The UDL Impact on Differentiation

How does the framework of universal design for learning (UDL) impact the way we individualized curricula?

Differentiation, as a strategy and buzz word, has existed as long as I have been in the classroom, and has existed as a real problem facing educators for much longer. For me, the issue has always been that no one has been able to accurately define or effectively model what differentiation in the classroom looks like. How does a teacher, with limited time and resources, maximize instruction and learning for children in classes that can contain upwards of 30 students, each with their own background, abilities, and interests? This is the million dollar question in education.

As the field of education has grown, we learn more about the unique and variability ways in which humans learn. These theories and findings come in many different packages, but one truth remains at the end of all them: there is “strong support for classrooms that recognize, honor, and cultivate individuality” (Tomlinson, 1999, p.18).

What has come to be known as common sense for educators in theory, that each child is unique and it is our job to meet the needs of all of these unique learners, has still remained elusive in practice. Universal Design for Learning seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice by offering a framework with practical tools and solutions to providing opportunities that account for the variability in learners, henceforth reducing the barriers that a traditional, one size fits all education has created (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014).

As teachers develop learning plans, they must consider the learners they have before them, instead of only considering the generic, or mythical average student. In this way, learning has changed little over the last century. Schools still group children by age and assume they are similar enough that they can all learn and understand in the same ways (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014; Tomlinson, 1999; Wiggins & McTighe, 2012). Therefore, we must recognize the ways our learning plans continue to create barriers for students and use the UDL framework to systematically break down those barriers. Additionally, in the learning plan, teachers must shift their thinking from goals they have for a unit, and begin to consider the individual needs of students and their unique differences in order to create experiences that allow all students to achieve the long terms goals of understanding and transfer. UDL plays an important role in this stage of curriculum development.

As teachers develop the learning plans for their units, they must consider the what, how and why of learning. Using the UDL framework in our planning helps us “reshape teaching and learning by guiding design of an entirely new system with flexibility at its core” (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014, p.50). Teachers can use the UDL framework to impact all parts of the learning plan, and in fact, all part of the unit plan. When unit planning, teachers must make clear the what and why of learning for students in order to guide learning as well as hook and hold students throughout the process. UDL helps teachers create multiple means of engagement specifically by providing options for recruiting interest and for sustaining effort and persistence (CAST, 2011). While the long term transfer goals, big ideas and essential questions should not be differentiated, we do find that variability will exist in the prior knowledge students bring in terms of knowledge and skills. Therefore, teachers must use variable methods of pre-assessment to determine where students are before a unit begins.

Broadly speaking, in the learning plan, teachers can use UDL in planning the engaging experiences that will equip their students to transfer understanding. UDL provides multiple means of representation and action and expression in order to account for learner variability. As teachers plan for presenting information to learners (input), they must consider the different ways in which students are able to perceive and comprehend new information. UDL provides tools and practical ways to account for these differences, through the display of information that account for auditory and visual differences, through options that account for language, mathematical expression and symbols and through options that aid in comprehension. By providing these options in the learning plan, teachers can help students make their learning and knowledge usable beyond the classroom (CAST, 2011). As teachers plan to differentiate process and product, they must consider the multiple means for action and expression provide by UDL. Process, how learners will make meaning, and product, how they will show learning, can be addressed through these guidelines so that teachers can account for the variability in the ways that learners “navigate a learning environment and express what they know” (CAST, 2011). When teachers begin considering the many barriers that are present in their current learning plans in this regard, they can use UDL to break down these barriers and make learning accessible to all of their students.


CAST (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.

Meyer, A. Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom : Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2012) The understanding by design guide to advanced concepts in creating and reviewing units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


9 thoughts on “The UDL Impact on Differentiation

  1. Thank you for acknowledging that differentiation is another buzz word added to our list of professional knowledge and accustomed terms. It is something expected of us, but is not always explained or modeled in the best manner. Upon leaving undergrad, I was under the impression that differentiation happened all the time with every activity on a daily basis. Boy was that a burn out–although my scores that year were noteworthy. I personally made the commitment to differentiate only when necessary, and now having the knowledge of UbD and UDL, I have affirmations to back my claims. I worked with differentiation techniques during my action research study last semester when I examined the use of student’s satisfaction level of using their unique learning style to create a product that showed their comprehension of our Jamestown unit study. I think product is easy for teachers to differentiate and individualize, but process seems to be a bit harder–in Reading maybe not as much since students are at different ability levels to start, but I do find it harder for Social Studies because it is fact based and extremely concrete.

    Thoughts? I know you were a History teacher at some point.


    1. I’ve never actually considered history fact based or concrete. I’ve always approached it through essential questions, because history is debatable and often told through the lens of the winner. History is always evolving and changing as new generations bring new lenses and revisit old issues. For example, it was once thought that the southern economy was considered to be pre-capitalist in the antebellum era, but now historians generally believe that slavery was important in the development of capitalism in America and the world. (See Edward Baptist “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).
      I know that is much too deep for fourth graders, but you can certainly present different lenses and opinions (Was Columbus a hero or an impostor?)
      All of this is to say that the presentation of material, even history, science and math can be differentiated.


  2. Differentiation – the term that every teacher has heard thousands of time, but has yet to see it demonstrated perfectly in a classroom. At least with UDL and UbD it provides somewhat of a framework for teachers to reference. Keeping transfer goals in mind are helpful when creating a backwards plan for students. With many different types of learners, it is important for teachers to realize that they can’t keep teaching the same way all day because they probably aren’t reaching half of their students. It is a long and tedious process, but in the end it is worth going that extra mile for our students – it’s what we as teachers signed up for!


  3. Teresa,

    I really like that you included this quote in your blog : there is “strong support for classrooms that recognize, honor, and cultivate individuality” (Tomlinson, 1999, p.18)

    I know, especially previously to this class, I tended to think of differentiation mostly in terms of varying my content, process, and product to allow for variability in ability of my students. There is so much more to differentiation though! (Learning styles, interests, motivation, etc.) UDL really gets at all of those places for variability to exist. Thank you for making that clear in your post!


  4. Teresa,

    I whole-heartedly agree that every educator and administrator preach the same gospel…..differentiate! It’s frustrating to me because I feel like I want to do so much more with students but I don’t even have a SmartBoard in my classroom and transitioning from the classroom to the computer lab takes up valuable instruction time. While I agree that schools should provide teachers with various methods, resources, or examples pertaining to differentiation in our classroom, I don’t think this is something that can be modeled. My students needs are different from yours and vice versa. But, I do think we can be given more advice, instruction and resources in this area.


    1. Just to be clear, you don’t think that differentiation can be modeled? Wouldn’t visits to a colleagues classroom, one that does an excellent job of differentiating, be a form of modeling? Wouldn’t seeing it in action by someone who is skilled in executing it effectively be a valuable experience for an educator looking to improve their practice? I think I could visit the classroom of a science or teacher who did this well and even thought I couldn’t bring back the instructional materials as resources, the strategies that are best practice remain so across content areas. Seeing something in action, in practical use is a beneficial use of time for anyone.


  5. Teresa,

    I like how you discuss how the UDL framework can be a practical tool for teachers to use when considering differentiation in their classrooms and more particular in the learning plan of the UbD design model. As you mention in the beginning of your post, differentiation is a buzz word that has been incorporated into teacher’s vocabulary and has been preached without the fully being explained. UDL serves as a model that can help teachers as you put it “break down barriers” to differentiation by serving as that theoretical framework that teachers can references when looking to tackle the challenge of differentiation. The emphasis on multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and representation help teachers to think creatively about how to approach the variability of the learners in the classroom. As a teacher leader, would you present UDL as a way to help better explain differentiation to teachers who may be unclear and frustrated with the challenge of differentiating learning for students?


  6. Great summary and reflection Teresa. You pose some good questions and concerns. The adoption of the UDL framework in education is moving, albeit slowly, it is moving forward. I’m encouraged by the efforts we’ve seen explode in states such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Indiana (to name a few). In each case, commitment to use the UDL framework as an overarching lens was adopted from the administration and supported for educators to use in their planning and instruction. The UDL guidelines offered the lens and checkpoints for educators to consider how they might plan and differentiate instruction. The UDL framework maintained the development of clear goals, flexible methods and materials, and ongoing formative assessment for rich learning experiences. What I find UDL offers is a scientifically valid framework that backs these approaches and one anchored in learning science research. You may find the following of interest as well,


  7. Teresa,

    I like how you brought up the fact that this is a buzz word. I really feel like it is and everyone is trying to do it, but at the same time I worry that I am doing it correctly and meeting the needs of my students. Being a new teacher I have to learn the correct way to differentiate for my students. I am aware of their needs, but the modifications are all different. Sometimes I have to do less or more with a group to meet their needs, but is that really meeting their needs? It is definitely something that I have gone to other classrooms to get help with and seeing models. I truly do believe that it can be modeled and we can learn from others. I think that UDL is really helping breaking down the different ways we can differentiate and giving us new ideas too with all the additional services we have seen on the CAST website. I also think that UbD is helping in the fact of the learning plan!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s