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What is Differentiated Instruction? Examples of How to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, every student has an individual learning style. Chances are, not all of your students grasp a subject in the same way or share the same level of ability. So how can you better deliver your lessons to reach everyone in class? Consider differentiated instruction—a method you may have heard about but haven’t explored, which is why you’re here. In this article, learn exactly what it means, how it works, and the pros and cons.

Infographic: What is differentiated instruction? Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Four ways to differentiate instruction: Content, product, process, and learning environment. Pros and cons of differentiated instruction.

Definition of differentiated instruction

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia. Tomlinson describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those with learning disabilities to those who are considered high ability.

Differentiating instruction may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student.

Teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom may:

  • Design lessons based on students’ learning styles.
  • Group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments.
  • Assess students’ learning using formative assessment.
  • Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.

History of differentiated instruction

The roots of differentiated instruction go all the way back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, where one teacher had students of all ages in one classroom. As the educational system transitioned to grading schools, it was assumed that children of the same age learned similarly. However in 1912, achievement tests were introduced, and the scores revealed the gaps in student’s abilities within grade levels.

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensuring that children with disabilities had equal access to public education. To reach this student population, many educators used differentiated instruction strategies. Then came the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2000, which further encouraged differentiated and skill-based instruction—and that’s because it works. Research by educator Leslie Owen Wilson supports differentiating instruction within the classroom, finding that lecture is the least effective instructional strategy, with only 5 to 10 percent retention after 24 hours. Engaging in a discussion, practicing after exposure to content, and teaching others are much more effective ways to ensure learning retention.

Four ways to differentiate instruction

According to Tomlinson, teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways: 1) content, 2) process, 3) product, and 4) learning environment.

As you already know, fundamental lesson content should cover the standards of learning set by the school district or state educational standards. But some students in your class may be completely unfamiliar with the concepts in a lesson, some students may have partial mastery, and some students may already be familiar with the content before the lesson begins.

What you could do is differentiate the content by designing activities for groups of students that cover various levels of  Bloom’s Taxonomy (a classification of levels of intellectual behavior going from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills). The six levels are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Students who are unfamiliar with a lesson could be required to complete tasks on the lower levels: remembering and understanding. Students with some mastery could be asked to apply and analyze the content, and students who have high levels of mastery could be asked to complete tasks in the areas of evaluating and creating.

Examples of differentiating activities:

  • Match vocabulary words to definitions.
  • Read a passage of text and answer related questions.
  • Think of a situation that happened to a character in the story and a different outcome.
  • Differentiate fact from opinion in the story.
  • Identify an author’s position and provide evidence to support this viewpoint.
  • Create a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the lesson.

Each student has a preferred learning style, and successful differentiation includes delivering the material to each style: visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and through words. This process-related method also addresses the fact that not all students require the same amount of support from the teacher, and students could choose to work in pairs, small groups, or individually. And while some students may benefit from one-on-one interaction with you or the classroom aide, others may be able to progress by themselves. Teachers can enhance student learning by offering support based on individual needs.

Examples of differentiating the process:

  • Provide textbooks for visual and word learners.
  • Allow auditory learners to listen to audio books.
  • Give kinesthetic learners the opportunity to complete an interactive assignment online.

The product is what the student creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content. This can be in the form of tests, projects, reports, or other activities. You could assign students to complete activities that show mastery of an educational concept in a way the student prefers, based on learning style.

Examples of differentiating the end product:

  • Read and write learners write a book report.
  • Visual learners create a graphic organizer of the story.
  • Auditory learners give an oral report.
  • Kinesthetic learners build a diorama illustrating the story.

4. Learning environment

The conditions for optimal learning include both physical and psychological elements. A flexible classroom layout is key, incorporating various types of furniture and arrangements to support both individual and group work. Psychologically speaking, teachers should use classroom management techniques that support a safe and supportive learning environment.

Examples of differentiating the environment:

  • Break some students into reading groups to discuss the assignment.
  • Allow students to read individually if preferred.
  • Create quiet spaces where there are no distractions.

Pros and cons of differentiated instruction

The benefits of differentiation in the classroom are often accompanied by the drawback of an ever-increasing workload. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Research shows differentiated instruction is effective for high-ability students as well as students with mild to severe disabilities.
  • When students are given more options on how they can learn material, they take on more responsibility for their own learning.
  • Students appear to be more engaged in learning, and there are reportedly fewer discipline problems in classrooms where teachers provide differentiated lessons.
  • Differentiated instruction requires more work during lesson planning, and many teachers struggle to find the extra time in their schedule.
  • The learning curve can be steep and some schools lack professional development resources.
  • Critics argue there isn’t enough research to support the benefits of differentiated instruction outweighing the added prep time.

Differentiated instruction strategies

What differentiated instructional strategies can you use in your classroom? There are a set of methods that can be tailored and used across the different subjects. According to Kathy Perez (2019) and the Access Center those strategies are tiered assignments, choice boards, compacting, interest centers/groups, flexible grouping, and learning contracts. Tiered assignments are designed to teach the same skill but have the students create a different product to display their knowledge based on their comprehension skills. Choice boards allow students to choose what activity they would like to work on for a skill that the teacher chooses. On the board are usually options for the different learning styles; kinesthetic, visual, auditory, and tactile. Compacting allows the teacher to help students reach the next level in their learning when they have already mastered what is being taught to the class. To compact the teacher assesses the student’s level of knowledge, creates a plan for what they need to learn, excuses them from studying what they already know, and creates free time for them to practice an accelerated skill.

Interest centers or groups are a way to provide autonomy in student learning. Flexible grouping allows the groups to be more fluid based on the activity or topic.  Finally, learning contracts are made between a student and teacher, laying out the teacher’s expectations for the necessary skills to be demonstrated and the assignments required components with the student putting down the methods they would like to use to complete the assignment. These contracts can allow students to use their preferred learning style, work at an ideal pace and encourages independence and planning skills. The following are strategies for some of the core subject based on these methods.

Differentiated instruction strategies for math

  • Provide students with a choice board. They could have the options to learn about probability by playing a game with a peer, watching a video, reading the textbook, or working out problems on a worksheet.
  • Teach mini lessons to individuals or groups of students who didn’t grasp the concept you were teaching during the large group lesson. This also lends time for compacting activities for those who have mastered the subject.
  • Use manipulatives, especially with students that have more difficulty grasping a concept.
  • Have students that have already mastered the subject matter create notes for students that are still learning.
  • For students that have mastered the lesson being taught, require them to give in-depth, step-by-step explanation of their solution process, while not being rigid about the process with students who are still learning the basics of a concept if they arrive at the correct answer.

Differentiated instruction strategies for science

  • Emma McCrea (2019) suggests setting up “Help Stations,” where peers assist each other. Those that have more knowledge of the subject will be able to teach those that are struggling as an extension activity and those that are struggling will receive.
  • Set up a “question and answer” session during which learners can ask the teacher or their peers questions, in order to fill in knowledge gaps before attempting the experiment.
  • Create a visual word wall. Use pictures and corresponding labels to help students remember terms.
  • Set up interest centers. When learning about dinosaurs you might have an “excavation” center, a reading center, a dinosaur art project that focuses on their anatomy, and a video center.
  • Provide content learning in various formats such as showing a video about dinosaurs, handing out a worksheet with pictures of dinosaurs and labels, and providing a fill-in-the-blank work sheet with interesting dinosaur facts.

Differentiated instruction strategies for ELL

  • ASCD (2012) writes that all teachers need to become language teachers so that the content they are teaching the classroom can be conveyed to the students whose first language is not English.
  • Start by providing the information in the language that the student speaks then pairing it with a limited amount of the corresponding vocabulary in English.
  •  Although ELL need a limited amount of new vocabulary to memorize, they need to be exposed to as much of the English language as possible. This means that when teaching, the teacher needs to focus on verbs and adjectives related to the topic as well.
  • Group work is important. This way they are exposed to more of the language. They should, however, be grouped with other ELL if possible as well as given tasks within the group that are within their reach such as drawing or researching.

Differentiated instruction strategies for reading

  • Tiered assignments can be used in reading to allow the students to show what they have learned at a level that suites them. One student might create a visual story board while another student might write a book report. 
  • Reading groups can pick a book based on interest or be assigned based on reading level
  • Erin Lynch (2020) suggest that teachers scaffold instruction by giving clear explicit explanations with visuals. Verbally and visually explain the topic. Use anchor charts, drawings, diagrams, and reference guides to foster a clearer understanding. If applicable, provide a video clip for students to watch.
  • Utilize flexible grouping. Students might be in one group for phonics based on their assessed level but choose to be in another group for reading because they are more interested in that book.

Differentiated instruction strategies for writing

  • Hold writing conferences with your students either individually or in small groups. Talk with them throughout the writing process starting with their topic and moving through grammar, composition, and editing.
  • Allow students to choose their writing topics. When the topic is of interest, they will likely put more effort into the assignment and therefore learn more.
  • Keep track of and assess student’s writing progress continually throughout the year. You can do this using a journal or a checklist. This will allow you to give individualized instruction.
  • Hand out graphic organizers to help students outline their writing. Try fill-in-the-blank notes that guide the students through each step of the writing process for those who need additional assistance.
  • For primary grades give out lined paper instead of a journal. You can also give out differing amounts of lines based on ability level. For those who are excelling at writing give them more lines or pages to encourage them to write more. For those that are still in the beginning stages of writing, give them less lines so that they do not feel overwhelmed.

Differentiated instruction strategies for special education

  • Use a multi-sensory approach. Get all five senses involved in your lessons, including taste and smell!
  • Use flexible grouping to create partnerships and teach students how to work collaboratively on tasks. Create partnerships where the students are of equal ability, partnerships where once the student will be challenged by their partner and another time they will be pushing and challenging their partner.
  • Assistive technology is often an important component of differential instruction in special education. Provide the students that need them with screen readers, personal tablets for communication, and voice recognition software.
  • The article Differentiation & LR Information for SAS Teachers suggests teachers be flexible when giving assessments “Posters, models, performances, and drawings can show what they have learned in a way that reflects their personal strengths”. You can test for knowledge using rubrics instead of multiple-choice questions, or even build a portfolio of student work. You could also have them answer questions orally.
  • Utilize explicit modeling. Whether its notetaking, problem solving in math, or making a sandwich in home living, special needs students often require a step-by-step guide to make connections.

References and resources


Books & Videos about differentiated instruction by Carol Ann Tomlinson and others

  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition
  • Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Kay Brimijoin, and Lane Narvaez
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe
  • Differentiation in Practice Grades K-5: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Caroline Cunningham Eidson
  • Differentiation in Practice Grades 5–9: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Caroline Cunningham Eidson
  • Differentiation in Practice Grades 9–12: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Cindy A. Strickland
  • Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching – Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms – Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, 3rd Edition by Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon
  • How To Differentiate Instruction In Mixed Ability Classrooms 2nd Edition – Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms 3rd Edition by Carol Ann Tomlinson 
  • Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom Paperback – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Tonya R. Moon
  • Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (Professional Development) 1st Edition – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Marcia B. Imbeau
  • The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning 1st Edition by Carol Ann Tomlinson, Kay Brimijoin, Lane Narvaez
  • Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom  – David A. Sousa, Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Leading for Differentiation: Growing Teachers Who Grow Kids – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Michael Murphy
  • An Educator’s Guide to Differentiating Instruction. 10th Edition – Carol Ann Tomlinson, James M. Cooper
  • A Differentiated Approach to the Common Core: How do I help a broad range of learners succeed with a challenging curriculum? – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Marcia B. Imbeau
  • Managing a Differentiated Classroom: A Practical Guide – Carol Tomlinson, Marcia Imbeau
  • Differentiating Instruction for Mixed-Ability Classrooms: An ASCD Professional Inquiry Kit Pck Edition – Carol Ann Tomlinson
  • Using Differentiated Classroom Assessment to Enhance Student Learning (Student Assessment for Educators) 1st Edition – Tonya R. Moon, Catherine M. Brighton, Carol A. Tomlinson
  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners 1st Edition – Carol Ann Tomlinson

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Categorized as: Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Tagged as: Curriculum and Instruction ,  Diversity ,  Engaging Activities ,  New Teacher ,  Pros and Cons

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differentiated teaching methods

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction involves teaching in a way that meets the different needs and interests of students using varied course content, activities, and assessments.

Teaching differently to different students

Differentiated Instruction (DI) is fundamentally the attempt to teach differently to different students, rather than maintain a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. Other frameworks, such as Universal Design for Learning , enjoin instructors to give students broad choice and agency to meet their diverse needs and interests. DI distinctively emphasizes instructional methods to promote learning for students entering a course with different readiness for, interest in, and ways of engaging with course learning based on their prior learning experiences ( Dosch and Zidon 2014). 

Successful implementation of DI requires ongoing training, assessment, and monitoring (van Geel et al. 2019) and has been shown to be effective in meeting students’ different needs, readiness levels, and interests (Turner et al. 2017). Below, you can find six categories of DI instructional practices that span course design and live teaching.

While some of the strategies are best used together, not all of them are meant to be used at once, as the flexibility inherent to these approaches means that some of them are diverging when used in combination (e.g., constructing homogenous student groups necessitates giving different types of activities and assessments; constructing heterogeneous student groups may pair well with peer tutoring) (Pozas et al. 2020). The learning environment the instructor creates with students has also been shown to be an important part of successful DI implementation (Shareefa et al. 2019). 

Differentiated Assessment

Differentiated assessment is an aspect of Differentiated Instruction that focuses on tailoring the ways in which students can demonstrate their progress to their varied strengths and ways of learning. Instead of testing recall of low-level information, instructors should focus on the use of knowledge and complex reasoning. Differentiation should inform not only the design of instructors’ assessments, but also how they interpret the results and use them to inform their DI practices. 

More Team Project Ideas

Steps to consider

There are generally considered to be six categories of useful differentiated instruction and assessment practices (Pozas & Schneider 2019):

  • Making assignments that have tasks and materials that are qualitatively and/or quantitatively varied (according to “challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, and/or resources”) (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) It’s helpful to assess student readiness and interest by collecting data at the beginning of the course, as well as to conduct periodic check-ins throughout the course (Moallemi 2023 & Pham 2011)
  • Making student working groups that are intentionally chosen (that are either homogeneous or heterogeneous based on “performance, readiness, interests, etc.”) (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) Examples of how to make different student groups provided by Stanford CTL  (Google Doc)
  • Making tutoring systems within the working group where students teach each other (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) For examples of how to support peer instruction, and the benefits of doing so, see for example Tullis & Goldstone 2020 and Peer Instruction for Active Learning (LSA Technology Services, University of Michigan)
  • Making non-verbal learning aids that are staggered to provide support to students in helping them get to the next step in the learning process (only the minimal amount of information that is needed to help them get there is provided, and this step is repeated each time it’s needed) (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible) Non-verbal cue cards support students’ self-regulation, as they can monitor and control their progress as they work (Pozas & Schneider 2019)
  • Making instructional practices that ensure all students meet at least the minimum standards and that more advanced students meet higher standards , which involves monitoring students’ learning process carefully (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible; IP Module 5: Giving Inclusive Assessments) This type of approach to student assessment can be related to specifications grading, where students determine the grade they want and complete the modules that correspond to that grade, offering additional motivation to and reduced stress for students and additional flexibility and time-saving practices to instructors (Hall 2018)
  • Making options that support student autonomy in being responsible for their learning process and choosing material to work on (e.g., students can choose tasks, project-based learning, portfolios, and/or station work, etc.) (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible) This option, as well as the others, fits within a general Universal Design Learning framework , which is designed to improve learning for everyone using scientific insights about human learning

Hall, M (2018). “ What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It? ” The Innovator Instructor blog, John Hopkins University Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.

Moallemi, R. (2023). “ The Relationship between Differentiated Instruction and Learner Levels of Engagement at University .” Journal of Research in Integrated Teaching and Learning (ahead of print).

Pham, H. (2011). “ Differentiated Instruction and the Need to Integrate Teaching and Practice .” Journal of College Teaching and Learning , 9(1), 13-20.

Pozas, M. & Schneider, C. (2019). " Shedding light into the convoluted terrain of differentiated instruction (DI): Proposal of a taxonomy of differentiated instruction in the heterogeneous classroom ." Open Education Studies , 1, 73–90.

Pozas, M., Letzel, V. and Schneider, C. (2020). " Teachers and differentiated instruction: exploring differentiation practices to address student diversity ." Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs , 20: 217-230.

Shareefa, M. et al. (2019). “ Differentiated Instruction: Definition and Challenging Factors Perceived by Teachers .” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Special Education (ICSE 2019). 

Tullis, J.G. & Goldstone, R.L. (2020). “ Why does peer instruction benefit student learning? ”, Cognitive Research 5 .

Turner, W.D., Solis, O.J., and Kincade, D.H. (2017). “ Differentiating Instruction for Large Classes in Higher Education ”, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education , 29(3), 490-500.

van Geel, M., Keuning, T., Frèrejean, J., Dolmans, D., van Merriënboer, J., & Visscher A.J. (2019). “Capturing the complexity of differentiated instruction”, School Effectiveness and School Improvement , 30:1, 51-67, DOI: 10.1080/09243453.2018.1539013

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What Is Differentiated Instruction and What Does It Look Like in the Classroom?

It’s all about adapting learning to fit different needs.

What is Differentiated Instruction? #buzzwordsexplained

In the last few decades, differentiation has become one of the biggest buzzwords in education. But what exactly is differentiated instruction, and how can teachers effectively use it in their classrooms? Read on to find out.

What is differentiated instruction?

Infographic describing what differentiation is (Differentiated Instruction)

Source: ASCD

Differentiated instruction means tailoring your teaching so all students, regardless of their ability, can learn the classroom material. Early one-room schoolteachers were masters of differentiation. They taught students of all ages and abilities, changing up their methods as needed.

As schools moved to dividing students by age into grade levels, differentiated instruction more or less fell by the wayside. Teachers taught all students in their classroom in the same way and expected the same results. Not surprisingly, some students struggled to keep up, while others were bored when they mastered the material more quickly than others. Inclusion made these contrasts even greater, and some began to realize education needed new approaches.

During the 1990s, Carol Ann Tomlinson introduced the concept of differentiation, and it quickly gained traction. She identified four elements (content, process, product, and learning environment) that teachers could customize in their classrooms. Her work opened the door to a wide array of differentiation approaches and techniques.

Why is differentiated instruction important?

Infographic describing what differentiation is not (Differentiated Instruction)

Think back to the last time you bought a pair of jeans. You probably had a multitude of choices, like slim, relaxed, or classic fit; petite, regular, or tall; stretch fabric or plain denim—the options were likely endless. Somewhere in all those options for jeans, you found the ones that were right for you. Maybe not perfect, but something that suited you better than any of the other options.

Buying jeans wasn’t always like that. A few decades ago, there were just a few styles, in different sizes. For those with a particular body type, that was just fine. But it meant many others were left with ill-fitting, uncomfortable choices, and they just had to make do. Manufacturers and stores eventually realized they needed to differentiate their styles to meet all their customers’ needs.

Just like people have different body types, they also have different learning styles and abilities. If teachers only offer one way to learn the material, some students will always struggle. Their “jeans” will never fit, and they’ll never truly master the material they need to succeed.

Differentiated Instruction and Learning Styles

In the mid-1980s, teacher Neil Fleming introduced the VARK model of learning styles. He theorized that students learned in these four general ways, known as styles, or modalities:

  • Visual: Seeing images, diagrams, videos, etc.
  • Auditory: Hearing lectures and having discussions
  • Read/Write: Reading the written word and writing things down
  • Kinesthetic: Movement and hands-on activities

In other words, some kids learn better by reading and writing, while others prefer to listen to a lecture or watch a video. Fleming noted that each student uses a mix of these different styles, and it’s important not to pigeonhole a student into any one type. The key is to ensure your teaching methods include a variety of activities that appeal to all learning types.

This concept gets right to the heart of differentiation. Recognizing that your classroom contains students with an assortment of learning styles, along with varying abilities and diverse backgrounds, is the first step toward accommodating them.

What does differentiation look like in the classroom?

List of 50 differentiated instruction strategies

So, what does this mean for teachers? Are you expected to create an individualized lesson plan for every student in your classroom? Fortunately, that’s not necessary. What you do need to do is ensure your lesson plans include a variety of activities, and provide options when students need them.

Tomlinson recommends teachers consider how they can personalize these four elements:

Teachers don’t usually get to decide exactly what they’re going to teach in terms of content. Most schools use standards like Common Core to lay out what students at each level must master. What teachers often can decide is how they’ll present that content. Here are some ways to differentiate content ( see more here ).

  • Have students read an article, watch a video, and/or listen to a lecture on a topic.
  • Used leveled reading materials to help students explore the same content.
  • Tailor assignments as needed, i.e., have slower workers do fewer practice problems as long as they can show mastery, while advanced students can do extra or more challenging exercises.

There are so many ways to mix up the teaching and learning process. Accommodate different learning styles with various activities, and scaffold learning by breaking it into more manageable chunks . These are examples of differentiated processes (see more here ).

  • Create learning centers that give kids self-paced practice time in hands-on ways.
  • Incorporate active learning with manipulatives, movement, and games.
  • Form learning groups and use a tiered approach, with each group mastering content or skills at various speeds.

It’s no secret that some kids are terrible test-takers, or that speaking in front of the class is torture for others. You can work to improve those skills, of course, but in the meantime, it’s important not to punish students because they need different ways to show their mastery of a topic. For example, unless you’re specifically teaching public speaking skills, don’t force every student to do an oral book report. Here are more ways to differentiate the product ( see more examples here ).

  • Doing a research project? Allow students to choose how they’ll present their findings: write a paper, give a presentation, create a video, etc.
  • Use a variety of question types in written tests, and help students learn good test-taking skills.
  • Provide “must do” and “may do” options for assignments.

Learning Environment

Stroll the halls of a typical school, and you’ll notice that every classroom looks and sounds different. Some have desks in rows, while in others desks are pushed together or students group around tables. One is completely silent, while another bustles with discussion. Some students adapt well to these changes, but others do better in specific environments. Try to accommodate as many as you can in your space.

  • Try out flexible seating—let students sit where and how they feel comfortable and ready to learn.
  • Let some students wear headphones and listen to music while they work, while keeping the classroom quiet for others.
  • Create calm-down corners , collaborative spaces, sensory spaces, learning centers, and more.

For more information on Tomlinson’s theories, complete the online learning module found here .

How do I get started with differentiation in my classroom?

The best teachers are those who are observant and know their students well. They watch closely as kids work (and play), and check in regularly to find out what’s working and what’s not. Try these resources to start your journey to better differentiated instruction.

  • 21 Differentiated Instruction Strategies Every Teacher Can Use
  • What Are Learning Styles, and How Should Teachers Use Them?
  • Reading Levels Explained: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
  • 20 Creative Ways To Check for Understanding
  • 25 Best Alternative Assessment Ideas
  • 25 Formative Assessment Options for All Students
  • 25 of the Best Flexible Seating Options for Today’s Classroom
  • 8 Types of Learning Spaces for Your Classroom
  • 30 Must-Try Sensory Room Ideas for Schools

Differentiated Instruction Books

  • How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Tomlinson, 2017)
  • The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (Tomlinson, 2014)
  • The Inclusive Classroom: Strategies for Effective Differentiated Instruction (Mastropieri/Scruggs, 2018)
  • Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners (Doubet/Hockett, 2015)
  • Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 2nd edition: Assessment & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom (Wormeli, 2018)

Have questions about differentiated instruction and how to use it in your classroom? Join the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook to exchange ideas and ask for advice!

Plus, check out 20 creative ways to check for understanding ..

Teachers hear a lot about differentiated instruction, but what does it really mean? Find out what it is and how to use it here.

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A Teacher’s Guide To Using Effective Differentiation In Teaching

Zoe Benjamin

Differentiation in teaching is one of the most important considerations on any teacher’s lesson plan . It shows how they plan to meet the needs of students and tailor learning to maximise the learning outcomes for the whole class .

In a classroom with 30 or more students, it is unlikely that every student has the same skills and needs. This makes tailoring lessons for each student difficult.

This article explores in-depth what differentiation is, its benefits and challenges. It also includes strategies to help you implement effective differentiated support in your classroom today. 

What is differentiation in teaching?

Differentiation in teaching is the purposeful selection of instructional strategies to meet the individual needs of all learners. 

It is particularly important when students in the same year group or grade level are at different ability levels. Differentiation begins with identifying what every student needs from the lesson based on students’ readiness to learn and prior knowledge. 

Teachers then determine whether they should differentiate the learning goals for the lesson, along with the most appropriate teaching strategies. 

The Ultimate Guide To Maths Mastery

The Ultimate Guide To Maths Mastery

Everything you need to know to differentiate your maths lessons successfully to implement a mastery approach to mathematics in your school.

Why is differentiation in teaching important?

Differentiation is essential to the learning process because it enables teachers to meet student needs. Employing different teaching approaches, setting different tasks, and providing a safe learning environment helps to raise student outcomes. 

Differentiating for students with physical disabilities or special educational needs is particularly important. They may need adjusted resources ahead of the lesson (such as enlarged font or printing on coloured paper).  

Whether students work in mixed-ability classrooms or in homogeneous groups differentiation is necessary. How much differentiation depends on how different students are from each other.  

Understanding students’ prior knowledge, level of attainment and how they learn best helps teachers differentiate accordingly. In turn, this improves the outcomes for all pupils. 

READ MORE : The 5 Stages Of Deliberate Practice In Education

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s model of differentiation

Student learning improves when teachers use differentiation to meet the needs of all learners. Researcher and professor, Carol Ann Tomlinson, describes differentiation in teaching as how teachers consider students’ needs while planning and delivering instruction. 

Tomlinson identified four important areas for consideration when designing a differentiated classroom experience:


Differentiation in teaching model

Teachers can differentiate according to the content presented to students. This often starts in primary schools. Students complete tasks in small groups based on their ability. 

At this stage, teachers normally employ flexible groupings. They may move students to different tables depending on the subject (e.g. mathematics or English). Similarly, students receive different reading books based on their reading ability or familiarity with English language.  

In secondary school, differentiation takes the form of streaming or setting. Students work in groups for whole lessons based on their ability and prior knowledge. Even within the same room, it is possible to differentiate content. For example, students complete different worksheets after the same initial instruction. This often occurs through extension work for the most able students or those who complete core work ahead of others. 

Differentiation by content is also referred to as differentiation by task. Students receive different activities based on their prior knowledge or ability.  

A disadvantage to low-ceiling approaches is that some students are denied access to more challenging tasks. Perhaps because they are not in the ‘top’ group. It is difficult to identify students’ potential when they lack the opportunity to show what they are capable of.  

This method of differentiation is damaging to students’ self-esteem if they know they are completing easier work than their peers.

Process refers to how teachers structure their lessons so students can work at different rates or access different content. It may mean developing a routine which allows some students to begin work ahead of others. The teacher thenprovides further explanation, small group support, or delivers extension material.  

Alternatively, students learn the same content but in separate classrooms, with different teachers and different activities. Some teachers opt for an enquiry-based model of delivery which allows all students to work at their own pace. This approach tends to be more effective for highly able students.  

In general, explicit instruction is more effective, particularly for novice learners.

Differentiation as a result of product is also referred to as differentiation by outcome. Students receive the same instruction and content as each other but produce different work.

This approach gives all students the same opportunities to succeed and access higher grades. For this reason, it is an approach most suited to mixed ability groups and subjects that are skills based.  

All students experience the same instruction and complete the same task. But how much of the task they complete and to what level depends on the student’s ability. For example, a teacher asks students to write a paragraph in French about their hobbies. Some students will write two sentences in the present tense containing some error. Some will write two or three sentences in one tense with fewer errors. Others will write five or six sentences in two or more tenses.  

The benefit of differentiation by outcome is that they are low-threshold, high-ceiling tasks. Teacher expectations do not limit students.

This aspect of differentiation is possibly the most important but easiest to overlook. The goal of differentiation is to meet the needs of every student in a classroom to maximise their attainment.  

It is easy to see how the role of instruction, task, and outcome can contribute to students’ attainment. But, teachers must also ensure that the classroom environment is conducive to learning and meeting the needs of all learners.  

A positive learning environment is likely to have the following qualities:

  • Students feel safe to ask questions and make mistakes
  • Teachers manage behaviour effectively
  • Students receive the help they need; from a teacher, peer, or other source
  • The room is free from distractions
  • Students are supportive of each other
  • Positive relationships between staff and students
  • Access to resources
  • Ongoing formative assessment identifies students’ needs
  • Teachers’ expertise and pedagogy enable them to support all students

The benefits of differentiation in teaching

Differentiation benefits not only students but teachers too. Meeting the needs of every student in an academically diverse classroom: 

  • Drives forward teaching and pedagogy
  • Accelerates pupil progress
  • Improves students’ learning experiences  

When teachers prioritise differentiation, their classroom practice improves and they create more learning opportunities for every student. This makes it more feasible to have mixed ability groups. Research on mixed ability grouping vs ability grouping shows mixed abilities are beneficial to students who would be in a ‘lower’ or ‘foundation’ group. 

Differentiation encourages the use of ongoing assessment such as formative assessment to identify students’ needs. It ensures the use of appropriate teaching strategies and learning activities to meet every student’s needs. 

Challenges associated with differentiation in teaching 

With 30 plus students, it is difficult to identify the plethora of learning needs within a whole class.  It is more difficult to determine how to differentiate instruction to meet everyone’s needs, particularly with larger groups of students.  

Differentiation in teaching requires ongoing formative assessment. Often, this incorporates diagnostic questions to identify the needs of each student and subject-specific pedagogy to determine the best approach to move learning forward. 

Classroom management also presents its challenges when using differentiated instruction.  Managing students working on different tasks or having small groups of students working independently while another group is working with the teacher can be difficult to manage, especially for newly qualified teachers.  

To help to maintain a positive learning environment:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Reinforce routines
  • Have a consistent approach to managing behaviour  

How can educators differentiate in teaching?

There are many differentiation strategies . The most appropriate depends on the age and ability of students within the class and the topic taught.  

Here are ten examples of effective differentiation in teaching.

Flexible grouping 

Arrange students into small groups within the classroom so that they are working with students of similar abilities. The groupings may change depending on the topic or subject. Classroom seating should accommodate flexible groupings and allow students to change seats when required. 

With flexible grouping, the activities each group completes can be set at different levels. 

Separate students into different classes according to their prior knowledge and differentiate by processes such as teaching strategies and content.  

This approach is popular in mathematics when students follow separate courses such as foundation and higher GCSE. 

Group work 

Select students with different strengths to work together during group work so they are able to support each other.  

Set the same task for each group and differentiate by outcome. Each pupil will contribute to the activity to the best of their ability and possibly in different ways.

Learning objectives

Use differentiated lesson objectives to allow all learners to be successful. ‘Must, Should, Could’ and ‘All, Most, Some’ are common ways to present differentiated learning objectives.  For example:

  • All: will be able to calculate the area of a rectangle
  • Most: will be able to calculate the area of a triangle
  • Some: will be able to calculate the area of composite shapes
  • Must: be able to find terms in a sequence using the nth term
  • Should: be able to find the nth term for a linear sequence
  • Could: be able to the nth term of a quadratic sequence

Small group interventions

Use formative assessment examples to check prior knowledge and identify students who would benefit from short-term intervention activities to address any gaps in knowledge. 

Interventions are an effective teaching strategy to catch students up, but best carried out outside of class time. For example, if a child needs a math intervention, try not to pull them out of the maths lesson. Interventions should be additional teaching, not instead of high-quality first teaching .  

Third Space Learning provide on-to-one maths interventions to the students who need it most. Maths specialist tutors offer high-quality maths tutoring using lesson content designed by out team on academic maths experts.  

Ongoing CPD allows tutors to use assessment for learning to implement adaptive teaching . They change the pitch and pace of the lesson to meet the student’s needs in real-time. Formative assessment is built into every lesson in the form of post-session questions. These allow the tutor to assess the student’s understanding of the learning objective. 

Schools receive reports after every session for every student to track pupil progress . 

ease ks3 transition in maths

Students are set homework tasks based on their ability or every student receives the same homework with three or more levels of difficulty. Students choose the appropriate option.  

The former option means that all students can attempt the most challenging questions set on their homework. With the latter option, while students can choose which challenge they attempt, teachers can also suggest which questions individual students should try first.


Differentiation in teaching can happen through tasks. Provide students with different levels of scaffolding following whole-class teaching.  

A simple way to create scaffolded worksheets in maths is to use partially worked examples. As learners become more secure in their understanding, decrease the number of steps included.

Effective questioning is another form of scaffolding for differentiation in teaching. Teachers aim less challenging questions at lower ability students and harder, more challenging questions at higher ability children. 

Not only does this differentiate work for students, it allows all students to participate in a safe learning environment. 

Tiered worksheets

Present students with a worksheet containing increasingly difficult questions to differentiate the task. The teacher can decide whether all students must work through the sheet from the beginning and get as far as possible, differentiation by outcome. Or whether different groups of students start at different parts of the sheet, differentiation by task. 

Flipped learning

Flipped learning is a teaching strategy that requires students to learn the content independently ahead of the lesson. Usually, students watch videos or read material. Students then spend time with the teacher interacting with the new content in different ways, including:

  • Discussions
  • Answering questions
  • Making inferences

Flipped learning can aid differentiation in the following ways:

  • Present material given to students prior to the lesson in different ways and at different levels to support students’ needs.
  • It removes the need to deliver new content and gives more time for the teacher to work with individuals or small groups who need support. This helps them understand the content while others use it to deepen their understanding.
  • Students can vary the time they spend learning the material before the lesson. They may revisit it as many times as needed and make notes. This reduces the potential knowledge gap when presenting students with the same material simultaneously and in the same way. 

Differentiation in different subjects 

In the same way that effective teaching methods vary according to the topic, differentiated teaching varies between subjects. 

Skills-based subjects, such as English, are likely to favour differentiation by outcome. All students complete the same activity but with different lists of success criteria.  

For content-based subjects such as mathematics, teachers are more likely to use differentiation by task. For example, answering a different set of questions, or streaming and teaching separate topics.  

READ MORE : How To Stretch And Challenge More Able Pupils In Maths

Differentiation myths

Many myths are associated with differentiation in teaching. Here a few differentiation myths are debunked. 

Self-directed learning

Differentiation does not mean that students must direct their learning. Differentiation can occur in student-led activities or enquiry-based learning, but not limited to these conditions.  

Teacher-led differentiation in response to ongoing formative assessment is most successful. Explicit instruction is a perfectly valid form of differentiated teaching. 

Learning styles

Teaching the same topic in different ways to address students’ preferred learning style is not a form of differentiation. There is no research evidence to suggest students who are ‘kinesthetic learners’ learn more effectively through hands-on and interactive activities. Similarly, direct instruction is not always best for ‘auditory learners’. 

Learning styles are students’ preferred method of learning, but this does not mean they are the most effective method. It is much more important that teachers use the topic (and subject) they are teaching to inform decisions about pedagogy.  

Learning profiles based on student interests or preferences can be useful when encouraging students to engage in different activities. But, they should determine students’ learning needs. Formative assessment is a much more effective way of achieving this.

Special Education Needs 

While differentiation such as using coloured paper for students with dyslexia is likely required for students with special education needs, differentiation is relevant to all pupils. The purpose of differentiation is to meet the needs of every student in the class, not just those with special educational needs.  

In addition to special education needs such as dyslexia, ASD, or dyscalculia, students can also require differentiation to address gaps in prior knowledge, attainment level, a physical disability, or poor well-being in certian subjects such as maths anxiety. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom suggested the following categories of educational goals: 

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Creating 

However, he never intended that this list of skills would present as hierarchical or sequential. While the categories provide a useful framework for differentiating activities, do not assume that the ‘higher levels’ are reserved for students of a higher ability. Nor are the ‘lower levels’ are a prerequisite for the higher ones. 

Blooms taxonomy for differentiaition in teaching

Tips to help teachers achieve effective differentiation

  • Focus on the goal of differentiation: to meet the individual needs of all students.
  • Use ongoing formative assessments, such as exit tickets and hinge questions , to check students’ understanding and assess prior knowledge.
  • Consider the range of teaching strategies and activities that are most appropriate based on the content taught and the students in the classroom.
  • Vary the differentiation methods used across the term or semester to identify those most beneficial.
  • Consider varying the learning objectives, especially for mixed ability students, and use formative assessment that directly measures progress towards these objectives.
  • Encourage students to work at their highest level and teach them to appreciate that this will vary depending on the subject or topic.
  • Use flipped learning wherever possible to preserve lesson time to support students to consolidate and applying the new material.

Watching colleagues teaching and sharing best practice are both valuable forms of professional development that can help promote differentiation. 

Senior leaders must support teachers to grow their repertoire of differentiated instruction strategies and provide time for them to work with other colleagues or attend professional development courses.

Differentiation FAQs

Differentiation in teaching is the purposeful selection of instructional strategies to best meet the individual needs of all learners.

What are the four ways that teachers can differentiate?

Students arrive in lessons with different prior knowledge and with different learning needs; differentiation allows all learners to have equal access to learning opportunities and opportunities to succeed.

What are three examples of differentiation?

• Flexible Groupings: arranging pupils into groups according to their ability and changing these groups according to the topic being taught. • Streaming: separating students into different classes so that they can be taught different content. • Tiered Worksheets: presenting questions arranged by their level of difficulty and either assigning different questions to specific students (differentiation by task) or allowing all students to work through the questions at their own pace (differentiation by outcome).

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Ch. 12 Differentiated Instruction

[Education Week]. (2018, Sept. 11). Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not As Hard as You Think. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Differentiation  refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or  learning environment . Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together.

In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations.

Teachers who employ differentiated instructional strategies will usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one group of students to another, so that those who may need more time or a different teaching approach to grasp a concept get the specialized assistance they need, while those students who have already mastered a concept can be assigned a different learning activity or move on to a new concept or lesson.

In more diverse classrooms, teachers will tailor lessons to address the unique needs of special-education students, high-achieving students, and English-language learners, for example. Teachers also use strategies such as  formative assessment —periodic, in-process evaluations of what students are learning or not learning—to determine the best instructional approaches or modifications needed for each student.

Key Takeaways

Also called “differentiated instruction,” differentiation typically entails modifications to :

  • practice (how teachers deliver instruction to students),
  • process  (how the lesson is designed for students),
  • products  (the kinds of work products students will be asked to complete),
  • content  (the specific readings, research, or materials, students will study),
  • assessment  (how teachers measure what students have learned), and
  • grouping  (how students are arranged in the classroom or paired up with other students).

Differentiation techniques may also be based on specific student attributes, including  interest   (what subjects inspire students to learn),  readiness   (what students have learned and still need to learn), or  learning style  (the ways in which students tend to learn the material best).

Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares may similarities with scaffolding, which refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.

Because differentiation and scaffolding techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways.

When teachers differentiate instruction , they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation).

Alternatively, when teachers scaffold instruction , they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading.

(edglossary, 2013)

The following comparison chart will help illustrate the differentiation concept and its major component strategies:

Differentiation Comparison Chart

Myths and Misconceptions about Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning

Differentiated instruction is just one component of UDL. Tomlinson (2001), declares that differentiated instruction is the intentional application of specific lesson planning and multiple learning approaches to support all learners.

The key difference between differentiated instruction and UDL is that differentiation is a strategy that supports instructors in addressing each student’s individual level of readiness, interest, and learning profiles (Nelson, 2014).

UDL in comparison is an overarching educational framework that addresses the learning environment as a whole . This includes, both the physical learning environment as well as the lessons, units, and/or curriculum. When the whole environment is addressed first, it removes physical, mental and psychological barriers so all students have full access in the classroom, regardless of their needs and abilities.

Differentiation plays into ongoing debates about  equity  and “academic tracking” in public schools. One major criticism of the approach is related to the relative complexities and difficulties entailed in teaching diverse types of students in a single classroom or educational setting.

Since effective differentiation requires more sophisticated and highly specialized instructional methods, teachers typically need adequate training, mentoring, and  professional development  to ensure they are using differentiated instructional techniques appropriately and effectively.

Some teachers also argue that the practical realities of using differentiation—especially in larger classes comprising students with a wide range of skill levels, academic preparation, and learning needs—can be prohibitively difficult or even infeasible.

Yet other educators argue that this criticism stems, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. In her book   How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms , the educator and writer Carol Ann Tomlinson , who is considered an authority on differentiation, points out a potential source of confusion:

“Differentiated instruction is  not  the ‘Individualized Instruction’ of the 1970s.”

In other words, differentiation is the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible , but it does not entail the creation of distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction).

The conflation of “differentiated instruction” and “individualized instruction” has likely contributed to ongoing confusion and debates about differentiation, particularly given that the terms are widely and frequently used interchangeably.

(Myths and Misconceptions, n.d)

Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation


Adapted with permission from Carol Tomlinson: Differentiation Central Institutes on Academic Diversity in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia (September 2014)

Identifying Components/Features

While Tomlinson and most recognize there is no magic or recipe for making a classroom differentiated, they have identified guiding principles, considered the “Pillars that Support Effective Differentiation”: Philosophy, Principles, and Practices. The premise of each is as follows:

The Philosophy of differentiation is based on the following tenets:

  • (1) recognizing diversity is normal and valuable,
  • (2) understanding every student has the capacity to learn,
  • (3) taking responsibility to guide and structure student success,
  • (4) championing every student entering the learning environment and assuring equity of access

The Principles identified that shape differentiation include

  • (1) creating an environment conducive to learning
  • (2) identifying a quality foundational curriculum
  • (3) informing teaching and learning with assessments
  • (4) designing instruction based on assessments collected
  • (5) creating and maintaining a flexible classroom

Teacher Practices are also essential to differentiation, highlighted as

  • (1) proactive planning to address student profiles
  • (2) modifying instructional approaches to meet student needs
  • (3) teaching up (students should be working just above their individual comfort levels)
  • (4) assigning respectful tasks responsive to student needs—challenging, engaging, purposeful
  • (5) applying flexible grouping strategies (e.g., stations, interest groups, orbital studies)
  • Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content. These include acts, concepts, generalizations or principles, attitudes, and skills. The variation seen in a differentiated classroom is most frequently in the manner in which students gain access to important learning. Access to content is seen as key.
  • Align tasks and objectives to learning goals. Designers of differentiated instruction view the alignment of tasks with instructional goals and objectives as essential. Goals are most frequently assessed by many state-level, high-stakes tests and frequently administered standardized measures. Objectives are frequently written in incremental steps resulting in a continuum of skills-building tasks. An objectives-driven menu makes it easier to find the next instructional step for learners entering at varying levels.
  • Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven. Instructional concepts should be broad-based, not focused on minute details or unlimited facts. Teachers must focus on the concepts, principles, and skills that students should learn. The content of instruction should address the same concepts with all students, but the degree of complexity should be adjusted to suit diverse learners.
  • Clarify key concepts and generalizations. Ensure that all learners gain powerful understandings that can serve as the foundation for future learning. Teachers are encouraged to identify essential concepts and instructional foci to ensure that all learners comprehend.
  • Flexible grouping is consistently used. Strategies for flexible grouping are essential. Learners are expected to interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or paired work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to support completion of assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and on-going evaluations.
  • Classroom management benefits students and teachers. To effectively operate a classroom using differentiated instruction, teachers must carefully select organization and instructional delivery strategies. In her text, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2001), Carol Tomlinson identifies 17 key strategies for teachers to successfully meet the challenge of designing and managing differentiated instruction.
  • Emphasize critical and creative thinking as a goal in lesson design. The tasks, activities, and procedures for students should require that they understand and apply meaning. Instruction may require supports, additional motivation; and varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.
  • Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Incorporating pre- and on-going assessment informs teachers so that they can better provide a menu of approaches, choices, and scaffolds for the varying needs, interests, and abilities that exist in classrooms of diverse students. Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures.
  • Use assessment as a teaching tool to extend rather than merely measure instruction. Assessment should occur before, during, and following the instructional episode; and it should be used to help pose questions regarding student needs and optimal learning.
  • Students are active and responsible explorers. Teachers respect that each task put before the learner will be interesting, engaging, and accessible to essential understanding and skills. Each child should feel challenged most of the time.
  • Vary expectations and requirements for student responses. Items to which students respond may be differentiated so that different students are able to demonstrate or express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. A well-designed student product allows varied means of expression and alternative procedures and offers varying degrees of difficulty, types of evaluation, and scoring.


  • Developing a learning environment. Establish classroom conditions that set the tone and expectations for learning. Provide tasks that are challenging, interesting, and worthwhile to students.
  • Engaging all learners is essential. Teachers are encouraged to strive for the development of lessons that are engaging and motivating for a diverse class of students. Vary tasks within instruction as well as across students. In other words, an entire session for students should not consist of all lecture, discussion, practice, or any single structure or activity.
  • Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks. A balanced working structure is optimal in a differentiated classroom. Based on pre-assessment information, the balance will vary from class-to-class as well as lesson-to-lesson. Teachers should ensure that students have choices in their learning.

The following instructional approach to teaching mathematics patterns has several UDL features (see Table 2). Through the use of clearly stated goals and the implementation of flexible working groups with varying levels of challenge, this lesson helps to break down instructional barriers . We have identified additional ways to reduce barriers in this lesson even further by employing the principles of UDL teaching methods and differentiated instruction. We provide recommendations of employing teaching methods of UDL to support this lesson in Table 3. Please note that we are not making generalized recommendations for making this lesson more UDL, but instead are focusing on ways that differentiated instruction, specifically, can help achieve this goal.

Table 2. UDL Elements in a Differentiated Instruction Mathematics Lesson

Table 3. UDL Strategies to Further Minimize Lesson Barriers in a Differentiated Instruction Lesson Plan for Mathematics.

(Hall, Vue, Meyer, 2004)

Additional Resources on Differentiated Instruction

The IRIS Center. (2010).  Differentiated instruction:   Maximizing the learning of all students.  Retrieved from

Differentiation, (2013, Nov. 7). The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from   (CC BY NC SA)

[Education Week]. (2018, Sept. 11). Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not As Hard as You Think. [Video File]. Retrieved from    Standard YouTube licence

Hall, T., Vue, G., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2004). Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2014). Retrieved [7.16.19] from   This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Myths and Misconceptions. (n.d.) Retrieved from   (CC BY NC SA)

Instructional Methods, Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners Copyright © 2017 by Paula Lombardi M.Ed. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Differentiated Instruction: Strategies and Examples for the Classroom

teacher pointing to the whiteboard

In today’s increasingly diverse classrooms, differentiated instruction has become a crucial component for ensuring all students receive the support and opportunities they need to succeed.

This article will provide K-12 educators, school administrators, and educational organizations with a comprehensive understanding of differentiated instruction strategies, their importance, and practical examples that can be easily applied in various classroom settings.

As we delve into the key principles, strategies, and real-life applications of differentiated instruction, you will gain valuable insights and tools to create a more inclusive and effective learning environment for every student.

Understanding Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is an educational approach that focuses on adapting teaching methods and materials to accommodate the diverse learning needs of students in a classroom.

The primary goal of differentiated instruction is to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn, engage, and succeed, regardless of their abilities, background, or learning style.

This teaching philosophy recognizes that students come from various backgrounds and have unique strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, making it essential for educators to cater to their individual needs.

Check Out Our Online Course: Engaging the 21st Century Learner: Classroom Strategies to Increase Engagement and Rigor.


Key Principles of Differentiated Instruction

teacher clapping with kids around her

This approach encourages active engagement and ownership of learning, helping students build on their existing knowledge and skills.

Flexible grouping is another fundamental principle of differentiated instruction. By organizing students into various groups based on skill level, learning style, or interest, educators can provide targeted instruction and support.

This allows for a dynamic learning environment where students can collaborate and learn from one another, fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility in the classroom.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

Differentiated instruction strategies can be categorized into three main areas: content, process, and product. These strategies help educators create a more inclusive and effective learning environment for all students.

Content differentiation focuses on the material being taught and how it is presented to students. Tiered assignments, for example, allow teachers to provide different levels of complexity within the same assignment, ensuring that each student is challenged according to their ability.

Learning centers are another content differentiation strategy, where educators create stations with activities tailored to various learning styles and abilities, enabling students to work at their own pace.

Process differentiation addresses how students engage with and make sense of the content. Flexible grouping is a key strategy in process differentiation, where educators form groups based on students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles. This allows for more targeted instruction and collaboration among students with similar needs.

Differentiated questioning techniques are another process differentiation strategy, where teachers pose questions at varied levels of complexity to assess and challenge each student appropriately.

Product differentiation involves giving students choices in how they demonstrate their understanding of the content. Product options can range from alternative assignments and activities to different assessment types.

For example, students may be asked to write an essay or create a podcast as part of their final project.

Rubrics and assessment tools can also be used to differentiate products, providing clear expectations and criteria for success while accommodating diverse learning needs and abilities.

Real-Life Examples of Differentiated Instruction in Action

In an elementary school setting, differentiated instruction can be effectively implemented through reading workshops and math centers.

Reading workshops allow students to engage with texts at their individual reading levels while participating in guided reading sessions, independent reading, and comprehension activities. This approach not only fosters a love for reading but also addresses the varying abilities of students in the class.

Math centers provide opportunities for students to practice and apply mathematical concepts through hands-on activities, games, and problem-solving tasks, tailored to their individual skill levels.

At the middle school level, differentiated instruction strategies can be applied in a science lab setting or during a social studies project.

In the science lab , students can be grouped based on their prior knowledge and skills, allowing them to conduct experiments and analyze results at a pace and complexity suited to their abilities. This ensures that all students are challenged and engaged while also providing opportunities for peer learning and collaboration.

In social studies projects, students can be given a choice of topics or formats, allowing them to explore an area of interest and demonstrate their learning in a way that best suits their strengths and preferences.

Integrating Technology in Differentiated Instruction

As technology continues to advance, educators can leverage various tools and resources to support differentiated instruction in their classrooms.

Online resources and digital tools play a significant role in facilitating differentiation by providing students with personalized learning experiences and helping teachers manage diverse learning needs effectively.

There is an abundance of online resources designed to help teachers differentiate instruction. Websites and platforms like Khan Academy, Edmodo, and Google Classroom offer customizable learning materials, including videos, texts, quizzes, and interactive activities, which can be tailored to individual student’s needs and interests.

These resources enable teachers to provide targeted support and enrichment opportunities, ensuring every student receives an appropriate level of challenge and support.

In addition to online resources, classroom technologies can be utilized to promote differentiation. Interactive whiteboards, tablets, and document cameras enable teachers to present information in various formats, accommodating students’ diverse learning styles.

For example, visual learners may benefit from watching videos or interactive presentations, while auditory learners may prefer listening to podcasts or recorded lectures.

Moreover, adaptive learning platforms can be employed to track student progress and provide real-time feedback, allowing teachers to make data-driven decisions when adjusting instruction for different learners.

These platforms help identify areas of strength and areas that require extra support, ensuring all students are on the right path to achieving their academic goals.

Tips for Implementing Differentiated Instruction in the Classroom

kid answering on whiteboard

Teachers can use surveys, interviews, and observations to gather information about their student’s learning preferences, strengths, and challenges. This information can also help in establishing a positive learning environment where every student feels valued and supported.

Planning and organizing for differentiation is another essential step in creating an inclusive and effective learning environment. Educators can start by reviewing their curriculum and identifying areas where differentiated strategies can be applied.

This may involve modifying lesson plans, creating tiered assignments, or incorporating learning centers.

Educators should plan for ongoing assessment and feedback to evaluate student understanding. This can be done through formative assessments such as observation notes or quick checks.

Strobel Education’s Role in Supporting Differentiated Instruction

Strobel Education is dedicated to empowering educators with the tools and strategies necessary to implement differentiated instruction effectively in their classrooms.

These programs provide educators with an in-depth understanding of differentiated instruction principles and practical applications, such as how to adjust lesson plans for learners at various readiness levels or incorporate technology into the classroom.

In addition to our professional development programs, Strobel Education also provides numerous resources and tools that educators can use to enhance their differentiated instruction strategies.

Differentiated instruction is an invaluable approach to teaching that ensures equitable access and opportunities for all students. At Strobel Education, we understand the importance of differentiated instruction and are committed to supporting educators in their journey to create more inclusive classrooms.

At Strobel Education , we understand the power and importance of differentiated instruction. It is essential for achieving success in our professional and personal lives. We offer the Engaging the 21st Century Learner professional development training in two formats.

  • Our Engaging the 21st Century Learner through Differentiated Instruction On-site PD is great for learning how to provide differentiated instruction and gain strategies for engaging today’s learners.
  • The Engaging the 21st Century Learner Online Course delivers the same information but in a self-paced course, which offers teachers more flexibility. Teachers also get access to the course for nine months should they wish to implement it in small doses.

We get high-quality professional development into teachers’ hands so they have everything they need for immediate implementation and support. Our professional development workshops, courses, keynotes, and coaching services provide practical tools, resources, and mindset shifts that will help you enhance your classroom instruction strategies. Join our community of passionate educators today and let us help you transform your teaching practice to better serve your students. Together, we can make a lasting impact on student success.

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Differentiated Instruction as an Approach to Establish Effective Teaching in Inclusive Classrooms

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  • First Online: 28 June 2023

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differentiated teaching methods

  • Esther Gheyssens   ORCID: 4 , 5 ,
  • Júlia Griful-Freixenet   ORCID: 5 , 6 &
  • Katrien Struyven   ORCID: 5 , 7  

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Differentiated Instruction has been promoted as a model to create more inclusive classrooms by addressing individual learning needs and maximizing learning opportunities. Whilst differentiated instruction was originally interpreted as a set of teaching practices, theories now consider differentiated instruction rather a pedagogical model with philosophical and practical components than the simple act of differentiating. However, do teachers also consider differentiated instruction as a model of teaching? This chapter is based on a doctoral thesis that adopted differentiated instruction as an approach to establish effective teaching in inclusive classrooms. The first objective of the dissertation focused on how differentiated instruction is perceived by teachers and resulted in the DI-Quest model. This model, based on a validated questionnaire towards differentiated instruction, pinpoints different factors that explain differences in the adoption of differentiated instruction. The second objective focused on how differentiated instruction is implemented. This research consisted of four empirical studies using two samples of teachers and mixed method. The results of four empirical studies of this dissertation are discussed and put next to other studies and literature about differentiation. The conclusions highlight the importance of teachers’ philosophy when it comes to implementing differentiated instruction, the importance of perceiving and implementing differentiated instruction as a pedagogical model and the importance and complexity of professional development with regard to differentiated instruction.

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  • Differentiated instruction
  • Effective teaching
  • Inclusive classrooms

1 Introduction

Differentiated Instruction (DI) has been promoted as a model to facilitate more inclusive classrooms by addressing individual learning needs and maximizing learning opportunities (Gheyssens et al., 2020c ). DI aims to establish maximal learning opportunities by differentiating the instruction in terms of content, process, and product in accordance with students their readiness, interests and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2017 ). This chapter is based on a doctoral thesis that adopted DI as an approach to establish effective teaching in inclusive classrooms. This doctoral dissertation consisted of four empirical studies towards the conceptualisation and implementation of DI (Gheyssens, 2020 ). This chapter summarizes the most important results of this dissertation and includes three parts. First the conceptualisation of DI is discussed. Second, we discuss literature findings regarding the effectiveness of DI. Third, the results of the studies about the implementation of DI are discussed. Finally, based on the previous parts some recommendations for implementation are presented.

2 Conceptualisation of Differentiated Instruction

2.1 defining differentiated instruction.

Differentiated instruction (DI) is an approach that aims to meet the learning needs of all students in mixed ability classrooms by establishing maximal learning and differentiating instruction with regard to content, process and product in accordance with student needs in terms of their readiness (i.e., student’s proximity to specified learning goal), interests (i.e., passions, affinities that motivate learning) and learning profiles (i.e., preferred approaches to learning) (Tomlinson, 2014 ). Whilst DI was originally interpreted as a set of teaching practices or simplified as the act of differentiating (e.g. van Kraayenoord, 2007 ; Tobin, 2006 ), it is evolved towards a pedagogical model with philosophical and practical components (Gheyssens, 2020 ). This model is rooted in the belief that diversity is present in every classroom and that teachers should adjust their education accordingly (Tomlinson, 1999 ). Tomlinson ( 2017 ) states that DI is an approach where teachers are proactive and focus on common goals for each student by providing them with multiple options in anticipation of and in response to differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs (Tomlinson, 2017 ). From this perspective, differentiation refers to an educational process where students are made accountable for their abilities, talents, learning pace, and personal interests (Op ‘t Eynde, 2004 ). This means that teachers proactively plan varied activities addressing what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and how they show what they have learned. This increases the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible (Tomlinson, 2005 ). Moreover, DI emphasizes the needs of both advanced and struggling learners in mixed-ability classroom. In more detail, Bearne ( 2006 ) and Tomlinson ( 1999 ) consider differentiation as an approach to teaching in which teachers proactively adjust curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities and student product so that various student’s needs are satisfied (individuals or small groups) and every student is provided with maximum learning opportunities (in Tomlinson et al., 2003 ).

2.2 The DI-Quest Model

Considering DI as a pedagogical model rather than as a set of teaching strategies became also clear in the validity study of Coubergs et al. ( 2017 ) when they tried to measure DI empirically. Their research resulted in the so-called ‘DI-Quest model’, based on the DI-questionnaire the researchers developed for investigating DI. This model pinpoints different factors that explain differences in the adoption of differentiated instruction (Coubergs et al., 2017 ). It was inspired by the differentiated instruction model developed by Tomlinson ( 2014 ), which presents a step by step process demonstrating how a teacher moves from thinking about DI toward implementing it in the classroom. According to this model, the teacher can differentiate content, process, product, and environments to respond to different needs in learning based on students’ readiness, learning profiles, and interests. Tomlinson ( 2014 ) also stipulates that, to respond adequately to students’ learning needs, teachers should apply general classroom principles such as respectful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment. In contrast with Tomlinson’s well-known DI model, which also contains concepts relating to good teaching, the DI-Quest model distinguishes teachers who use DI less often from those who use it more often (Gheyssens et al., 2020c ). The DI-Quest model comprises five factors. The five factors are presented in three categories. The key factor, similar to Tomlinson’s ( 2014 ) model, is adapting teaching to students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles. This is the main factor because it represents the ‘core business’ of differentiating: the teachers adapt his/her teaching to three essential differences in learning. The second and third factors represent DI as a philosophy. The fourth and fifth factor represent differentiated strategies in the classroom (Fig. 30.1 ). Below the figure the different factors are discussed on detail.

A D I-Quest model. It has a bidirectional relation between teachers with a growth mindset and ethical compass and students adapting teaching to interests, readiness, and learning profiles. A cyclic relation in the classroom of flexible grouping and output = input helps in gaining maximum learning.

The DI-Quest model

2.2.1 Adaptive Teaching

Adaptive teaching illustrates that the teacher provides various options to enable students to acquire information, digest, and express their understanding in accordance with their readiness, interests, and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2001 ). Differences in learning profiles are described by Tomlinson and colleagues ( 2003 , p. 129) as “a student’s preferred mode of learning that can be affected by a number of factors, including learning style, intelligence preference and culture.” Applying different learning profiles positively influences the effectiveness of learning because students get the opportunity to lean the way they learn best. Responding to student interests also appears to be related to more positive learning experiences, both in the short and long term (Woolfolk, 2010 ; Tomlinson et al., 2003 ). Ryan and Deci ( 2000 ) claimed that understanding what motivates students will help develop interest, joy, and perseverance during the learning process. Thus, investing in differences in interests increases learning motivation among students. Taking account of students’ readiness can also lead to higher academic achievement. Readiness focuses on differences arising from a student’s learning position relative to the learning goals that are to be attained (Woolfolk, 2010 ). When taking students’ readiness into account enables every student to attain the learning objectives in accordance with their learning pace and position (Gheyssens et al., 2021 ).

2.2.2 Philosophy of DI

The first philosophical factor to consider is the ‘growth mindset’. Tomlinson ( 2001 ) addressed the concept of mindset in her DI model by stating that a teacher’s mindset can affect the successful implementation of differentiated instruction (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011 ). Teachers with a growth mindset set high goals for their students and believe that every student is able to achieve success when they show commitment and engagement (Dweck, 2006 ). The second philosophical factor is the ‘ethical compass’. This envisions the use of curriculum, textbooks, and other external influences as a compass for teaching rather than observations of the student (Coubergs et al., 2017 ; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010 ). An ethical compass that focuses on the student embodies the development of meaningful learning outcomes, devises assessments in line with these, and creates engaging lesson plans designed to enhance students’ proficiency in achieving their learning goals (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2010 ). Research on self-reported practices demonstrated that teachers with an overly rigid adherence to a curriculum that does not take students’ needs into account, report to adopt less adaptive teaching practices (Coubergs et al., 2017 ; Gheyssens et al., 2020c ).

2.2.3 Differentiated Classroom Practices

The next factor is the differentiated practice to be explained is ‘flexible grouping’. Switching between homogeneous and heterogeneous groups helps students to progress based on their abilities (when in homogeneous groups) and facilitates learning through interaction (when in heterogeneous groups) (Whitburn, 2001 ). Given that the aim of differentiated instruction is to provide maximal learning opportunities for all students, variation between homogeneous and heterogeneous teaching methods is essential. Coubergs et al. ( 2017 ) found that combining different forms of flexible grouping positively predicts the self-reported use of adaptive teaching in accordance with differences in learning. The final factor in the DI-Quest model is the differentiated practice ‘Output = input.’ This factor represents the importance of using output from students (such as information from conversations, tasks, evaluation, and classroom behaviour) as a source of information. This output of students is input for the learning process of the students themselves by providing them with feedback. But this output is also crucial input for the teacher in terms of information about how students react to his/her teaching (Hattie, 2009 ). Assessment and feedback are not the final steps in the process of teaching, but they are an essential part of the process of teaching and learning (Gijbels et al., 2005 ). In this regard, Coubergs et al. ( 2017 ) state that including feedback as an essential aspect of learning positively predicts the self-reported use of adaptive teaching.

3 Effectiveness of Differentiated Instruction

Several studies dealing with the effectiveness of DI have demonstrated a positive impact on student achievement (e.g. Beecher & Sweeny, 2008 ; Endal et al., 2013 ; Mastropieri et al., 2006 ; Reis et al., 2011 ; Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ; Valiandes, 2015 ). However, while recent theories plead for a more holistic interpretation of DI, being a philosophy and a practice of teaching, empirical studies on the impact on student learning are often limited to one aspect of DI, e.g. ability grouping, tiering, heterogenous grouping, individualized instruction, mastery learning or another specific operationalization of DI (e.g. Bade & Bult, 1981 ; Tomlinson, 1999 ; Vanderhoeven, 2004 ; Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ). Often studies on DI are also fragmented in studies on ability grouping, tiering, heterogenous grouping, individualized instruction, mastery learning or another specific operationalization of DI (Coubergs et al., 2013 ; Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ). Although effectiveness can be found for most of these operationalisations, overall the evidence is limited and sometimes even inconclusive (e.g. evidence of the benefits on ability grouping). Indeed research indicates that DI has the power to benefit students’ learning. However, this might not always be the case for all students. For example Reis and colleagues demonstrated that at-risk students are most likely to benefit from DI (e.g. Reis et al., 2011 ). By contrast, experimental research on DI by Valiandes ( 2015 ) showed that although the socioeconomic status of students correlated with their initial performance, it had no effect on their progress. This confirmed that DI can maximize learning outcomes for all students regardless of their socioeconomic background. It also depends on how DI is implemented, for example the effects of ability grouping may differ for subgroups of students (Coubergs et al., 2013 ). A recent review on DI concluded that studies of effectiveness of DI overall report small to medium-sized positive effects of DI on student achievement. However, the authors of this study plead for more empirical studies towards the effectiveness of DI on both academic achievement and affective students’ outcomes, such as attitudes and motivation (Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ).

4 Implementation of Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is often presented in a fragmented fashion in studies. For example, it can be defined as a specific set of strategies (Bade & Bult, 1981 ; Woolfolk, 2010 ) or studies with regard to the effectiveness of DI often focus on specific differentiated classroom actions, rather than on DI as a whole-classroom approach (Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ). Moreover, DI is not only in studies fragmented defined and investigated, DI is also perceived by teachers in a fragmented way (Gheyssens, 2020 ). For example, using mixed methods, this study explored to what degree differentiated practices are implemented by primary school teachers in Flanders (Gheyssens et al., 2020a ). Data were gathered by means of three different methods, which are compared: teachers’ self-reported questionnaires (N = 513), observed classroom practices and recall interviews (N = 14 teachers). The results reveal that there is not always congruence between the observed and self-reported practices. Moreover, the study seeks to understand what encourages or discourages teachers to implement DI practices. It turns out that concerns about the impact on students and school policy are referred to by teachers as impediments when it comes to adopting differentiated practices in classrooms. On teacher level, some teachers expressed a feeling of powerlessness towards their teaching and have doubts if their efforts are good enough. On school level, a development plan was often missing which gave teachers the feeling that they are standing alone (Gheyssens et al., 2020a ). Other studies confirm that when beliefs about teaching and learning are different among various actors involved in a school, this can limit DI implementation (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008 ). However, we know form the DI-Quest model how important a teachers’ mindset is when it comes to implementing DI. In this specific study teachers were asked about both hindrances and encouragements to implement DI. Teachers only responded with hindrances. In addition, flexible grouping, which in theory is an ideal teaching format when it comes to differentiation, occurs often randomly in the classroom without the intention to differentiate. The researchers of this study concluded that teachers do not succeed in implementing DI to the fullest because their mindset about DI is not as advanced as their abilities to implement differentiated practices. These practices, such as flexible grouping for example, are often part of the curriculum. Moreover, also in teacher education programmes pre-service teachers are trained to use differentiated strategies. However, teacher education programmes approach DI mostly again as a set of teaching practices. Teaching a mindset is much more difficult and complicated. This focus on DI as only a practice and as a pedagogical model, like the DI-Quest model demonstrates, leads to partial implementation of DI. DI is then perceived as something teachers can do “sometimes” in their classrooms, rather than a pedagogical model that is embedded in the daily teaching and learning process (Gheyssens et al., 2020a ).

In other words, one aspect of DI is often implemented, one specific teaching format is applied, or one strategy is adopted to deal with one specific difference between learning. As a consequence, some aspects will be improved or some students will benefit from this approach, but the desired positive effects on the total learning process of all the students that theories about DI promise, will remain unforthcoming. Below some recommendations are listed to implement DI more as a pedagogical model and less fragmented.

4.1 Importance of the Teachers’ Philosophy

Review studies which investigated the effectiveness and implementation of specific operationalizations of DI (for example grouping) report small to medium effects on student achievement (Coubergs et al., 2013 ; Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019 ). Although theories recommend approaching DI as a holistic concept, the effectiveness of such a holistic approach on student learning has, to our knowledge, not yet been investigated. We emphasize the importance of presenting and perceiving DI as a pedagogical model that is regarded as a philosophy of teaching and a collection of teaching practices (Tomlinson, 2017 ). Thus, DI is considered a pedagogical model that is influenced by teachers’ mindset and one which encourages teachers to be proactive, involves modifying curricula, teaching methods, resources, learning activities and student products in anticipation of, and response to, student differences in readiness, interests and learning profiles, in order to maximize learning opportunities for every student in the classroom (Coubergs et al., 2017 ; Tomlinson, 2017 ). In this regard we would also like to emphasize that these modifications do not necessary involve new teaching strategies and extra workload for teachers, but require that teachers shift their mindset and start acting more pro-actively, planned better and be more positive. In a study that investigated the effectiveness of a professional development programme about inclusive education on teachers’ implementation of differentiated instruction, teachers stated that after participating in the programme they did not necessarily adopt more differentiated practices, but they did the ones they used more thoroughly (Gheyssens et al., 2020b ). As demonstrated in the DI-Quest model, in order to implement DI as a pedagogical model, it is essential to start with the teachers’ philosophy. However, changing a philosophy does not come about overnight, but rather demands time and patience (Gheyssens, 2020 ).

4.2 Importance and Complexity of Professional Development

When DI becomes a pedagogical model that consists of both philosophy and practice components, and furthermore demands that teachers have a positive mindset towards DI in order to implement DI effectively, professional development for some teachers is necessary to strengthen their competences and to support them in embedding DI in their classrooms. Depending on the current mindset of the teacher, some will need more support, while for other teachers differentiating comes naturally. However, if we want teachers to implement DI as a pedagogical model and not just as fragmented practices, teachers need to be prepared and supported. Professional development is essential for teachers to respond adequately to the changing needs of students during their careers (Keay & Lloyd, 2011 ; EADSNE, 2012 ). However, professional development is also complex. The final study in the dissertation of Gheyssens ( 2020 ) investigated the effectiveness of a professional development programme (PDP) aimed at strengthening the DI competences of teachers. A quasi-experimental design consisting of a pre-test, post-test, and control group was used to study the impact of the programme on teachers’ self-reported differentiated philosophies and practices. Questionnaires were collected from the experimental group (n = 284) and control group (n = 80) and pre- and post-test results were compared using a repeated measures ANOVA. Additionally, interviews with a purposive sample of teachers (n = 8) were conducted to explore teachers’ experiences of the PDP. The results show that the PDP was not effective in changing teachers’ DI competences. Multiple explanations are presented for the lack of improvement such as treatment fidelity, the limitations of instruments, and the necessary time investment (Gheyssens et al., 2020b ).

We found similar information in other studies. For example Brighton et al. ( 2005 ) stated that the biggest challenge for most teachers is that DI questions their previous beliefs. This ties in with our emphasis on teachers’ mindset. To participate in professional development, teachers need to have/keep an open mind in order to respond to new forms of diversity and new opportunities for collaborating with colleagues. Although continued professional development is necessary and important for teachers, it is a complex process. We refer to the work of Merchie et al. ( 2016 ) who identified nine characteristics of effective professional development, with one of them being that the supervisor is of high quality and is competent when it comes to giving and receiving constructive feedback and imparting other coaching skills (Merchie et al., 2016 ). Literature states that professional development is only successful if teachers are active participants, if they have a voice in what and how they learn things, and if the PDP is tailored to the specific context (Merchie et al., 2016 ). However, PDP often works towards a specific goal which is not always very flexible. A suitable coach is able to find a balance between these two extremes. Or, specifically within inquiry-based learning as an example, the coach needs to find the fragile balance between telling the teachers what to do, and letting them find their own answers. Finding such a balance and guiding teachers towards looking for and finding the answers they need is important if we wish to establish the desired improvement we want to see in teachers’ professional development. In this regard, Willegems et al. ( 2016 ) plead for the role of a broker as a bridge-maker in professional development trajectories, in addition to the role of coach (Willegems et al., 2016 ).

4.3 Importance of Collaboration

In addition, collaboration is indeed essential for effective professionalisation (Merchie et al., 2016 ) and beneficial for DI implementation (De Neve et al., 2015 ; Latz & Adams, 2011 ). In a professional development study where inquiry-based learning was applied to teams of teachers at schools, teachers reported positive experiences in discussing their individual learning activities, and during the programme became aware of the need to work together on the collective development of knowledge in the school. They all agreed that to implement DI they needed to collaborate more. A common school vision and policy is necessary for the implementation of specific differentiated measures, as these currently differ between teachers and grades, and can be confusing for students. This is consistent with previous research that states that collaboration is crucial for creating inclusive classrooms (Hunt et al., 2002 ; Mortier et al., 2010 ; EADSNE, 2012 ; Claasen et al., 2009 ; Mitchel, 2014 ). A first step in this process is realising that collaboration is beneficial for both teachers and students (EADSNE, 2012 ).

5 Conclusion

The chapter summarizes a doctoral dissertation that started with the assumption from theory that differentiated instruction can be adopted to create more inclusive classrooms. Theories describe DI as both a teaching practice and a philosophy, but the concept is rarely measured as such. Empirical evidence about the effectiveness and operationalisation of differentiating is limited. The general aim of this research was to gain a more in-depth understanding of the concept of DI. This main aim was subdivided into two objectives. The first objective focused on how DI is perceived by teachers and resulted in the DI-Quest model. The second objective focused on how DI is implemented. Four empirical studies were conducted to address these objectives. Two different samples spread over three years were adopted (1302 teachers in study 1 and 1522 teachers in studies 2, 3 and 4) and mixed methods were applied to investigate these research goals. In this chapter the results of these studies were put next to other studies and literature about differentiation. The conclusions highlight the importance of teachers’ philosophy when it comes to implementing DI, the importance of perceiving and implementing DI as a pedagogical model and the importance and complexity of professional development with regard to DI. Overall, the authors of this dissertation conclude that DI can be as promising as theories say when it comes to creating inclusive classrooms, but at the same time their research illustrated that the reality of DI in classrooms, is far more complex than the theories suggest.

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Gheyssens, E., Griful-Freixenet, J., Struyven, K. (2023). Differentiated Instruction as an Approach to Establish Effective Teaching in Inclusive Classrooms. In: Maulana, R., Helms-Lorenz, M., Klassen, R.M. (eds) Effective Teaching Around the World . Springer, Cham.

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20 Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples [+ Downloadable List]

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Written by Marcus Guido

Reviewed by Allison Sinclair, M.T.

Engage and motivate your students with our adaptive, game-based learning platform!

  • Game-Based Learning
  • Teaching Strategies

1. Create Learning Stations

2. use task cards, 3. interview students, 4. target different senses within lessons, 5. share your own strengths and weaknesses, 6. use the think-pair-share strategy, 7. make time for journaling, 8. implement reflection and goal-setting exercises, 9. run literature circles, 10. offer different types of free study time, 11. group students with similar learning styles, 12. give different sets of reading comprehension activities, 13. assign open-ended projects, 14. encourage students to propose ideas for their projects, 15. analyze your differentiated instruction strategy on a regular basis, 16. “teach up”, 17. use math edtech that adjusts itself to each student, 18. relate math to personal interests and everyday examples, 19. play a math-focused version of tic-tac-toe, 20. create learning stations, without mandatory rotations.

As students with diverse learning styles fill the classroom, many teachers don’t always have the time, or spend additional hours to plan lessons that use differentiated instruction (DI) to suit students’ unique aptitudes.

Educator Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it beautifully in her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms :

Kids of the same age aren't all alike when it comes to learning, any more than they are alike in terms of size, hobbies, personality, or likes and dislikes. Kids do have many things in common because they are human beings and because they are all children, but they also have important differences. What we share in common makes us human. How we differ makes us individuals. In a classroom with little or no differentiated instruction, only student similarities seem to take center stage. In a differentiated classroom, commonalities are acknowledged and built upon, and student differences become important elements in teaching and learning as well.

This can involve adjusting:

  • Content — The media and methods teachers use to impart and instruct skills, ideas and information
  • Processes — The exercises and practices students perform to better understand content
  • Products — The materials, such as tests and projects, students complete to demonstrate understanding

To help create lessons that engage and resonate with a diverse classroom, below are 20 differentiated instruction strategies and examples. Available in a condensed and printable list for your desk, you can use 16 in most classes and the last four for math lessons.

Try the ones that best apply to you, depending on factors such as student age.

Provide different types of content by setting up learning stations — divided sections of your classroom through which groups of students rotate. You can facilitate this with a flexible seating plan .

Each station should use a unique method of teaching a skill or concept related to your lesson.

To compliment your math lessons, for example, many teachers use Prodigy to simplify differentiation .  You’ll deliver specific in-game problems to each student — or distinct student groups — in three quick steps!

Students can rotate between stations that involve:

  • Watching a video
  • Creating artwork
  • Reading an article
  • Completing puzzles
  • Listening to you teach

To help students process the content after they've been through the stations, you can hold a class discussion or assign questions to answer.

Like learning stations, task cards allow you to give students a range of content. Answering task cards can also be a small-group activity , adding variety to classes that normally focus on solo or large-group learning.

First, make or identify tasks and questions that you’d typically find on worksheets or in textbooks.

Second, print and laminate cards that each contain a single task or question. Or, use Teachers Pay Teachers to buy pre-made cards . (Check out Prodigy Education's Teachers Pay Teachers page for free resources!)

Finally, set up stations around your classroom and pair students together to rotate through them.

You can individualize instruction by monitoring the pairs, addressing knowledge gaps when needed.

Asking questions about learning and studying styles can help you pinpoint the kinds of content that will meet your class’s needs.

While running learning stations or a large-group activity , pull each student aside for a few minutes. Ask about:

  • Their favourite types of lessons
  • Their favourite in-class activities
  • Which projects they’re most proud of
  • Which kinds of exercises help them remember key lesson points

Track your results to identify themes and students with uncommon preferences, helping you determine which methods of instruction suit their abilities.

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A lesson should resonate with more students if it targets visual, tactile, auditory and kinesthetic senses, instead of only one.

When applicable, appeal to a range of learning styles by:

  • Playing videos
  • Using infographics
  • Providing audiobooks
  • Getting students to act out a scene
  • Incorporating charts and illustrations within texts
  • Giving both spoken and written directions to tasks
  • Using relevant physical objects, such as money when teaching math skills
  • Allotting time for students to create artistic reflections and interpretations of lessons

Not only will these tactics help more students grasp the core concepts of lessons, but make class more engaging.

Prodigy Math Game , for example, is an engaging way to gamify math class in a way that worksheets simply cannot. 👇

To familiarize students with the idea of differentiated learning, you may find it beneficial to explain that not everyone builds skills and processes information the same way.

Talking about your own strengths and weaknesses is one way of doing this.

Explain -- on a personal level — how you study and review lessons. Share tactics that do and don’t work for you, encouraging students to try them.

Not only should this help them understand that people naturally learn differently, but give them insight into improving how they process information.

The think-pair-share strategy exposes students to three lesson-processing experiences within one activity. It’s also easy to monitor and support students as they complete each step.

As the strategy’s name implies, start by asking students to individually think about a given topic or answer a specific question.

Next, pair students together to discuss their results and findings.

Finally, have each pair share their ideas with the rest of the class, and open the floor for further discussion.

Because the differentiated instruction strategy allows students to process your lesson content individually, in a small group and in a large group, it caters to your classroom’s range of learning and personality types.

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A journal can be a tool for students to reflect on the lessons you’ve taught and activities you’ve run, helping them process new information .

When possible at the end of class, give students a chance to make a journal entry by:

  • Summarizing key points they’ve learned
  • Attempting to answer or make sense of lingering questions
  • Explaining how they can use the lessons in real-life scenarios
  • Illustrating new concepts, which can be especially helpful for data-focused math lessons

As they continue to make entries, they should figure out which ones effectively allow them to process fresh content.

But if you're struggling to see the value of journaling in a subject like math, for example, you can make time specifically for math journaling. While you connect journaling to your own math objectives, students can make cross-curricular connections.

If you want to learn more, check out K-5 Math Teaching Resources for a detailed overview . Angela Watson at The Cornerstone for Teachers also has great math journal resources you can use in your own class!

An extension of journaling, have students reflect on important lessons and set goals for further learning at pre-determined points of the year.

During these points, ask students to write about their favourite topics, as well as the most interesting concepts and information they’ve learned.

They should also identify skills to improve and topics to explore.

Based on the results, you can target lessons to help meet these goals . For example, if the bulk of students discuss a certain aspect of the science curriculum, you can design more activities around it.

Organizing students into literature circles not only encourages students to shape and inform each other’s understanding of readings, but helps auditory and participatory learners retain more information.

This also gives you an opportunity to listen to each circle’s discussion, asking questions and filling in gaps in understanding.

As a bonus, some students may develop leadership skills by running the discussion.

This activity makes written content — which, at times, may only be accessible to individual learners with strong reading retention -- easier to process for more students.

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Free study time will generally benefit students who prefer to learn individually, but can be slightly altered to also help their classmates process your lessons.

This can be done by dividing your class into clearly-sectioned solo and team activities.

Consider the following free study exercises to also meet the preferences of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners:

  • Provide audiobooks, which play material relevant to your lessons
  • Create a station for challenging group games that teach skills involved in the curriculum
  • Maintain a designated quiet space for students to take notes and complete work
  • Allow students to work in groups while taking notes and completing work, away from the quiet space

By running these sorts of activities, free study time will begin to benefit diverse learners — not just students who easily process information through quiet, individual work.

Heterogenous grouping is a common practice, but grouping students based on similar learning style can encourage collaboration through common work and thinking practices.

This is not to be confused with grouping students based on similar level of ability or understanding.

In some cases, doing so conflicts with the “Teach Up” principle , which is discussed below.

Rather, this tactic allows like-minded students to support each other’s learning while giving you to time to spend with each group. You can then offer the optimal kind of instruction to suit each group’s common needs and preferences.

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Instead of focusing on written products, consider evaluating reading comprehension through questions and activities that test different aptitudes.

Although written answers may still appeal to many students, others may thrive and best challenge themselves during artistic or kinesthetic tasks.

For example, allow students to choose between some of the following activities before, during and after an important reading :

  • Participating in more literature circles
  • Delivering a presentation
  • Writing a traditional report
  • Creating visual art to illustrate key events
  • Creating and performing a monologue as a main character or figure

Offering structured options can help students demonstrate their understanding of content as effectively as possible, giving you more insight into their abilities.

Similar to evaluating reading comprehension, give students a list of projects to find one that lets them effectively demonstrate their knowledge.

Include a clear rubric for each type of project, which clearly defines expectations. In fact, some teachers have their students co-create the rubric with them so they have autonomy in the work they'll be completing and being assessed on. Doing so will keep it challenging and help students meet specific criteria.

By both enticing and challenging students, this approach encourages them to:

  • Work and learn at their own paces
  • Engage actively with content they must understand
  • Demonstrate their knowledge as effectively as possible

As well as benefiting students, this differentiated instruction strategy will clearly showcase distinct work and learning styles.

As well as offering set options, encourage students to take their projects from concept to completion by pitching you ideas.

A student must show how the product will meet academic standards, and be open to your revisions. If the pitch doesn’t meet your standards, tell the student to refine the idea until it does. If it doesn’t by a predetermined date, assign one of your set options.

You may be pleasantly surprised by some pitches.  

After all, students themselves are the focus of differentiated instruction — they likely have somewhat of a grasp on their learning styles and abilities.

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Even if you’re confident in your overall approach, Carol Ann Tomlinson — one of the most reputable topic thought-leaders — recommends analyzing your differentiated instruction strategies:

Frequently reflect on the match between your classroom and the philosophy of teaching and learning you want to practice. Look for matches and mismatches, and use both to guide you.

Analyze your strategy by reflecting on:

  • Content — Are you using diverse materials and teaching methods in class?
  • Processes — Are you providing solo, small-group and large-group activities that best allow different learners to absorb your content?
  • Products — Are you letting and helping students demonstrate their understanding of content in a variety of ways on tests, projects and assignments?

In doing so, you’ll refine your approach to appropriately accommodate the multiple intelligences of students . It's important to note, however, that recent studies have upended the theory of multiple intelligences. Regardless of where you stand on the multiple intelligences spectrum, the differentiated instruction strategy above remains valuable!

Teaching at a level that’s too easily accessible to each student can harm your differentiated instruction efforts, according to Tomlinson .

Instead, she recommends “teaching up.” This eliminates the pitfall of being stuck on low-level ideas, seldom reaching advanced concepts:

We do much better if we start with what we consider to be high-end curriculum and expectations -- and then differentiate to provide scaffolding, to lift the kids up .

The usual tendency is to start with what we perceive to be grade-level material and then dumb it down for some and raise it up for others. But we don’t usually raise it up very much from that starting point, and dumbing down just sets lower expectations for some kids.

Keeping this concept in mind should focus your differentiated teaching strategy, helping you bring each student up to “high-end curriculum and expectations.”

It has also grown particularly popular in the 2020s as educators have focused more on accelerated learning by "teaching up", as opposed to filling learning gaps.

As Elizabeth S. LeBlanc, Co-Founder of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, writes for EdSurge : "Accelerated learning approaches give a lower priority to repetition or 'skill-and-drill' uses of instructional technology. In other words, it’s not about memorizing everything you should have learned, it’s about moving you forward so you pick things up along the way. "

Differentiated Math Instruction Strategies and Examples

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Some EdTech tools — such as certain educational math video games — can deliver differentiated content, while providing unique ways to process it.

For example, Prodigy adjusts questions to tackle student trouble spots and offers math problems that use words, charts and pictures, as well as numbers.

To the benefit of teachers, the game is free and curriculum-aligned for grades 1 to 8. You can adjust the focus of questions to supplement lessons and homework, running reports to examine each student’s progress.

Join over 90 million students and teachers using Prodigy's differentiating power today. 👇

Clearly linking math to personal interests and real-world examples can help some learners understand key concepts.

Working with 41 grade 7 students throughout an academic year, a 2015 study published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education used contextual learning strategies to teach integers and increase test scores by more than 44%.

Striving for similar benefits may be ambitious, but you can start by surveying students. Ask about their interests and how they use math outside of school.

Using your findings, you should find that contextualization helps some students grasp new or unfamiliar math concepts.

There are many math-related games and activities to find inspiration to implement this tactic.

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Help students practice different math skills by playing a game that’s a take on tic-tac-toe.

Prepare by dividing a sheet into squares — three vertical by three horizontal. Don’t leave them blank. Instead, fill the boxes with questions that test different abilities.

For example:

  • “Complete question X in page Y of your textbook”
  • “Draw a picture to show how to add fraction X and fraction Y”
  • “Describe a real-life situation in which you would use cross-multiplication, providing an example and solution”

You can hand out sheets to students for solo practice, or divide them into pairs and encourage friendly competition . The first one to link three Xs or Os — by correctly completing questions —  wins. 

So, depending on your preferences, this game will challenge diverse learners through either individual or small-group practice.

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Provide differentiated math learning opportunities for your students by setting up unique learning stations across your classrooms, but forgoing mandatory rotations.

The idea comes from a grade 9 teacher in Ontario, who recommends creating three stations to solve similar mathematical problems using either:

  • Data — Provide spreadsheets, requiring students to manipulate data through trial and error
  • People — Group students into pairs or triads to tackle a range of problems together, supporting each other’s learning
  • Things — Offer a hands-on option by giving each student objects to use when solving questions

Only allow students to switch stations if they feel the need. If they do, consult them about their decision. In each case, you and the student will likely learn more about his or her learning style.

Supplemented by your circulation between stations to address gaps in prior knowledge, this activity exposes students to exercises that appeal to diverse abilities.

Downloadable List of Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples

Click here to download and print a simplified list of the 20 differentiated instruction strategies and examples to keep at your desk.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies Infographic

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Here’s an infographic with 16 ideas from this article, provided by  Educational Technology and Mobile Learning  — an online resource for teaching tools and ideas.

Wrapping Up

With help from the downloadable list, use these differentiated instruction strategies and examples to suit the diverse needs and learning styles of your students.

As well as adding variety to your content, these methods will help students process your lessons and demonstrate their understanding of them.

The strategies should prove to be increasingly useful as you identify the distinct learning styles in — and learn to manage — your classroom .

Interested in other teaching strategies to deploy in your classroom?

Differentiated instruction strategies overlap in important ways with a number of other pedagogical approaches. Consider reviewing these supplementary strategies to find more ideas, combine different elements of each strategy, and enrich your pedagogical toolkit!

  • Active learning strategies   put your students at the center of the learning process, enriching the classroom experience and boosting engagement.
  • As opposed to traditional learning activities,  experiential learning activities  build knowledge and skills through direct experience.
  • Project-based learning   uses an open-ended approach in which students work alone or collectively to produce an engaging, intricate curriculum-related questions or challenges.
  • Inquiry-based learning   is subdivided into four categories, all of which promote the importance of your students' development of questions, ideas and analyses.
  • Adaptive learning  focuses on changing — or "adapting" — learning content for students on an individual basis, particularly with the help of technology.

👉 Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy — a game-based learning platform that delivers differentiated instruction, automatically adjusting questions to accommodate player trouble spots and learning speeds. Aligned with curricula across the English-speaking world, it’s used by more than 90 million students and teachers.

differentiated teaching methods

High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching

PLC Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that all students can master their individual objectives and continually grow.

On this page

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting content, differentiating a lesson by adjusting the process, differentiating a lesson by adjusting the product, response to intervention (rti), explicit teaching (hits #3), multiple activities, flipped classroom, high impact teaching strategies: differentiation.

Differentiation is a key high impact teaching strategy (HITS) used by teachers to craft lessons that provide the right amount of support and challenge for every student.

Professional learning Communities (PLC) Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that all students can master their individual objectives and continually grow even if they aren't necessarily at the same starting level.

The whole purpose of differentiation is to look at the relevant skill level s of students and ask: "What are we going to do to increase depth, broaden, extend and improve upon the knowledge and the skill base of every student in the class, regardless of the starting point," explains Shane.

'It doesn't matter whether the student is at the top end of the academic spectrum, or whether the student requires additional support, such as a PSD-funding– it's relevant to their starting point.'

Differentiated teaching explained: Adjusting content, process and product

'Teaching isn't differentiated when a teacher sets the same task for every student, provides little variation, assesses all students against a general criterion, applies differentiated teaching techniques only for gifted students, and consistently establishes inflexible teaching groups,' Shane explains.

Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.

'A good differentiated teaching program means high quality, evidence-based instruction that meets students' needs within their zone of proximal learning development and has clear SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) goals.'

By adjusting content, you deliver different parts of the curriculum to different students depending on their starting level and what you expect them to learn in that lesson.

Practically, this may mean refining foundational areas for students or supporting others to extend themselves deeper into the curriculum.

When you adjust the process of a lesson, you are changing the methods you use to teach and how you expect students to learn. This adjustment could look like employing collaborative learning with excelling students and explicit instruction with others, or using modelled approaches or multimedia.

Adjusting the process allows you to construct a lesson that supports individual learners to meet their learning outcomes in a way that suits their specific needs.

When you adjust the product of a lesson, you are changing the specific success criteria for students to demonstrate what they have learned.

Teachers can differentiate the product of a lesson by asking some students to teach another student how to complete the object of the lesson, or to use the specific learning outcome to complete an authentic task. This can be comparable evidence of success and achievement.

In each instance, when making use of student grouping, careful consideration should be given to how/when to use mixed ability groups (to foster peer learning, peer teaching, modelling etc.) and same ability groups (to hone in on an identified need).

In action: Examples of how teachers and schools implement differentiation strategies in everyday teaching

As suggested by Shane, there are many different ways in which teacher can differentiate instruction for students. Differentiation starts from the assessment of students' prior knowledge and skills and the setting of individual learning goals. As much as possible, the goals and the respective success criteria should be set with the students. This fosters metacognition and self-regulation, empowering students to monitor their own progress.

Some of the most common strategies are illustrated below:

Generally implemented as a whole school implementation strategy, RTI is a highly effective differentiation strategy. This multi-tier approach to classroom learning enables teachers to identify the abilities of individual learners and provide additional instruction to learners who may benefit from support in smaller, more targeted settings.

For more information about RTI in action, visit: Differentiated teaching at Carlton Gardens Primary School – In Our Classrooms

Explicit Teaching is one of the 10 HITS and it focuses on providing students with a sound and common understanding of the new knowledge and ideas, opportunities for group and independent practice.

The stages of the process, often simplified to "I do, we do, you do", provide multiple opportunities for differentiation.

During the "we do" phase, as teachers model the application of the new knowledge, they can assess the general level of understanding, provide feedback to the group, provide additional support to the whole class and plan for targeted interventions.

During the "you do" phase teachers can rove the room and provide individual feedback, set up small groups for additional and targeted instruction, or call individual students for conferencing.

differentiated teaching methods

As Shane suggests, one of the most common ways of differentiating learning is to differentiate the 'product'. By setting up multiple activities, teachers provide students with the opportunity to work on the same concepts and ideas, but at different levels of proficiency.

Students can therefore work within their zone of proximal development and, with the support and feedback of the teacher, gradually progress to the more challenging tasks.

To explore multiple activities in the classroom environment, watch the video: Differentiation in Maths at Sunshine College – AITSL

Multiple tasks can also be used to provide opportunities for multiple exposure, group work, targeted feedback and extension. Watch an example: Multiple activities to engage students at Humpty Doo Primary School - AITSL

Feedback plays a crucial role in differentiation. Timely and actionable feedback enables students to identify the next steps required to progress in their learning. In conjunction with clear learning intentions and success criteria, group and individualised feedback can promote self-regulation.

The use of peer-feedback can also assist students to deeply reflect on the success criteria and what their peer/themselves can do to improve their outcomes.

Watch an example of this teaching approach in action: Learning through feedback at Our Lady of Mercy College – AITSL

In a Flipped Classroom the direct instruction phase of the learning happens online and often at home instead of homework. Students can access the instructional content (usually in the form of videos prepared by their teachers) at any time.

This model provides great opportunities for differentiation as it frees up time in the classroom allowing the teacher to spend more time working with students (e.g. providing feedback, addressing group or individual needs). Students can also learn to self-regulate and forge ahead or use the recorded materials to revise content that needs revision or clarification.

Watch an example of this tactic in action: The flipped classroom model - AITSL

Extra resources and models

Effective teachers use evidence of student learning readiness, learning progress, and knowledge of individual student learning profiles, to make adjustments for individuals so that all students experience challenge, success and improved learning.

Explore HITS: Differentiation

Targeting student learning in your classroom

Updated 27 March 2023

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Using Differentiation to Challenge All Students

Whether students are ahead of their peers or behind, differentiation should ensure that all learners engage in critical thinking.

Middle school science teacher working with a small group of students

Imagine asking one of your students for advice about choosing a birthday present for a family member who’s their age and shares similar interests. When they recommend what to get, could they also explain what options to avoid and why their suggestion is the best choice? Is it likely that any of your students could give gift advice in this scenario whether their academic success was high or minimal? 

Their advice is critical thinking in action. They analyze the information about your family member’s interests and evaluate the quality of the options, including their suitability as the best fit. How do we give all learners opportunities to engage in challenging content that is differentiated based on academic needs?

A common misconception is that an effective differentiation system for readiness (i.e., skill levels) can be based on the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy or another framework, like Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. The idea is that advanced learners get activities where they analyze, evaluate, and create, while struggling learners need to build knowledge and understanding through basic applications. 

As a result, learners who struggle with a subject area are denied rich experiences that could help them see authentic uses of skills in the world outside of school. While they work on abstract school content, they see their peers engage in rich conversations, analyzing and evaluating concepts to create artifacts for a public audience. It’s like watching a three-star chef prepare a savory banquet as you prepare to eat a white bread sandwich containing iceberg lettuce.  

This oversimplified approach to differentiation denies struggling learners valuable experiences that are based on higher-order thinking, despite their capacity to analyze, evaluate, and create in their daily lives. But how do we give all learners opportunities to engage in challenging content that is differentiated based on academic needs?

Steps for Differentiating to Challenge All Learners

Start with the end in mind. Identify the core skills and concepts that make up the learning outcomes. Then collect information on your students’ preparedness, from prerequisites and minor gaps to existing mastery. Combined with students’ lived experiences, this data should inform you on how to revise and/or remix a planned complex activity.

Next, design the learning experience for all students to complete that includes a critical thinking challenge.

For students who can accomplish the skills with bridging supports , curate resources, guides, and tools that support learners’ needs while focusing on the instructional outcome. Here are some examples:

  • Recorded readings. Oral understanding can aid reading material by improving access to the information.
  • Word journals. Provide a words/terminology bank for key concepts in the subject area. Students should routinely update and review their journals.
  • Collaboration teams. Use structured protocol strategies for learner groups to explore, process, and construct content.
  • Peer support. Other learners can serve as resources as the need arises.

For students who lack prerequisite skills or conceptual understanding , plan activities that include custom supports for skills and critical thinking experiences. Here are some examples:

  • Learning stations. Have students participate in different stations where they work on prerequisite skills based on their current skill level. The teacher is one station to personalize support for students grouped by similar needs.
  • Independent work. Assign students work based on the prerequisite skills they need more practice with. The teacher meets with students for personalized support.
  • Remix the critical thinking activity. Review the activity and make a version that focuses on either fewer choices or fewer moving parts. Simplify without compromising the critical thinking experience. Or, create a version that focuses on the prerequisite skills without compromising the opportunity for critical thinking.

For students who already meet learning expectations , introduce new knowledge, skills, and/or concepts that amplify their understanding. Add these elements into the prepared critical thinking experience for more seasoning and spice. This could be included in learning stations, independent work, and other activities.

Differentiation is about meeting needs for all learners through equitable critical thinking challenges.

If we routinely review and analyze student achievement data to monitor their progress, the information tells us the specific gaps or prerequisite skills each learner needs more practice with to learn. The steps shared above take that information and add adaptations or mirrored versions of the core assignment. A different series of learning activities do not need to be created—unless that is the direction you choose based on the learner achievement data. 

Not limiting critical thinking opportunities for learners who struggle with the content helps them feel that they can do challenging work. This is an important goal for growing their self-esteem.

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Pros and Cons of Differentiated Teaching

Using Multiple Teaching Styles to Meet the Needs of Diverse Students

Differentiation is the educational practice of modifying or adapting instruction, school materials, subject content, class projects, and assessment methods to better meet the needs of diverse learners.  

In a differentiated classroom, teachers recognize that all students are different and require varied teaching methods to be successful. These include students with ​ learning disabilities who might otherwise fall behind in a traditional classroom setting.

The Traditional Teaching Approach

JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Traditional teaching methods were based on a model in which the teacher delivers instruction, typically through lecture, and then models the skill on a blackboard or overhead projector. When the teacher is finished, he or she will give the student practice work, usually from standardized textbooks or handouts.

The teacher would then proceed to review the students' work and evaluate his or her knowledge with a pencil and paper test. Afterward, the teacher would provide feedback, usually in the form of a grade.

While generations of Americans have received instruction in a traditional way, modern educators recognize that the style fails to meet the needs of diverse learners, including those with learning disabilities such as ​ dyslexia , dyscalculia ,​ and auditory processing disorder (APD).  

Pros and Cons of Traditional Teaching

The traditional method of teaching isn't entirely without value. It can be helpful to evaluate the pros and cons of the time-worn practice.

School evaluation by school boards and departments of education are more easily performed

Subjects and skills are taught in a specific, cohesive order.

Teacher assessments are more straightforward

Teaching is uniform and consistent

Based on a false assumption that children are all on a level playing field and that some are "meant" to fail.

Curriculum and teacher role are inflexible

Instruction focuses on memorization rather than higher-level thinking skills, placing students who struggle with memorization at a disadvantage

Systems are less able to keep up with student needs

The needs of students with diverse backgrounds and disabilities are rarely met

The Differentiated Teaching Approach

From the perspective of the individual student, few can argue that differentiated teaching doesn't have distinct advantages over traditional teaching.

The aim of differentiation is to employ a variety of teaching styles to ensure that students can approach learning in different ways but with the same or similar outcomes.

Differentiation is meant to stimulate creativity by helping students make stronger connections, understand relationships, and grasp concepts in a more intuitive way.

Differentiated instruction can be used in any number of subject areas. It may involve:

  • Providing auditory learners with audiobooks
  • Providing kinesthetic learners interactive assignment online
  • Providing tactile learners with multi-sensory teaching materials
  • Providing textbooks for visual and word learners

Similarly, class assignments would be based on how the individual student approaches learning. Some might complete an assignment on paper or in pictures, while others may choose to give an oral report or create a three-dimensional diorama.

Differentiation can also alter how the classroom itself is organized. Students may be broken up into groups based on their approach to learning, or they may be provided with quiet spaces to study alone if they choose.

While support for differentiated teaching is growing, it is not without its shortcomings and benefits.

Children take on more of the responsibility for learning

Differentiation effective for both high-ability students and those with a disability

Engagement in learning tends to be stronger because it addresses the children as equal individuals

May require more resources for a school or school district to implement

Many schools lack the ​professional development resources to properly train faculty

Requires much more lesson-planning time for teachers

Smale-Jacobse AE, Meijer A, Helms-Lorenz M, Maulana R. Differentiated Instruction in Secondary Education: A Systematic Review of Research Evidence . Front Psychol . 2019;10:2366. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02366

Bishara S, Wubbena Z.  Active and traditional teaching, self-image, and motivation in learning math among pupils with learning disabilities . Cogent Educ . 2019;5(1). doi:10.1080/2331186X.2018.1436123

van Geel M, Keuning T, Frèrejean J, Dolmans D, van Merriënboer J, Visscher AJ.  Capturing the complexity of differentiated instruction . J Sch Eff Sch Improv . 2019;30(1):51-67. doi:10.1080/09243453.2018.1539013

By Ann Logsdon Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities. 

Fostering Growth Mindsets among Teachers and Students in Differentiated Classrooms

differentiated teaching methods


In this webinar, we delve into the power of differentiated instruction and cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom. We explore how teachers can adapt their teaching methods to meet the diverse needs of students, embracing their unique strengths and learning styles.

Understanding the contrast between growth and fixed mindsets, we emphasise strategies for fostering a growth mindset environment where students believe in their ability to learn and grow. By praising effort, providing constructive feedback, and modelling growth mindset behaviours, educators can create a positive and inclusive learning atmosphere.

Join us to learn how to develop a growth mindset, appreciate student uniqueness, and implement effective differentiation strategies to empower all learners.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Develop a growth mindset in themselves and their students
  • Recognise and appreciate student diversity, moving away from one-size-fits-all approaches
  • Differentiate learning experiences based on individual learning preferences
  • Implement strategies to nurture a growth mindset in the classroom for optimal student achievement

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  1. Differentiated Instruction: Examples & Classroom Strategies

    According to Tomlinson, teachers can differentiate instruction through four ways: 1) content, 2) process, 3) product, and 4) learning environment. 1. Content. As you already know, fundamental lesson content should cover the standards of learning set by the school district or state educational standards.

  2. What is differentiated instruction?

    At a glance. Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to students' different learning needs. It lets students show what they know in different ways. It doesn't replace the goals in a child's IEP or 504 plan. Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to all students ...

  3. 50 Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples for Teachers

    The use of "evens and odds" for math worksheets is a good example of differentiated instruction for special ed students. (DI Areas: Product, Assessment) Scaffolding: Provide support for students by breaking down learning into manageable chunks. Find multiple ways to scaffold instruction here.

  4. Differentiated Instruction

    Differentiated Instruction (DI) is fundamentally the attempt to teach differently to different students, rather than maintain a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. Other frameworks, such as Universal Design for Learning, enjoin instructors to give students broad choice and agency to meet their diverse needs and interests.

  5. 18 Teacher-Tested Strategies for Differentiated Instruction

    By Lina Raffaelli. December 5, 2014. Most educators agree that differentiated instruction can dramatically help students to succeed, but good differentiation needs careful planning to make sure students of all abilities are engaged and it can be a challenge when teachers are already so pressed for time. That's why we searched the Edutopia ...

  6. 9 Differentiated Curriculum And Instruction Strategies For Teachers

    1. Tiered assignments. Tiered assignments are designed to teach the same skill but will have different outcomes based on a student's starting point. For example, some students work with manipulatives to represent number amounts while others are given a number and challenged to represent it in different ways. 2.

  7. 5 Differentiated Teaching Strategies to Implement in Your Classroom

    Differentiated instruction strategies were what kept those teachers going and their students learning. Of course, as we changed to centralized schools where students around the same age were separated out to learn within grade levels, the individualized instruction common in those one-room schoolhouses slowly but surely disappeared. ...

  8. What Is Differentiated Instruction? An Overview for Educators

    Source: ASCD. Differentiated instruction means tailoring your teaching so all students, regardless of their ability, can learn the classroom material. Early one-room schoolteachers were masters of differentiation. They taught students of all ages and abilities, changing up their methods as needed.

  9. A Practical Guide to Planning for Intentional Differentiation

    These are the key elements to consider in differentiating instruction: Planning: Content, processes, and products. Learner access: Readiness, interests, and learning preferences. Environment. Much has been written to help teachers think about and provide differentiated experiences for learners that align and explain these elements.

  10. What Is Differentiated Instruction?

    What Is Differentiated Instruction? By: Carol Ann Tomlinson. Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.

  11. How to Differentiate Instruction: 10 Classroom Strategies

    5 Best Ways to Differentiate Instruction. 1. Skills-Based Grouping. In addition to students having different learning styles, they also differ in terms of their skills and abilities. One way to differentiate instruction is to allow students to participate in group projects based on their unique skillsets.

  12. A Teacher's Guide To Effective Differentiation In Teaching

    In the same way that effective teaching methods vary according to the topic, differentiated teaching varies between subjects. Skills-based subjects, such as English, are likely to favour differentiation by outcome. All students complete the same activity but with different lists of success criteria.

  13. 16 differentiated instruction tips

    Differentiated instruction tips. 1) Present content in different ways. E.g. using graphic organisers, Venn diagrams, timelines or flowcharts. 2) Divide a long text into manageable chunks. 3) Simplify the text to eliminate any unnecessary vocabulary and use simpler language. There are online tools such as online readability tests or English ...

  14. Strategies For Differentiated Instruction

    Ways To Use Strategies For Differentiated Instruction In Your Classroom. by Terry Heick. Differentiation is a simple idea that's less simple to actuate. Differentiation is a rational approach to meeting the needs of individual learners, but actually making it possible on a daily basis in the classroom can be a challenge. ...

  15. Ch. 12 Differentiated Instruction

    Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment.Differentiation is commonly used in "heterogeneous grouping"—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of ...

  16. Differentiated Instruction: Strategies and Examples for the Classroom

    Differentiated instruction is an educational approach that focuses on adapting teaching methods and materials to accommodate the diverse learning needs of students in a classroom. The primary goal of differentiated instruction is to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn, engage, and succeed, regardless of their abilities ...

  17. Differentiated Instruction as an Approach to Establish Effective

    Differentiated instruction is often presented in a fragmented fashion in studies. For example, it can be defined as a specific set of strategies (Bade & Bult, 1981; Woolfolk, 2010) or studies with regard to the effectiveness of DI often focus on specific differentiated classroom actions, rather than on DI as a whole-classroom approach (Smale-Jacobse et al., 2019).

  18. 20 Differentiated Instruction Strategies and Examples

    To help create lessons that engage and resonate with a diverse classroom, below are 20 differentiated instruction strategies and examples. Available in a condensed and printable list for your desk, you can use 16 in most classes and the last four for math lessons. Try the ones that best apply to you, depending on factors such as student age.

  19. Differentiated instruction

    Therefore, differentiation is an organized, yet flexible way of proactively adjusting teaching and learning methods to accommodate each child's learning needs and preferences to achieve maximum growth as a learner. Pre-assessment An important part of differentiated instruction and assessment is determining what students already know so as not ...

  20. High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching

    High impact teaching strategies: Differentiation. Differentiation is a key high impact teaching strategy (HITS) used by teachers to craft lessons that provide the right amount of support and challenge for every student. Professional learning Communities (PLC) Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that ...

  21. Using Differentiation to Challenge All Students

    Differentiated Instruction. Using Differentiation to Challenge All Students. ... Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. ...

  22. Differentiation strategies: a teacher's guide

    What is Differentiation in the classroom? Differentiation is a way to modify instruction to meet students' individual needs.Teachers may differentiate process, content, resources, or the learning environment. A flexible grouping and ongoing assessment can make differentiation one of the most successful instructional strategies.. Differentiation is a teaching approach that modifies instruction ...

  23. Pros and Cons of Differentiated Teaching in School

    Differentiation is the educational practice of modifying or adapting instruction, school materials, subject content, class projects, and assessment methods to better meet the needs of diverse learners.   In a differentiated classroom, teachers recognize that all students are different and require varied teaching methods to be successful.

  24. Ideas for Differentiated Instruction in Early Childhood Education

    Ideas for Implementing Differentiated Instruction in Early Childhood Education. In early childhood, children exhibit a wide range of abilities and learning styles, making it essential for educators to differentiate their instruction. Here are some examples of methods and strategies educators can use to support children of all levels ...

  25. Fostering Growth Mindsets among Teachers and Students in Differentiated

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