Differentiated Instruction

Understanding UDL vs Differentiated Instruction

4 Min Read
WF1585404 UDL vs DI hero


There are many different types of students in any given classroom. Different students will need different forms of support to allow them to fully learn and participate in the classroom. To help support the diversity of student minds so that all students can get the most out of their education, teachers may use materials made with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind, and they may apply differentiated instruction methods.

Differentiated instruction is a way to address student needs with different types of materials, while UDL is a framework for designing those materials such that they are usable by all learners to the greatest extent possible.

Both UDL and differentiated instruction are effective methods that teachers use to bring out the potential in their diverse student populations. UDL uses brain science to help make sure that materials are more likely to be understood by all students. Differentiated instruction is an instructional strategy to help teachers figure out what materials and strategies best support different students so that students have what they need to succeed.

What Is the Difference Between UDL and Differentiated Instruction?

UDL is a function of instructional design, and differentiated instruction is a function of instructional delivery.


Differentiated Instruction

Difference #1: Timing

When designing instructional materials, the scientifically informed design principles of UDL ensure the materials are meaningful to a diversity of student minds.

When delivering instruction, differentiated instruction helps a teacher identify student needs and pair them with the materials they need for the best opportunity to learn.

Difference #2: Role

When designing instructional materials, the science baked into UDL is a way to design lessons so that they provide an enriching variety of learning experiences for students to encounter as they strive to meet their learning objective. UDL-designed materials increase the chance that any given student will succeed.

When delivering instruction, differentiated instruction is a method to take stock of trending student needs in groups, and then deliver or implement materials most appropriate for those groups.

Designing for Multiple Minds: Universal Design for Learning

UDL is a method of designing instruction that considers the fact that different students learn in different ways. It is based on the latest scientific research on how the brain learns. When your materials are designed according to UDL, you are making sure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn.

The key principle of UDL is that it is brain-savvy and gives the learner a lot of different ways to learn the same thing. This way, if the learner is weak in one method, another method is present to support them.



  1. Read a paragraph introducing a topic
  2. Read a paragraph to learn more
  3. Read a paragraph to learn more
  4. Read a paragraph to learn more
  5. Read a paragraph to review
  6. Read/write to assess
  1. Read a paragraph introducing a topic
  2. Study a diagram enriching the same topic
  3. Look at an imaginative illustration enriching the same topic
  4. Read additional text and/or watch/listen to a video enriching the same topic
  5. Draw/write to enrich the same topic
  6. Read/write/look/watch/listen to assess the topic

In the traditional model, a student who is not reading at grade-level may fall behind when reading is the primary mode of presenting content. In the UDL model, all students have multiple opportunities to learn content through multiple pathways.

Delivering to Multiple Minds: Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is one of the best teaching methods we have for delivering lessons effectively in a classroom setting where different groups of students have different needs.

Differentiated Instruction suggests grouping students together based on shared needs so that materials and instruction can be tailored—but still scale. That is, a teacher can tailor instruction to five small groups more efficiently than to 30 individual students.

Keep in mind that academic performance isn’t the only option for grouping. Consider a classroom where one student enjoys making digital videos, one is a high achiever in the course, one who is skilled at making music, and one who is experienced writing drama. This group of students could collectively write, score, and produce an excellent video about a topic being discussed in class with all students learning from each other.


Teaching needs to be simultaneously effective for different brains, different strengths, and different struggles. Combining the power of materials designed with UDL and the power of student groups suggested by differentiated instruction creates a scientifically sound and robust way to reach a diverse group of student minds.


HMH is committed to taking action to be a force for positive change in the world. Learn more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Get our free guide to differentiated instruction.

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