Combining Understanding by Design and Differentiate Instruction to Improve Student  Performance

In effective classrooms, teachers consistently attend to at least four elements: whom they teach (students), where they teach (learning environment), what they teach (content), and how they teach (instruction). If teachers lose sight of any one of the elements and cease investing effort in it, the whole fabric of their work is damaged and the quality of learning impaired.

Understanding by Design focuses on what we teach and what assessment evidence we need to collect. Its primary goal is delineating and guiding application of sound principles of curriculum design. It also emphasizes how we teach, particularly ways of teaching for student understanding. Understanding by Design is predominantly a curriculum application design model.

Differentiated Instruction focuses on whom we teach, where we teach, and how we teach. Its primary goal is ensuring that teachers focus on processes and procedures that ensure effective learning for varied individuals. Differentiation is predominantly an instructional application design model.

Quality classrooms evolve around powerful knowledge that works for each student. They require quality curriculum and quality instruction. In tandem, UbD and DI provide structures, tools, and guidance for developing curriculum and instruction based on our current best understandings of teaching and learning.

That the two models stem from current best understandings of teaching and learning. It is useful to view the “axioms” and “corollaries” that demonstrate ways the two models interface. The axioms are fundamental principles of Understanding by Design. The corollaries demonstrate the way in which Differentiated Instruction works to ensure that each student will have access to and support for success with the axioms. Together, the axioms and corollaries illustrate some ways in which UbD and DI work in tandem toward shared goals.

Axiom 1

The primary goal of quality curriculum design is to develop and deepen student understanding.

Corollaries for Axiom 1

  • All students benefit from and are entitled to curriculum that develops and deepens their understanding.
  • Given variance in student ability, experience, opportunity, language, interest, and adult support, they will grow at different rates and require varied support systems to develop and deepen their understanding.


Axiom 2

Evidence of student understanding is revealed when students apply (transfer) knowledge in authentic contexts.

Corollaries for Axiom 2

  • Such authentic applications will reveal varying degrees of proficiency and sophistication in students' knowledge, understanding, and skill.
  • The most effective teachers use the evidence of variance in student proficiency to provide opportunities and support to ensure that each student continues to develop and deepen knowledge, understanding, and skill from his or her current point of proficiency, interests, and learning preferences.

Axiom 3

Effective curriculum development following the principles of backward design helps avoid the twin problems of textbook coverage and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.

Corollaries for Axiom 3

  • All learners benefit from and should receive instruction that reflects clarity about purposes and priorities of content.
  • Struggling learners require focus on the truly essential knowledge, understanding, and skill of a unit to ensure that their efforts are most efficient and potent in moving them forward in reliable ways.
  • Advanced learners need challenge predicated on what is essential in a discipline so that their time is accorded value and their strengths are developed in ways that move them consistently toward expertise in the disciplines.

Axiom 4

Regular reviews of curriculum and assessment designs, based on design standards, provide quality control and inform needed adjustments. Regular reviews of “results” (i.e., student achievement) should be followed by needed adjustments to curriculum and instruction.

Corollaries to Axiom 4

  • Results of reviews will inevitably show variation among students in essential knowledge, understanding, and skills.
  • Results-based adjustments to curriculum and instruction should be targeted to the individual as well as to the class as a whole.
  • Results-based adjustments will require flexible use of time, teacher attention, materials, student groupings, and other classroom elements to ensure continued development and deepening of students' understanding.

Axiom 5

Teachers provide opportunities for students to explore, interpret, apply, shift perspectives, empathize, and self-assess. These six facets provide conceptual lenses through which student understanding is assessed.

Corollaries to Axiom 5

  • All students should be guided and supported in thinking in complex ways.
  • It is not the case that struggling learners must master the basics before they can engage in thinking. Rather, evidence clearly suggests that for most students, mastery and understanding come through, not after, meaningful interaction with ideas.
  • Nonetheless, students will differ in the level of sophistication of their thinking and understanding at a given time.
  • Teachers should be prepared to provide opportunity and support to continually develop students' understandings and capacities as thinkers.

Axiom 6

Teachers, students, and districts benefit by “working smarter” and using technology and other vehicles to collaboratively design, share, and critique units of study.

Corollaries to Axiom 6

  • Students also benefit when teachers share understandings about students' learning needs, classroom routines, and instructional approaches to ensure that each student develops knowledge, understanding, and skills as fully as possible.
  • A routine part of collaboration in academically diverse classrooms should occur between teachers and specialists who have expert knowledge about student needs and instructional approaches most likely to respond effectively to those needs.
  • Technology should be used to address varied learner needs and to assist the teacher in keeping track of student growth toward important curricular goals.

Axiom 7

UbD is a way of thinking, not a program. Educators adapt its tools and materials with the goal of promoting better student understanding.

Corollaries to Axiom 7

  • Differentiated instruction is a way of thinking, not a formula or recipe. Educators draw on, apply, and adapt its tools with the goal of maximizing knowledge, understanding, and skill for the full range of learners.
  • Effective differentiation guides educators in thinking effectively about whom they teach, where they teach, and how they teach in order to ensure that what they teach provides each student with maximum power as a learner.


Together, backward design and differentiation describe a comprehensive way of thinking about curriculum, assessment, and instruction, stemming from a shared understanding of what constitutes effective teaching and learning. In the instructional planning of teachers guided by backward design and differentiation, we should expect to see systematic attention to content goals they plan to teach and to the students who will learn them. Teachers will focus on clarity of goal and flexibility in arriving at the goal.

Copyright © 2006 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.