Differentiated instruction is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that raises achievement for all students.” - Carol Tomlinson

Differentiation is a hot topic in education these days. It is frequently misunderstood, which leads it to become a controversial issue. Often teachers feel that the need to differentiate is one more thing to do, when in fact they are probably doing it already! We’ll walk you through the basis of teaching with differentiation and three simple steps to help you apply it in your classroom.

The Mindset

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Teaching with differentiation starts with a mindset. You need to be willing to be flexible to adjust both the curriculum and your presentation of information rather than expecting students to modify themselves to your teaching. To say it in another way: you need to meet the students where they are instead of expecting them to meet you. Hopefully you will teach students who will rise to the occasion and be motivated enough to go above and beyond what you ask of them. Not all of them will be though, which is why you have to be open to differentiating how you teach in order to help your students be successful. If you have the mindset of your students modifying themselves to your teaching style, your classroom can become combative and thus not very effective.

This may be hard, but a key point of differentiated learning is letting go of the reins a little, and letting your students show you how they learn best. This means you won’t be able to make all the decisions, but rather steer the students in the right direction.

Once you have the correct mindset, implement these two simple steps:

  1. Know where your students are. In order to identify the abilities of your students, some sort of pre-assessment needs to happen. This can be learning style inventories, self-assessments, or content area tests depending on what type of information you are gathering. It is crucial to know your students and their strengths and weaknesses as soon as possible in order to be able to determine which students need more support and which need challenging. This also lets you see what your students already know, which will prevent you wasting time by covering topics that your students are already well versed in. However, it also means you can spot holes in their learning, to make sure you don’t miss anything important out.
  2. Identify areas in curriculum that can be adapted. In all curriculums there is room to change or modify based on the needs of your specific students. Think about pacing, delivery options or how to incorporate strategies like cooperative learning in order to differentiate successfully.

How to Differentiate

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There are three main areas you need to focus on to ensure you are using the differentiation technique correctly. These are content, process, and product.

1. Content

Use your pre-assessment to identify certain areas of the content that are problem areas or have already been mastered. Most likely you’ll have small groups of students who already have prior knowledge and don’t need to spend much time on certain content areas. They can work on an extension project while you cover the basics for the students who need it.

It is also important to look at how you are delivering the content, and whether this is appropriate for everyone. This covers how you suggest students access information (books, online, handouts, etc.), what information you give them to study and also how they study, whether this be on their own, in pairs or in a group. This can let you think outside the box a little, and design some creative learning for your content, such as games, blogging or using social media.

This means all your students should learn in a way that is the most ideal for them, but also ensures that everyone is working towards the same end goal.

2. Process

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Vary your process as much as possible in order to engage with your students. This is where the various learning styles come in to play, as you may choose to deliver your content in a way that adapts to your students learning style, or you can go in the other direction, and look for the method that would challenge them the most.

Presentation styles are also a factor, as you may choose to deliver in your content in a number of different ways. While some students may prefer to study from a book, others may prefer to have it read to them, or even complete tasks based on the content. You may need to constantly revisit how you are teaching in order to be as effective as possible for all students.

3. Product

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The product is what your students produce at the end of the learning experience, whether that be completing a written test, writing an evaluation or participating in a project. Be willing to accept different forms of assignments, or products, from your students. Certain students may excel in oral presentations while others will demonstrate their best work through a writing assignment. If your goal is to ascertain whether or not your students mastered the material, the type of product shouldn’t matter as much. Be open to accepting a variety of assessments or projects as long as your students are learning.

It is also important that your students are constantly reflecting on the work they are doing. This lets both the students and the teacher to see what is working and what isn’t, and lets you adjust the work they are completing and how you are delivering it. Reflection also means that students are able to set goals for future learning, so they constantly have something to work towards.


It can be a little daunting to think about raising achievement for all students, regardless of their prior knowledge, experience or ability level. That is what makes effective teaching a challenge! It IS possible though, if you know your students and are willing to have the correct mindset. Most often if your students know that you are committed to helping them succeed, half the battle is already won. Not only does this let your students find a learning style that works for them, it will also let you explore a side of teaching you might not have experienced before, so everyone gets a chance to expand their knowledge.