. (3) Products refer to the final outcome projects where students extend what they have learned from a particular unit. Examples of differentiated products will include, students having the option of expressing their learning through a variety of ways (slide show, drama, poetry, essay etc.) and using rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skills. (4) Environment refers to the way the learning area works and feels. Examples of differentiating the environment would be providing a variety of seating options for students with needs to move; providing alternate lighting options; providing preferred seating and quiet corners; providing routines for students to follow when the teacher is not available etc.

Similarities and Differences

                 While access to learning is at the core of both UDL and DI they differ in their approaches. Universal Design for learning is proactive whereas differentiation happens when the educator assesses individual student needs and responds to them based on the data gathered. The goal of UDL is to remove barriers so students can become expert learners. Differentiated Instruction, on the other hand, happens when data has been collected and specific needs have been identified. Universal Design for Learning proactively creates flexible goals, materials, assessments, and teaching methods presuming that learners are all diverse. Differentiation of instruction responds to the needs of those individuals or groups of learners who need more optimization of the content, process, products, and environment. While UDL addresses the universal, DI focuses on the individual.

                Both UDL and DI aim to meet the same set of standards and expectations for students. Differentiated instruction and UDL offer flexibility in the ways students can acquire knowledge and demonstrate their understanding. Students' strengths and limitations are considered in the planning process for both UDL and DI and they both use a wide variety of tools and technologies to make learning accessible. Support and scaffolding are integral to both in designing the lessons (Choudhury, 2021).

Intersection of UDL and DI

                   Inclusive classrooms require the effective use of UDL and DI. We must proactively design classrooms with multiple means of representation, engagement, action, and expression. This must be followed by ongoing assessment which will give us the data to differentiate instruction to meet the unique needs of individual learners. The efforts involved in creating a rich learning environment is iterative. The education team with the knowledge and skillsets of UDL and DI, along with a passion for nurturing learning for all students can certainly foster expert learners.


Choudhury, S. (2021, December 6). Differentiating between UDL and differentiated instruction. Novak Education. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from 

Edyburn, D. L. (2005). Universal design for learning. Special Education Technology Practice, 7(5), 16-22.

Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence. (n.d.). History of UDL. OCALI. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from 

The UDL guidelines. UDL. (2021, October 15). Retrieved April 13, 2022, from 

Thibodeau, T. (2021, June 6). The science and research behind the UDL framework. Novak Education. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from,Center%20for%20Applied%20Specialized%20Technology. 

Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction & understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest.

UDL intersections - inclusive education. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2022, from 

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