Differentiated Instruction: Definition, Examples, and Strategies

Learn how you can get started with differentiated instruction
Contributed By

Kristen Cole

Education Writer

Differentiated Instruction: Definition, Examples, and Strategies

Posted in Pro Tips | May 17, 2019

Imagine a teacher walking around the room as students work on an assignment at their seats. One student is speedily writing down the answers, which are correct upon observation. Another student two seats away stares hard at the question trying to figure out the answer or maybe figure out the question itself. Yet another student twirls the pencil around on her finger between scribbling answers down that are incorrect as she bobs her head to the music playing in her headphones. Each student learns differently, but they all need to learn something. Differentiating instruction can help students achieve no matter how they learn and what they know.

What is differentiating?

Each student works at a different pace for different reasons. This is why differentiated instruction is important. Differentiating instruction meets each individual student’s needs. The first part of differentiating instruction is figuring out what students know so teachers can help them learn. There are a variety of ways to do that through a pre-assessment of some sort. Great pre-assessment tools include Quizizz, Pear Deck, and Google Forms.

After figuring out what each student knows, the challenging part begins. Creating different lessons and activities to meet each student’s level and interests can be daunting, but it is necessary to help students learn. For instance, one student may struggle to identify what a noun is while another student has no problem identifying them. They are each ready for a different lesson. The first student needs an activity to help them identify nouns, and the latter might be ready to write sentences with different types of nouns. Both can achieve success on their own terms and based on their own goals.

The last part of differentiating is to assess each student’s growth. Assessments can be created to see if the first student is now able to identify nouns. Can the other student write sentences with different types of nouns? If they’ve found success with that goal, then, consequently, they’ve learned something. This allows students and teachers to be able to celebrate success no matter their academic level or individual strengths.

Differentiation in the Classroom

Differentiated instruction in the classroom can be done several ways. Grouping, varying amounts of time, or changing the task are the most common types of differentiation. As far as grouping goes, students can be grouped by ability level, interests, or intermingled levels of understanding. Grouping students by similar ability levels helps both teachers and students. When students work in groups, teachers can work 1-on-1 with each group and give very direct instruction to each group based on their needs. Intermingled groups allows for more collaboration between students. Students with better understanding of the content can help their peers who need it. These types of groups can function a little more independently.

Varying the amount of time or changing the task are great alternatives to grouping. Some students can breeze right through an assignment while others need more time. Giving students a task list allows them to move at their own pace. Changing the task might look more like allowing students to choose the type of final outcome, like a project. Options are always a great way to keep students engaged and inspire creativity.

Differentiated Instruction Examples

One way to help differentiate the classroom is to have students work in groups to move through several stations around the room. With 3-5 stations, students can work together on skills that everyone needs to know on their own. The teacher can work with individual groups at one of those stations, so students get individualized lessons designed for what they need to learn in the unit.

Another example of differentiating instruction is creating literature circles. While this sounds like an English concept, it can be applied in any class where you can group students with leveled texts. Students could all be reading about the Civil War, but they could be reading a text that is at their reading level.

Grouping students by their learning styles is another way to differentiate instruction within the classroom. Students who are auditory learners will work better together because they probably have similar styles of communication.

A final way to differentiate the classroom is with leveled graphic organizers and worksheets. An LMS is very beneficial for differentiating instruction this way. If students are learning about problem and solution in an English class. Teachers can assign struggling students a task where they have to identify the problem and solution of a text. The middle group of students would not only have to identify the problem and solution within the story, but also create a different solution of their own. The group of students who are ready for extensions would identify the problem and solution as well as create two different solutions and explain why they might not work in solving the problem. The teacher can assign each of these individually so that students may not even know that they are learning different aspects of the same skill.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

Teachers can differentiate their classrooms by altering the content, process, product, or learning environment for students. Changing these different aspects of a classroom can help students feel more comfortable and experience more success.

Changing the content of a lesson involves how students gain access to the information. Teachers can modify content by using the different learning styles and different senses to teach a lesson. Give a mini lesson where you show students how to accomplish the task followed by hands-on activities. Use videos to introduce or reinforce the day’s topic.

Altering the process to include differentiated instruction might look like a flipped classroom. This is where students watch a video about the next day’s topic at home, then when they arrive in class, the teacher adds a little more depth to the material. Class then is spent working on the assignment or classwork. This offers the teacher an opportunity to walk around the room and see what students need help with and how they are doing with the material. Students also have an opportunity to seek help from the teacher instead of waiting to get their questions answered upon return to school. Immediate feedback builds confidence in students and guides teachers in future instruction.

To change the product using differentiated instruction, giving choices for final products other than assessments would be a good option. Teachers could create projects for the same unit that pique the interest of different learning styles. Students can then choose which project to complete while still demonstrating mastery of the content.

Lastly, modifying the learning environment for differentiated instruction can be as simple as allowing a student to work in a quieter environment in the hallway or even sitting on the floor. These might sound simple, but they can help students feel more at ease which will help them complete the task more efficiently and accurately.

Differentiated Assessment

Differentiating assessments is just as effective as differentiating instruction. It involves more formative assessments than summative assessments. These should be small checkpoints throughout a unit to see how well students are learning material. These assessments provide a peek into what each student knows. These formative assessments can be exit tickets, Google Forms, Socrative, or myriad other strategies and tools.

Differentiated assessment might also include a take home test. This only works for complicated assessments where students have to do more than remember an answer. A take home test gives students time to complete the task.

Students could also create the test. Once everyone has learned the material, a committee could be created that would create test questions and the answer key. They would have to work together to check each other’s work. Those students then would not have to take the test later since they have already proven that they know the material.

Another option is exemption from tests. Students who can show they have mastered the material through homework assignments and grades as well as any formative assessments could be exempt from taking the test.

Differentiated instruction can seem like a daunting task trying to meet the needs of each individual student each and every day. Use this guide for a few tips and strategies for incorporating new differentiating ideas into the classroom.

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