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Differentiating between UDL and Differentiated Instruction

Sharmila Choudhury
Sharmila Choudhury
February 12, 2024

There is plenty of confusion between Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI) in the education world these days, and it is easy to see why. From the very onset, when examining both approaches, there are many commonalities and overlaps between UDL and Differentiated Instruction. In both models:  

  • The standards and expectations are the same for all learners
  • There is flexibility in lesson design and student groupings
  • Individual learning strengths and limitations are considered in planning
  • A wide variety of tools and technology are used to assist student learning 
  • Supports and scaffolding are both integral in lesson design

The question then arises, how are they different? What distinguishes them from one another? Let's examine those differences.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

  • UDL is more focused on student-centered learning where the learning experiences are proactively designed so there are options that are accessible for every learner.
  • The goal of UDL is to remove the barriers to learning so students can achieve optimum knowledge and become expert learners. 
  • UDL asks us to design flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments by keeping in view diverse learner needs from the very beginning.
  • UDL provides multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression to all learners from the start. Students are encouraged to self-differentiate and choose the best path for themselves. 

Differentiated Instruction (DI)

  • DI can be seen as a responsive practice where adjustments are made based on the individual needs of the students.
  • Oftentimes, differentiation is done after the data is collated and trends are noticed.
  • The goal of differentiation is to provide a responsive and optimal learning environment for individuals/groups of learners.
  • DI provides targeted strategies that are teacher-directed as teachers choose which strategies students receive.

UDL and Differentiation are both positive approaches toward learning as both are student centrist. Both approaches help students achieve success in accessing the content by using strategies and scaffolding. When looking closely, one important point that makes UDL more proactive is that it tries to eliminate the barriers of learning from the very beginning by keeping the variability of learners in mind. 

Venn Diagram outlining where UDL and DI overlap and are different.

The strategies and scaffolds are embedded within the learning experiences from the planning stage and are available to all students. UDL, in name, communicates universal, inclusive education whereas DI, in name, communicates different ways of learning. Inclusion is the best way to move forward hence UDL covers more ground in planning for variability, firm goals, and expert learning. In inclusive classrooms, we need to be proactive and design lessons with UDL and then be responsive and use data to differentiate instruction. 

Continue Your Learning

Sharmila Choudhury, born and raised in India,  has 14 years of experience working as an early-year educator at Stamford American International School in Singapore and 5 years of experience in special needs education. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.

This post has been updated from the original post date.

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