MET:Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design and Universal Design for Learning: A stable planning approach

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This page was originally authored by James Hanson and Adi Aharon (2008). Revised by Cristin McKay (2009). Laura Bonnor revised and combined this page with UDL, a page that was originally authored by Jody Onuma (2007) and further edited by Camille Maydonik(2009,)in(2011). Sandra Magnussen added visual artifact (2015).

 [1]  ETEC 510 Wiki Motion Artifact    

This article looks at the powerful combination of three different teaching/learning models; Understanding by Design (UbD), Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning, (UDL). By defining and outlining the strengths of the individual instructional models, it becomes clear that together they form a strong and holistic teaching approach.

  • UbD addresses the need for content standards and answers the question: "what do we teach." With an increase in content expectations across all grade levels as well as governmental standards testing that compares school achievement levels; teaching in the classroom has been affected in a manner that is not entirely beneficial to learning. Teachers need a model that accounts for standards but also shows how learning and understanding can address content standards as well as develop a strong information base. Understanding by design accomplishes this goal.
  • DI looks at the how and where we teach our students, focusing on the best practices for each learner. In addition to content expectations is the difficulty of meeting the diverse needs of today’s classroom. Languages, culture, gender, economic disparity, motivation, disability, personal interests and learning styles as well as home environments are just some of the many variables that students bring to school with them. These variables can render ineffective even the best curriculum if the diverse needs of the class are not met. Differentiated instruction can offer a curriculum design framework that can accommodate the variance the teacher sees in the classroom.
  • UDL is a learning theory that has been developed by Rose and Meyer, that strives to ensure that the learning environment, including curriculum, assessment and teaching and learning tools promote learning and remove barriers to learning. Universal Design is a term coined by Ron Mace in the 1960s applied to the design of “barrier-free” or accessible architecture which would benefit all. The concept began as Ron Mace searched for methods to improve life for people with disabilities. However, these methods were found to be universally beneficial and the Seven Principles of Universal Design were authored. Universal designers began their work with the "user" in mind.
File:Hangaram Design Museum.jpg
Hangaram Design Museum
Seoul Arts Center
Playground based on Universal Design

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design (UbD), founded by Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins [2], is a quality curriculum model which encourages authentic transfer of knowledge, and provides opportunities for students to explore and interpret new information and knowledge. The underlying assumption is that understandings are [3] constructed in the minds of the learners. It is a process of curriculum design that starts with the end in mind; this concept is called backwards design. The three stages to this process are: Identify the desired results, Determine the acceptable evidence and Plan the learning experiences and instruction.

  • Stage 1 – Identify the desired results – This step consists of determining what the students should know, understand and be able to do at the end of the unit/lesson. This is someitmes called KUD.[4] That are the "Big Ideas" that need to be understood or are implied by the content standards? Big ideas are core concepts, principles or theories selected because they have value beyond the classroom (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). It is here that we ask ourselves; “What are the enduring understandings that the students must obtain?" In this stage we are looking for the design goals for the unit or lesson.
  • Stage 2 – Determine acceptable evidence – How are we going to assess that the students have understood and achieved the enduring understandings? What will be acceptable evidence of their understanding? The purpose of the backwards design element is that we tailor our design to ensure that the collected assessment evidence fits with and confirms the desired results outlined in the first stage. For example – we do not accept coloring a map as proof of understanding boundaries unless there is map legend to articulate this.
  • Stage 3 – Plan learning experiences and instruction – With the desired results identified and the acceptable evidence determined, we can now plan the instructional activities to meet the desired results. What will need to be taught, how best to teach it (order and delivery), and how it matches up with the desired performance standards are examined at this stage. The general guideline is to determine how to make the learning process engaging and effective given the desired results and the evidence needed.

Following the UbD model engages students by providing them with hands-on, child friendly, entertaining, and meaningful activities. When beginning with the intent and goals of a particular lesson, an educator is able to gear and focus activities in a more relevant and appropriate way, designed specifically for the students learning. With this model, educators have the unique opportunity to assess student understanding and adjust lessons and activities to more effectively meet the intended outcomes.

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction (DI), founded by Carol Ann Tomlinson[5], focuses primarily on how quality instruction can meet the needs of individual learners. It is based on the differentiation philosophy that involves a complex set of practices. It is an educational model that integrates many of the best teaching practices and principals that have surfaced through the cognitive psychology research from the last 30 years. This philosophy of teaching and learning includes:

  • a clear emphasis on learning goals
  • varied skillful instructional practices and classroom routines
  • a positive and supportive learning environment encouraging individual learning goals and community involvement
  • differentiated material used in context, process and product

Differentiation claims to "respond to the needs of all learners"[6] by meeting the needs of individual learners based on their levels of readiness, interest, and ability.

There are several different applications of this model in use today. One [7] looks at how DI can be effectively implemented when integrating technology into a classroom environment. It is also best practiced when addressing different learning intelligences (Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences [8]) and learning styles. This teaching model is designed to meet the needs of all of the students in a heterogeneous classroom (Tomlinson, 2005).

Universal Design for Learning

The idea of applying the Seven Principles of Universal Design to education resulted in the beginnings of Universal Design Learning (UDL). The paradigm of UDL, which was first developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), is a means of respecting a variety of diverse individual learning styles without requiring adaptation. This theoretical framework promotes the success for all learners by inherently having the flexibility to support each individual's needs. UDL applies to all learners, not exclusively to individuals with disabilities, but aims to provide everyone with equal access to learning. This includes diverse learners recognized by various frameworks such as Multiple Intelligence and Mel Levine's neurodevelopmental constructs.

What follows on this page is a summary of selected sections of the book Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning written by David H. Rose and Anne Meyer (2002).

Dr. David Rose: Podcast - An Introduction to Universal Design for Learning.

Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the Digital Age : Universal Design for Learning Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dr. Rose delivered an inspiring keynote address for a Showcase of Universal Design for Learning on the provincial (British Columbia) non-instructional day, October 24, 2008.

Dr. David Rose: Keynote Address

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Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the Digital Age : Universal Design for Learning - Chapter 4 Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the Digital Age : Universal Design for Learning - Chapter 2 Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Three Models: An Effective Combination

Integrating the three models allows for the discovery of curriculum rather than coverage of curriculum. Educators identify the "big ideas" and plan learning opportunities to facilitate the understanding of those. Learners are exposed to and expected to learn the “Big Ideas” and are encouraged to express their learning in a manner that reflects their level of understanding, their cultural background, their unique physical abilites, as well as their particular learning style. Combining the three models allows for each of the strategies to support each other. This support is necessary as UbD is essentially a curriculum design model that focuses on the what and how of teaching and DI is a model based on whom, how and what we teach and UDL focuses on removing the barriers to learning for those students. By combining the models we strive to connect effective curriculum design with the individual learner's needs to create an barrier-free environment of true learning. To put it simply, a quality classroom will assure that knowledge building takes place for all students. In order to achieve this, students need quality curriculum and quality teaching (Tomlinson & Mc Tighe, 2006). Working together UbD, DI and UDL provide a framework to develop curriculum and instruction that reflects our best understandings of both instruction and learning and the students themselves.

While each student has different needs, all students require challenge, success, connection and fit in their learning experiences in order to truly achieve those important and enduring understandings of the "big ideas" (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2007). Attending to the uniqueness of each student's learning requires an open-minded, creative and questioning approach to "backwards design". Educators must have a clear understanding of where they are headed and what they hope to achieve by their instuctional design.

Tomlinson & McTighe (2007) present important questions educators and instructional designers need to ask themselves at each stage of the UbD process in order for differentiated instruction to be successful. Below is a summarized & edited list of those questions:

  • Stage 1 - Identify the Desired Results
    • Who are the students involved in this lesson or project?
    • What are their life experiences?
    • In what way can I tap into their interests or phrase my essential questions in a way that excites them about learning?
    • What are their likely background knowledge or skills?
    • What am I doing to connect to the students and build community?
  • Stage 2 - Determine Acceptable Evidence
    • How can my design afford each student the best chance to showcase what he/she knows, understands, or can apply?
    • What supports or scaffolds might I build in for students with disabilities, learning challenges or advanced understandings?
    • Is their room in the design for student interests and learning preferences?
  • Stage 3 - Plan Learning Experiences & Instruction
    • How will I know who has (or lacks) prerequiste knowledge?
    • How will I know who is with me, behind me or ahead of me?
    • How might I adjust my curriculum plans to account for such variance?
    • How will I give students a chance to make personal connections to the material?
    • How will I be flexible in presentation, time, space, resources, groupings, and allow for both structure and independence?

Other considerations when planning for student success are the Principles of the Universal Design for Learning Framework as described by CAST.

Principle 1: To support recognition learning, provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation

Principle 2: To support strategic learning, provide multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship.

Principle 3: To support affective learning, provide multiple, flexible options for engagement. ---


Understanding by Design , Differentiated Learningand Universal Design for Learning are three models that can be combined to create and support a successful, productive and inclusive learning environment. Tomlinson & McTighe (2007) both use the metaphor of a sailboat to highlight the connection between UbD and DI. UbD functions like the keel of the boat, providing stability and buffering the effects of strong winds & currents, while DI acts as both rudder and sails by allowing teachers to be responsive to unpredictable conditions in learning environment and guiding students through necessary adjustments of course along the way. This metaphor could be extended. UbD is the final destination for this sailboat. DI allows each of the sailors to demonstrate their competence. "UDL" ensures that the boat itself is capable of the trip and free of obstacles that might interfere with the achievement of the goal. All three models overlap and intertwine to form a strong foundation for instructional planning.


CAST: Center for Applied Special Technology Retrieved February 27, 2009

Good, M. E. (2006) Differentiated Instruction:Principles and Techniques for the Elementary Grades. Dominican University of California: San Rafael, CA May 2006.

Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the Digital Age : Universal Design for Learning Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Retrieved February 27, 2009 from

Smith, Grace E., Throne, Stephanie (2007). Differentiating Instruction with Technology in K-5 classrooms.International Society for Technology Education. Washington. D.C. [9]

Tomlinson, C.A. & McTighe, J.A.(2006). Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria Virginia.

Tomlinson, C.A. & McTighe, J.A. (2007).Differentiation & Understanding by Design: Keys to Unlocking Learning. Selected Proceedings of the Fall AAC Conference. Edmonton: Alberta Assessment Consortium.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River , NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J.(1998).Understanding by design. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

External Links

Understanding by Design

Differentiated Instruction

UbD & DI


Special Education Technology British Columbia SET-BC is a comprehensive website addressing Universal Design for Learning.

University of Guelph UDL website This site offers resources for designing UDL computer-mediated distance education courses.

Universal Design Learning: Language Arts Models

Interactive Whiteboards