18 min read

Each student brings their own background, strengths, needs, and interests into your learning environment. Instead of retrofitting lessons on the back end to make way for each student’s uniqueness, doesn’t it make far more sense to consider their individuality upfront and design meaningful instruction with their nuances in mind?

When I began teaching, it seemed as though students were put into “tracks” more often, and classes tended to be more homogenous. After the inception of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2004 and subsequent changes to legislation and policy within specialized education programs, we began championing the inclusion of all students within general education settings. 

This is a good thing because research clearly shows that students who have differences in their learning needs, such as English Language Learners and individuals with disabilities, typically have better educational outcomes when they are educated in the general education setting alongside average and accelerated learners as much as possible. However, this means our classes are extremely diverse, requiring that we differentiate across a broad spectrum of needs. The key is to ensure that the right supports are in place. This is where UDL and Differentiated Instruction come into play.

If you have a firm grasp on both UDL and Differentiated Instruction, and are ready to begin planning your lessons using the UDL framework, go directly to the UDL lesson planning process.

Ask the Better Question

In researching for this article, I found a lot of charts, graphics, and essays bent on contrasting the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDI) and Differentiated Instruction (DI). I think it is important that you have a general understanding of how they compare, but getting too hung up on how they are different could serve to confuse you on how to integrate them and inhibit your motivation to deepen your learning of both. 

UDL is a proactive lesson planning process that minimizes barriers to learning and optimizes learning for ALL students before the actual instruction takes place. Differentiation is the use of responsive strategies during and after instruction to address the specific support needs for a particular student or group of students, and it can be done on the fly should the need present itself during the lesson.

So if you find yourself asking, “What is the difference between UDL and Differentiated Instruction?” migrate your thinking to a better question:

 “How can I use the UDL lesson planning process and Differentiated Instruction together to improve outcomes for all of my students?”

When I brainstormed this article, I anticipated that some of my readers are visual learners and some would prefer to get a lot of information quickly, so I decided to embed graphic organizers proactively throughout this article. This is an immediate example of the UDL process at work.

The use of Venn Diagrams and other graphic organizers is a powerful tool you can integrate into a lesson plan upfront with the UDL process. What is good for a few can be good for all.

However, if you design a learning experience and then realize as you are teaching the lesson that a handful of students need a graphic organizer, leading the class in the completion of a Venn Diagram is a differentiation strategy.

Anyway, let’s look at how the two meet in the middle to maximize what students learn in a lesson.

You can amplify the effects of both by using the UDL process to structure the environment and curriculum at the onset of planning for instruction in conjunction with embedding differentiated instructional practices.

For this article, “curriculum” generally refers to the lessons and academic content taught in your classroom, which is guided by your state standards, and not a packaged Curriculum, such as Bridges (math) or Open Court (reading). 

As you develop your understanding of both UDL and DI, you will begin to notice that the packaged Curricula that are strongly research-evidenced have features that are recognizable as applications of both UDL and Differentiated Instruction.

The Universal Design for Learning Framework

If you haven’t already watched my briefing on the origins, basic brain science, and guidelines of UDL, take some time and watch it now. (11-minute video) I am going to begin the deeper dive now, assuming you have the basic understandings I conveyed in my video.

When a teacher presents complex knowledge and skills to the entire class in the same manner for everyone, chances are, a portion of the group already knows it, another part will get it during the lesson, and the remaining portion of the class won’t master it at all. So two out of these three groups of students are essentially experiencing wasted time. This is a HUGE opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit associated with the other, possibly better, options. For example, if you only use lecture while students take notes and use their notes to complete worksheets for all of your primary instruction, those students experience an opportunity cost from not being exposed to collaborative learning and application projects.

With UDL, you consider the variability of students before you design instruction so that you can minimize the opportunity cost associated with repeating limited instructional practices. UDL gets you out of the box and into a dynamic experience for you and those you teach.

Using the UDL Guidelines

Understanding the basic guidelines of UDL forms the foundation for your implementation of the framework. Take your time and explore them. Internalize the three Principles and what networks of the brain they target first.

  • Multiple means of Engagement to activate the Affective Networks of the brain to address the “why” of learning
  • Multiple means of Representation to activate the Recognition Networks of the brain to address the “what” of learning
  • Multiple means of Action & Expressions to activate the Strategic Networks of the brain to address the “how” of learning

Then, explore the Guidelines associated with each Principle. After you feel comfortable with those, dive deeper into the Checkpoints for each of the guidelines. Each of these Guidelines involves providing options. See the graphic below.

To start, it is important that you understand the flow within the Principles, Guidelines, and Checkpoints. They move in bands from accessing to building, and culminate with internalization wherein the students are purposeful and motivated; resourceful and knowledgeable; and strategic and goal-directed in their learning. Here are the simplified guidelines with notes on how to read the bands. The checkpoints for each guideline have intentionally been removed to focus you on the flow rather than the details. You can explore the checkpoints using a link I provide later.

Once you understand the flow, you can really dive deep into the checkpoints for each of the guidelines to find teacher actions that support and develop your options for strengthening the outcomes for students.

As I have mentioned in my video, the online resources for implementing the UDL framework are vast and FREE. Rather than retyping all of the checkpoints here, you can access the official interactive set of the guidelines that include all of the checkpoints and detailed information sheets on each through CAST by clicking here. Take some time and explore them, but come back before you get lost in the rabbit hole.

Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

Vygotski, a Russian Psychologist who pioneered the field of sociocultural theory, identified something he referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He contended that we learn in a social context with the models and through collaboration with other individuals. This helps to maximize learning by directly targeting where the learner is in their current knowledge. It’s the sweet spot of learning with supports in place and comes between what they already know and what they are not yet able to understand or do.

Vygotsky | Simply Psychology

In the ZPD, we apply scaffolding and strategies that move the student forward. Educational (or Instructional) Scaffolding is a teaching method that enables a student to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance. It is a fancy word for the gradual release of the supports we provide during lessons.

For example, if the assignment is to read a chapter of a science text on biological adaptation in order to write a detailed essay on it’s significant concepts, there are several things a teacher can do to scaffold the assignment:

  • Break the reading into chunks
  • Preview the text and discuss major vocabulary with visuals
  • Support a guided discussion of each of the chunks and ask questions to ensure comprehension
  • Provide short videos they can watch to deepen their understanding of complex concepts

Differentiation might then go farther for struggling students if the teacher provides the same content in an easier to read text or if they modify the writing assignment or its grading protocol. We can build in scaffolding for all (as UDL might suggest) or scaffold for an individual or small groups outside of the primary instruction as a differentiation strategy.

If you already understand differentiation, you can go directly to the UDL lesson planning process.

Differentiation by Content, Process, Product, and Affect

Before we get into a lesson planning process for implementing the UDL framework, I want to clarify how this works with Differentiated Instruction. Remember, UDL is a proactive lesson planning framework that takes place before instruction. Differentiated Instruction is a responsive set of strategies and instructional practices that are added to your lesson plan or applied on the fly as the need for differentiation arises during and after your instruction.

Adapted from Carol Ann Tomlinson


  • The knowledge and skills students need to master
  • Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Representation


  • The activities the students use to master the content
  • Loosely aligns with two of the UDL Guidelines: Multiple Means of Representation and Action & Expression


  • The method students use to demonstrate learning
  • Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Action & Expression


  • The effect of students emotions, feelings, and the environment on their learning
  • Loosely aligns with the UDL Guideline: Multiple Means of Engagement

In my article next week, I will do a deep dive into differentiation by Content, Process, Product, and Affect. So be sure to subscribe to my blog below so that you can get instant access to the new content without having to search for it!

UDL Lesson Planning

The fantastic thing about adopting the UDL framework for lesson planning is that you likely already do all of the components within standard lesson planning. The difference is simply a paradigm shift in the order and depth to which to take each action. First, consider the general flow of the UDL planning process with this timeline below.

Notice that once you have clearly defined the learning goals and considered the different ways your students learn by keeping in mind their strengths, needs, and barriers to learning, you then decide on the assessments, both formative and summative. You do this before you formalize the methods, materials, and media you will be using.

Think about it: if you know what the learning goals are and you know exactly how you are going to assess their mastery during and after the lesson, your methods for teaching become informed and more elegant in their progression.

1. Define Your Learning Goals

The clearer you define your learning goals, the less ambiguity there is for both you and the learners involved. It is your learning goals that drive the entire lesson and give it purpose. When they are clearly stated, you provide your students with a deeper understanding of what you want them to know and do. This often increases motivation because the learners know exactly where the target is.

Clearly defined learning goals help you as the architect of the lesson, too. Knowing exactly what you require them to know and do, you can select appropriate assessments, methods, and products that demonstrate their progress toward the targeted goals.

This is key: When you are defining your learning goals for a lesson, concentrate on the purpose of the lesson and not the activities you are thinking about including. What you are looking for are the big ideas and enduring understandings you want your students to get out of the lesson.

Make sure your learning goals are SMART goals.

We will select assessments and methods after we consider the variability of the participants and any possible barriers that might get in the way of their learning.

2. Consider Learner Variability

Simply put, considering learner variability means that you acknowledge that all people are unique in the way that they learn, and you intentionally explore what that means for the learners you are working with while looking for the best ways to tap into the various learning functions of their brains. Actively consider any potential barriers that may be keeping them from maximizing their learning.

The Affective Networks of the brain control and coordinate efforts related to how learners become engaged with what they are learning and how they stay motivated throughout the lessons you teach. What gets them excited and interested in what they are learning? Do they find it challenging and rewarding to do the work?

When you start getting into how we gather facts and categorize all the information we gather through our senses, you are considering the functions of the Recognition Networks of the brain. These networks are key in the comprehension of text and other media. Do the students require scaffolding during reading to access the content associated with your learning goal? Do you need to present the information in more than one way?

When it comes to expressing what they know, it is the Strategic Networks of the brain that help us organize and express our ideas. From solving an algebraic equation to writing an essay, these networks are the powerhouses of problem-solving. Is there more than one way students can demonstrate their knowledge? Can your students use multiple tools to organize their learning?

There are many actions you can take to consider learner variability:

  • Review existing data on each learner
  • Give interest inventories and/or discuss learner preferences with them
  • Reflect on the strengths, needs, and barriers for each learner from prior lessons
  • Talk to teachers and specialists who have worked with your student(s) in the past
  • Talk with other teachers and specialists who are working with any of your students now
  • Consult specialized documents, such as Individualized Learning Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities; Learning Plans for English Language Learners; and plans developed for students in Gifted/Talented/Accelerated programs
  • Get to know your students better through meaningful and intentional conversations
  • Talk to students’ guardians about their child’s past schooling experiences and how they learn at home

3. Select/Design Formative and Summative Assessments

This is likely where the UDL lesson planning process diverges from what you have done in the past. Many teachers design their assessments as they plan their methods or after the majority of the lesson plan is developed.

If your learning goals are written in the SMART format, meaning they are measurable, your assessments answer the question, “How do I measure progress toward mastery of these goals during instruction and the mastery of these goals after instruction is complete?”

Consider this example.

SMART Learning Goal: When given a two-step equation (e.g. 3x + 5 = 23) with whole numbers, the students will solve for the variable using visual or arithmetic strategies (i.e. equation mat with algebra tiles, algebraically with inverse operations).

Examples of Formative Assessments for this goal:

  • The day before this lesson, have students attempt a problem such as this while showing their work. Let them know that you just want to know what they already know
  • Provide a warm-up problem that requires them to solve a one-step equation and use their responses to scaffold learning, if needed
  • Students use individual mini-whiteboards to solve working examples and show their work as you circulate to observe
  • Students work on an application project collaboratively as you move through the room listening in and spot-checking their work

Examples of Summative Assessments:

  • Students take a quiz or test focusing on the learning goal
  • Students complete an application project that requires solving two-step equations with whole numbers
  • Students demonstrate solving two-step equations with whole numbers in one-on-one sessions while their peers work on an independent task. Allow them to talk aloud as they work so you can assess any errors in understanding or praise their correct thinking

4. Select Methods, Materials, and Media for the Lesson

As you designed and decided upon your assessments, you likely made a note of teaching methods you feel would best get your students to demonstrate mastery through the assessments.

Consider what routines you need to have in place to facilitate task completion and movement in the room as you transition between tasks.

Develop your lesson with a gradual release of responsibility: moving from more teacher-directed tasks toward independently completed tasks. Some refer to this as “I do – We do – You do.” Others call it “Show me – Help me – Let me.” What we are talking about is systematically moving from modeling to guided practice and ultimately to independent (and/or collaborative) practice and application.

Select materials and media by asking yourself, “What resources and materials do my students need in order to achieve the learning goal and complete the tasks?”

Common teaching methods include, but are not limited to:

  • Direct instruction with lecture and/or discussion
  • Question & answer (be sure to use Bloom’s Taxonomy to access all levels of thinking!)
  • Drill & practice
  • Cooperative learning
  • Discovery learning
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Inquiry-based/problem-based learning
  • Mental modeling
  • Project-based learning

As an example of using UDL Strategies during a lecture with discussion:

  • If the students had to pre-read content before this lecture, provide them with a list of possible discussion questions ahead of this lesson with time to prepare
  • Do a mini-lesson on how to use the Cornell Note-taking Method prior to this lecture
  • Introduce the lesson with a highly-engaging, provocative question
  • Activate prior knowledge by having students participate in the creation of a KWL chart (What do you know? What do you want to know? What did you learn?)
  • Break a lengthy lecture up into segments with active response tasks between each segment

Use a worksheet like this to move through the UDL process so that you have already considered specific instructional strategies and methods to address learner variability when you get to planning the methods, materials, and media for the lesson.

5. Present the Lesson and Assess for Mastery

Now teach the lesson using Differentiated Instruction, as needed. Then, assess for mastery.

In a UDL lesson, your summative assessment for the lesson could involve student choice. Can they demonstrate mastery in a speech, slide presentation, quiz/test, or video themselves performing a task? The options should directly address the learner variability you noted in step 2 of this process.

6. Reflect on the Lesson

It is imperative you reflect on your lesson. This is not an afterthought that can be disregarded. It is a critical step in the process to ensure continued improvement in your practices and to inform future lessons.

Reflect on the students’ work. Was there a common error that brings to light something you didn’t develop fully with your methods? Are there any students whose lack of mastery indicates the need for future differentiation or scaffolding?

Not only are we talking about you, the teacher, reflecting here. Your students should be reflecting on their performance and learning as well. They will likely need you to teach them how to become self-reflective learners.

A Final Note…

Mastering the UDL process takes practice. Give yourself time to research and look at sample lessons. You can access the core book online for free by clicking here and creating a free account. I have never received spam from doing this, and they will also provide you with a set of links to other free, in-depth resources.

If you have any questions, you can send them to me directly or include them in a comment on this article. Please take the time to subscribe to my weekly articles at the bottom of this page.

Stay strong. Stay positive.

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