UDL versus Differentiated Instruction

Synthesis Activity from CAST UDL

Ryan Edel | 8/6/2020

I just posted this to the online discussion for the CAST UDL1 Course:

In terms of goals, University Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI) are nearly identical: both aim to provide students with educational materials that will be of the most individual benefit to that particular student.  The key difference, however, is that UDL aims to provide every student with the same variety of options, whereas DI's aim is for the instructor to identify each student's learning style and then custom tailor resources to the individual student.

Fundamentally, this reveals the core difference in conception between these two models.  UDL is centered on student choice: providing each student with options in how to learn and how to share their knowledge, and then providing sufficient guidance and motivation that students will want to make these choices.  For DI, the instructional concept doesn't favor this degree of student independence.  Instead, greater emphasis is placed on the instructor's role in choosing for the student.

Although both UDL and DI aim to help each student individually, DI makes two major assumptions, both of which are problematic.  First, DI assumes that students can be categorized by learning styles, which has not been supported by research.  Second, DI requires that a teacher would be able to identify a student's best learning style, an assumption that may lead teachers to limit options for students based on personal (and possibly unconscious) stereotypes based on culture, upbringing, socioeconomics, and other external forces that don't necessarily reflect an individual student's goals or abilities.  Thus, although the impulse of DI is to help each student reach their maximum potential, it may actually limit student potential because teachers may focus on "learning styles" that don't match the student's interests.

Because of the likelihood that DI will lead to mismatches between students and their teacher-selected "learning styles," DI ironically risks a repeat of traditional pedagogy.  In traditional pedagogy, students are provided with a single means of engagement for each learning goal — such as a reading followed by a lecture and then an identical assignment for each student — and DI aims to overcome these restrictions on student engagement.  Not every student learns the same amount of information from a single lecture, so DI might give the "visual learners" a transcript with pictures, and the "verbal learners" a podcast, and the "active learners" a roundtable discussion with questions about the lecture.  But if a particular "visual learner" finds the transcript boring, then that student will not be motivated to engage.  If an "active learner" really just wants to be outside playing soccer, then no roundtable discussion is going to hold their focus.  Even if a particular instructor is gifted in the use of DI, it's inevitable that some students will find their imposed "learning styles" an insufficient mode for learning.

The strength of UDL comes in how it provides every student with every option of representation, and then additionally allows students to chose how they'll engaged with the information and then express their learning.  This not only allows greater freedom for students, but also takes some of the pressure off the instructors.  Rather than having to carefully observe each student for "learning styles," an instructor can provide a wide variety of resources available for every student, and then see which students gravitate toward which options.  This is also important because every student has a different starting place — not every student will need every option, but many students will benefit from having more than way way to take in new information.  Further, this gives students more control over their own learning, especially when their provided with multiple options for recruiting interest.  Even a student who's fixated on getting home to play soccer will find class more interesting if they're allowed to read and write about soccer for their major project.

Finally, UDL has the specific emphasis on providing options for action and expression, in helping students develop independent strategic thinking.  By helping students set their own goals and seek out their own options for learning, we provide students with crucial habits of lifelong learning.

This, however, does not mean that DI is entirely without use.  Although UDL aims to provide every student with multiple resources to succeed, no teacher can anticipate the needs of every student.  As students progress through the course, one of the key roles of the instructor is to observe how well students are learning the material.  If an individual student or a group of students seem to fall behind, or if a key concept doesn't seem to "click" with students, the same methods of DI can help a UDL instructor produce a better variety of materials for all students.  For example, a number of my English 101 students at the community college tend to struggle with longer readings — they find many of the "traditional" textbooks very dull, especially compared to popular media YouTube.  By observing this in my students, I can see that finding more visual materials — especially videos — will have a greater impact on my students than the kinds of longer readings I would give to my 200-level creative writing students from a four-year university.  However, it's important to differentiate between DI methodology and DI assumptions.  Student preferences for video over readings or for group activities over writing an essay aren't "proof" of "learning styles."  Each student learns differently in different cotexts — identifying a new way to help a student does not necessarily mean than an instructor has found "the" way to help this student.  Instead, we must continue to focus on providing options — and by developing a new resources to help a particular group of students, we are also providing potential options for all our students.