What is differentiation? Differentiated instruction means meeting students where they are. Teachers design instruction to address the diverse needs of their students and then track their progress over time. Yes, this can seem an overwhelming task for teachers.  At the same time, would it be fair to penalize students for the learning gaps they have before they even enter our classrooms?  Of course not.  We must meet them where they are since we are responsible for their growth.  Designing instruction with differentiation in mind leads to increased student achievement.

When do I differentiate? Teachers differentiate after accurately assessing the competence level of their students and determining their needs.  Assessment should be contiunous to track students’ progress and growth.

How do I differentiate?  Teachers must start with assessing students informally to see what they know. Instruction can then be planned based on student need. Examples of assessment include informal questionnaires at the beginning of lessons. Exit slips or class discussions can also be used to gauge how well students understand the concepts being taught/practiced during class time. The assessment must accurately assess the learning targets/standards and must be ongoing.  Below are just a few examples of how to begin differentiating:

  • Grouping: Mix and match often. Consider grouping by readiness level, interests, or learning styles.
  • Observing Students and Taking Notes: One of the keys to differentiated instruction is getting to know the students in our classrooms. For example, you could give an interest inventory or survey at the beginning of the semester or at the start of a unit.  You may also walk around and take notes on students behaviors during an exam or other activity. Who seems to be struggling? Who is moving quickly through? Who cannot finish in a timely manner?
  • Student Choice: The level of student engagement increases when they are given choice about topics or assignments they must create. Design lessons that have structure, but also allow for student choice/creativity. For example, I may ask students to all write a compare/contrast essay (structure), but allow them to choose their topics (choice/differentiation). Or a chemistry teacher may ask students to write procedures (structure), but then they decide what techniques to use and whether to respond with a checklist or write in a paragraph form (choice/differentiation).
  • Tiering lessons: Teach the same lesson to everyone, but vary the level of complexity to engage all students. Tiering the lesson allows all students to experience success which then motivates them to continue to engage in the learning process.
  • Challenges: Time! Time is always a challenge for teachers. Understand that you do not need to differentiate all the time for every single lesson. Whole class instruction is as much a part of a differentiated classroom as flexible groupings are. Start slow…and let student needs drive you. Even if you differentiate once a month or one lesson per unit, you will see gains in student achievement.

Watch this video to see differentiation in a high school setting.

  • As you watch consider the following:
    • Why is assessment a key part of differentiation? What kinds of assessments could/should these be?
    • What aspects of your lesson can be tiered to meet students at their level?
    • What are simple ways you can start differentiating tomorrow? How can you begin to make differentiation a regular part of your planning?


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