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3 Ways Teachers May Blend Differentiated Instruction & Universal Design for Learning

Published 9/30/2023

students engaged in conversation and learning

This Month’s FAQ:

"What is the difference between differentiated instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?"

Bottom Line: Let’s clear up any confusion by embracing DI and UDL with a unified view.

Let's aim to resist the tendency to force these two valuable approaches into two distinct categories with highlighted differences. That’s right! Let’s kick the binary view habit. There is no need to dichotomize anything here! Are you with me? Good! Don't expect this to be like a quick flip of a light switch. If you're like me, you will need time to actively explore. For now, I invite you to just keep in mind that there is no need for either/or distinctions. Phew! Don't you feel some relief already? Let’s begin with three quick considerations to guide you to feel how DI and UDL empower one another.

A Combined View

  1. Both DI and UDL guide teachers to first and foremost Know your students! Design your instruction while keeping your students’ individual interests, needs, and abilities in mind. This includes supporting the varied levels of readiness and choice toward achieving learning goals (Tomlinson, 1999, Meyer et al., 2014, Stein, 2023).

  2. As teachers shift their perspective from seeing the students through a deficit model to a strengths-based model of learner variability, they increase opportunities to see that barriers to learning are never in the learners—the barriers are in the environment. Both DI and UDL clearly express that all learners perceive, engage, express, and experience learning in personal ways (Stein, 2023).

  3. Both DI and UDL are intended to be proactive, student-centered approaches. I’ve often heard that DI is a retroactive, teacher-directed approach. These statements may very well be a big part of what causes some confusion out there. In fact, I shudder to think I was among these believers as I grappled with my own understanding over the years. Thankfully, I have evolved with a clearer, more accurate view. DI is, and always, was a proactive approach (Tomlinson, 1999, Sousa & Tomlinson, 2018, Stein, 2023). Yet, teachers’ perceptions of students’ abilities may often lead well-intentioned educators to misalign the essence of DI with their instructional decisions. For example, teachers who see students through a deficit lens may more readily become more teacher-directed in their approach. However, as teachers shift to a view of learner variability and the three brain networks, well then, both DI and UDL are naturally working together. The focus then becomes designing lessons that align students’ abilities with the content, process, and products of lesson activities in ways that honor the fact that learners perceive, engage, and express their understanding in personal and meaningful ways. When teachers apply UDL, we naturally embed DI. It is that simple.

What are your thoughts, connections, questions, or considerations?


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

Sousa, D.A., & Tomlinson, C.A. (2018). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom (2nd ed.). Solution Tree Press.

Stein, E. (2023). Elevating co-teaching with universal design for learning (2nd ed.) Revised and expanded edition. CAST Professional Publishing.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). Mapping a route toward differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 57, 12-17.


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