Table of Contents

  • Differentiation
  • Differentiation vs. Scaffolding
  • Philosophy, Principles and Practices
  • Content, Process and Products
  • Universal Design for Learning and  Differentiated Instruction
  • Differentiating the Process with Student Choice Boards
  • Voices from the Field

Differentiation. Authored by: S. Abbott (Ed.). Provided by: Great Schools Partnership. Located at: http://edglossary.org/differentiation/. Project: The Glossary of Education Reform. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

fruit bowlDifferentiation 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.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 preference (the ways in which students like to learn the material best)


Key Takeaways

Also called “Differentiated Instruction, (DI)” 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).

Excerpts from Applications of Educational Technology by Susan Stansberry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

Don’t forget to challenge advanced learners.  (Bloom’s Higher Order Thinking Skills)

  • Design activities that are more complex, abstract, independent, and/or multistep.
  • Ask students to tell the story from a different point of view.
  • Pose a challenge question or task that requires them to think beyond the concrete and obvious response (from the newly learned material) to more abstract ideas and new use of the information.
  • Ask students to place themselves into the story or time period and write from the first-person point of view.
  • Require more complex expression of ideas: different types of sentences, synonyms, more than one adjective or action (verb) to describe what’s happening.
  • Ask students to consider “What if?” scenarios
  • Provide multistep math problems.
  • Require that metaphors and similes, idiomatic expressions, or specific literary elements be included in their writing.
  • Include distractors
  • Do not provide a visual prompt.
  • Ask students to make text-to-text and text-to-world connections (more abstract than text-to-self connections).
  • Ask students to suggest tips or hints that would help others who struggle to make sense of the information.
  • Require students to note relationships and point out connections among ideas: compare and contrast; cause and effect; problem and solution; sequence, steps, or change over time; advantages and disadvantages; benefits; etc.
  • Provide a problem or model that does not work; have students problem-solve.
  • Have students create their own pattern, graph, experiment, word problem, scenario, story, poem, etc.
  • Have students use the information in a completely new way (Design an awareness campaign about . . .; Create a flyer to inform . . .; Write/give a speech to convince . . .; Write an article to educate . . .; Write an ad to warn others about . . .; Design a program to solve the problem of . . .)

(Susan Stansberry)

Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares many 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)

HLP 15 Provide scaffolded supports.

Scaffolded supports provide temporary assistance to students so they can successfully complete tasks that they cannot yet do independently and with a high rate of success. Teachers select powerful visual, verbal, and written supports; carefully calibrate them to students’ performance and understanding in relation to learning tasks; use them flexibly; evaluate their effectiveness; and gradually remove them once they are no longer needed. Some supports are planned prior to lessons and some are provided responsively during instruction.

Excerpts from Applications of Educational Technology by Susan Stansberry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

Scaffolding for struggling learners

  • Offer teacher direction (reteaching with a different method)
  • Provide a partially completed graphic organizer or outline.
  • Allow the student to work with a reading partner, study buddy, or learning partner. (Buddy-up an English language learner (ELL) with another student.) This will provide peer support for collaborative learning.
  • Provide out-of-sequence steps for students to reorganize.
  • Allow additional time.
  • Allow students to use class notes, textbooks, and/or other classroom resources to complete the task.
  • Provide a cloze (fill-in-the-blank) paragraph (with or without a word box) for students whose language is extremely limited or for those who struggle with grapho-motor skills.
  • Provide a model or exemplar (of a similar problem solved or a sample of the type of writing expected).
  • Give a framed paragraph or essay (with sentence starters to help organize the writing).
  • Furnish step-by-step directions; break down the task.
  • Provide guided questions.
  • Provide hints or tips.
  • Supply a word bank and definitions.
  • Color-code different elements; highlight for focusing; provide “masks and markers” for focused attention on specific text.
  • Support with visuals, diagrams, or pictures.
  • Provide sentence strips, sticky labels with terms, or manipulatives (plastic coins, Judy clocks, Unifix cubes, fraction tiles, number lines, algebraic tiles, calculators, etc.).
  • Provide words on labels for students to simply pull off and place appropriately.
arrowTo read more about Scaffolding, go to:   Lombardi, P. (2019). Instructional Methods, Strategies, and Technologies to Meet The Needs of All Learners. Retrieved from https://granite.pressbooks.pub/teachingdiverselearners/, Chapter on Scaffolding

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

Element Traditional Example Differentiated Example
Practice A math teacher explains how to calculate slope to the entire class and gives students fifteen problems to practice. A math teacher pre-tests students to determine their understanding of critical mathematical skills and then arranges students into groups based on their learning progress and understanding. Some students work online to practice the skills, some work in groups with the teacher, and some work individually with occasional teacher support.
Process In an art class, students complete the following activities in order: write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and then compile artifacts for a portfolio of their art. Students determine the order in which they will write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and compile artifacts for a portfolio of work. Some tasks can be done at home and some in class, and some can be done collaboratively and some individually.
Products In a social studies class, students write a four-page essay arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources. Students may elect to write an essay, op-ed, or persuasive speech, or they may create a short documentary arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources.
Content In English class, students read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and discuss the messages it conveys about race and racism in the United States. Students choose between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Invisible Man to discuss different messages about race and racism in the United States. The three groups share their knowledge with each other.
Assessment  In a math class, students take an exam and are given a percentage grade based on how many answers were correct. Students take an exam and receive feedback on which mathematics standards they have mastered, which standards they are making progress on, and which standards need more attention. The feedback suggests remedies for students with learning gaps and new projects for students who have mastered all the required skills and knowledge.
Grouping  Students are either grouped as a full class or they work independently most of the time. Teachers use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Students may be working independently, in small groups, in pairs, or using technology. Some groupings are by choice and some are assigned based on common learning needs. Some groupings or individual students work closely with the teacher and others have more independence.
Interest In a social studies class, the teacher assigns a single topic, such as the Civil War, for a unit or project, and all students research the same historical event. The teacher poses a question, such as “Why do nations go to war?” Students may select a military conflict that interests them most and address the question in different ways—for example, one student may choose to read historical literature about World War II, while another student may research films about the Vietnam War.
Readiness In an English course, the teacher plans out the course topics and reading assignments in advance, and all students work through the same series of readings, lessons, and projects at the same pace. The teacher evaluates students to determine what they already know, and then designs lessons and projects that allow students to learn at different levels of difficulty, complexity, or independence. For example, teachers may determine reading levels and then assign a variety of texts, reflecting different degrees of difficulty, to ensure an appropriate level of reading challenge for each student.
Learning Preference In a math course, every student receives the same problems and assignments, which are all structured in the same way. The teacher assigns a topic: solving quadratic equations. Some students choose to work with a software program that uses visual representations and simulations, other students work in teams and solve a series of problems from a book that increase in difficulty, and still others watch an online tutorial that can be viewed multiple times until the concept becomes clear.


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.

Hall, T., Vue, G., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2003). Differentiated instruction and implications for UDL implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2014). Retrieved [6.20.2020] from http://aem.cast.org/about/publications/2003/ncac-differentiated-instruction-udl.html This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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)

According to the authors of differentiated instruction, several key elements guide differentiation in the education environment through which teachers may differentiate instruction: content, process, product and affect/environment (see Table 1) (Tomlinson, 2014). These are described in the four sections below, and they help to serve as guidelines for forming an understanding of and developing ideas around differentiation of instruction.


  • 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.

UDL and DI

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.

(Myths and Misconceptions, n.d)

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

UDL Guideline/Checkpoint Differentiated Instruction Features
Provide multiple examples. The teacher provides multiple examples throughout the lesson with multiple models, practice activities, and additional math problems.
Highlight critical features. The teacher highlights critical features of the mathematics by stopping and calculating, checking in with students, and modeling behavior.
Provide multiple media and formats. The teacher supports understanding by identifying patterns not only in text but also in the environment of the classroom, school, etc.
Support background context. Teachers analyze or pre-test students for key pre-skills and background knowledge.
Provide ongoing, relevant feedback. In cooperative groups, students may receive feedback from the teacher and from peers.
Offer choices of content and tools. Students are assigned to one of three groups tiered by difficulty; all students are working on the same task but with varying supports.
Offer adjustable levels of challenge. Varied supports in the working groups alter the level of independence and difficulty in solving the task.

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

Barrier UDL Strategy
Deducting/constructing numeric functions. Provide different demonstrations or models of how to use the tools employed in the lesson. Provide scaffolds and prompt students in use of number patterns.
Students write rules for mathematical patterns. Provide alternative formats for students to express their interpretation of visual and representational patterns and the mathematical implications. For example, speaking, creating a diagram, numerical representations.
Creating number patterns.


Consider the background knowledge for students entering this mathematical problem. What range of supports could be made available to provide the informational knowledge so that students can focus on the problem-solving component?

(Hall, Vue, Meyer, 2004)


Differentiating the Process with Student Choice Boards

Shaelynn Farnsworth, July 2, 2019 (CC BY NC)

Teachers in a differentiated classroom understand two things. First, there are standards that guide what is taught; and second, no two learners have the same path in mastering those standards. A differentiated classroom recognizes this and provides various ways through content, product, assessment, and process to meet the needs of all students. And all of this is accomplished by design, not chance!

The one component many educators find most difficult to understand and implement is “Differentiation through Process”. Process is how the learner comes to make sense of and understand topics, concepts, and skills directly aligned to the learning goal. Varying levels of support along with student choice make differentiating process one of the most effective ways to improve student learning.

A Student Choice Board is not a hodge-podge of activities thrown together in an attempt to provide student choice in the classroom. Instead, a choice board is aligned to learning goals, has carefully selected activities to allow students to access and understand information, plus multiple options to apply and demonstrate understanding of a topic or concept.

When designing a Student Choice Board, we like to consider 3 layers of learning, Surface Learning, Deep Learning, and Application.

  1. Surface Learning – Initial exposure. Serves to support and build background knowledge in which students can construct new knowledge upon.
  2. Deep Learning – Students continue to solidify understanding and dig deeper, make connections, see examples, provides practice, and deepen their own understanding.
  3. Application – Students demonstrate mastery of content or skill by applying knowledge and demonstrating understanding.

Here is an example from a science classroom where students are exploring and learning about the Periodic Table. The directions on the side provide the learning goal and student expectations. This clarity provides students the “what” and allows them to own the “how”.

Blank Choice Board Template

arrowDifferentiating instruction for teaching English Language Learners

Lesson Planning and Teaching

Differentiated instructional strategies will be embedded in the body of the lesson plan.

DI and scaffolding







Learning Centers are a way to differentiate Instruction.

Elementary Math has a nice 5 part series that covers the major aspects of designing  Math Centers. https://mrelementarymath.com/math-centers/

voices from the field

Voices from the Field

Teacher candidates discuss differentiating instruction.

Differentiating the content, process and product

One of the ways I will be differentiating instruction within my math lesson is by providing manipulatives for my students. I will be providing them with number flashcards and a number line to help with number identification and counting on. Not every student will need these manipulatives but it will help the ones that do. We will also be differentiating the product of our lesson. We will allow the students to participate in a visual assessment for counting on or a paper bunny hop counting activity. This will allow us to see how students demonstrate their knowledge of the given subject. Overall, differentiation is a valuable tool in lesson planning and development.  Sadie Bloom


My Elementary Ed. SP is a teacher in a multi-age first and second grade classroom. The students in this class have many different abilities and interests. Throughout the day, her lessons vary from whole classroom discussion to hands-on activities to quiet observations and thinking. She also utilizes rotating stations with assigned activities based on readiness. While a lesson may start with a lecture, it can then move to demonstrations and observations, partner discussions, and a writing and coloring worksheet. Because it is a multi-age class, the activity sheets are different for the age levels, for example the first graders will get a worksheet with the lesson conclusion written and two blanks to fill in, while the second graders have to complete the entire sentence. The takeaway is the same for all students, but the work differs based on grade expectations and ability level.  Tate Van Valkenburg


Another way that traditional and differentiated instruction differ is in traditional classroom instruction “the teacher assigns the same assignment to all students”, whereas in a differentiated instruction classroom “ the teacher offers several assignment choices” (IRIS Center). This could look like the math teacher offering the students to either complete a math packet, work on posted links on IXL, or work on their ALEKS pie. The students can be working on the same content, but the teacher varied the assignments for them. This was the case this past week in the math class that I work in. The teacher posted IXL links in his Google classroom, gave the option to complete certain pages in the textbook, work on the skill on ALEKS and offered a math packet. The students were able to choose which method they wanted to use, and again, the material they were learning was the same, but the way the students presented what they were learning was different.  Michelle Shaw


 I think it is so important to assess using different methods because until we try different ways we don’t truly know which way a student can best show us what they know.  A few years back, I worked with an 8th grade student who had EBD and some other disabilities and he absolutely loved to make YouTube videos, but he hated to write. In his social studies class they were learning about WWII, as a form of assessment, rather than having him take a written short answer test his teacher allowed him to make a short film.  In this he drafted a script and had classmates as well as himself use props/costumes to demonstrate the content that he had learned.  Had his teacher asked him to demonstrate what he knew by taking the short answer exam, he would have shut down and she never would have known just how much he knew.  It just goes to show what can happen if you give students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge through a preferred method rather than something that is aversive to them. Nicole Coonrod


I just differentiated a math unit assessment this week, which proved to be so advantageous for a few of our students.  I took a small group and chunked the test into smaller parts.  I would go over the directions of the section, discuss an example or two, and then let the students complete that section independently.  Instead of giving the test in 1 part, I made three sections and the students took the test (the same test as the others) in the manner described.  The students were so much more successful taking the unit assessment in this manner than in the traditional manner.  Results can be so drastically changed just by making a few adjustments!  Kari Grimes


As a student, I would have responded much better to learning menus.  Having the ability to choose how I would demonstrate my knowledge and understanding of a unit would have been a much better option for me than to just take a test.  I have a student I tutor in Virginia who is a home school student and each unit we decide how we will assess his knowledge, so far we have used Kahoot, slides and iMovie.  The student responds much better throughout the unit since he is creating his assessment assignment. Frank Del Medico


One of my all time favorite things to do is create learning menus, especially for literacy based teaching. I am a huge believer in the power of choice for students. Easing some of the constraints of the classroom makes them all a little more productive. When making learning menus, I try to set it up so that they have a few options they will find easier and that play to their strengths, but also make sure that they eventually have to step out of their comfort zones and try something that may be more difficult as well. My learning menus have “appetizers” and “main dishes.” Appetizers might be something hands-on and fun, while main dishes will be something more comprehensive. I require students only perform a task once until all are completed, so that they don’t choose the same things over and over again. As time goes on, I eventually see what my students are trying to avoid and what they are good at by their choices for assessment. Arthur Rafus


In language arts and social studies specifically, I have seen teachers ask students to make videos about books they’ve read, make PowerPoint presentations, make cereal box book reports, dress up as a favorite character to talk about character traits, trace themselves as historical figures, and write stories/essays about tests they’ve read.

I’ve also noticed many ways of demonstrating learning through the activity in which that student teaches other students about what they have learned. This can be done in lots of subjects. In the class I was in last year, students had groups of 3-4 for reading, and would read a nonfiction book together, take notes, then create a PowerPoint presentation on the topic to teach their classmates about it. This seemed like it really helped students remember the information they learned, and showed the teacher everything they had learned. This could also be done using other types of technology, such as SMORE (an educational website where kids build something similar to a blog/newspaper), as well as just making a video in the style of a news segment, or writing a “how-to” book or an “all-about” book for classmates to read. Students seem to really like doing this because it also lets them pretend to be “the teacher”! Caitlin Dubisz


One of the ways we might differentiate product is by allowing learners to select from a tic-tac-toe board, selecting  three options to complete, or a choice board; both a means through which students demonstrate their mastery of content. It feels that differentiating product is one of the less challenging aspects of differentiation though it frequently requires a universal rubric which enables teachers to evaluate these different displays of proficiency fairly as well as input from students as to the tasks options (i.e. knowing your learners well)

Our district has revamped the middle school’s social studies program to promote personalized learning. After students select topics within the CCSS framework and then complete the various processes to master the content, they are able to select the manner in which they showcase it. Our SS choice boards allow students to pick from PowerPoint or Slide Deck presentations; blogs; videos; 3-D models; 1st person narratives or character/historical figure’s diary; etc. This allows students to demonstrate their mastery in a manner that best displays their proficiency and simultaneously appeals to their interest. Students must select a different activity from the choice board as they continue to navigate their selected topics throughout the year. We also use mastery checklists which further differentiate by giving students their must do, should do, and aspire to do. It personalizes learning while also differentiating for the learner and their current skill level while encouraging students to challenge themselves and safely expand out of their comfort zone.  Kate D’Appolonia


One of the most common ways that I see teachers differentiating content is through different presentation styles. Presentation styles are broken up into saying it, showing it, and modeling it. For example, one of my lessons that I have used in my class is going over a story plot diagram. I started off my lesson by explaining what a story plot diagram was made of (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, conflict). After, I was able to show them the plot diagram by drawing the story plot on to the white board and labeling the different parts of the diagram. Finally, I model what I was looking for by breaking down a Harry Potter book.  There are also other media options for presenting information. A teacher can use television, audio, or computer to present content to their students (p.5).

Another strategy that I have seen teachers use in the classroom is a tiered based content. The entire class will be completing the same activity or lesson objective. However, the classroom is broken up into different groups based of the different levels of difficulty. In the end, the students will be learning the same key concept in that lesson. The example given in the reading is that the first group works with the teacher throughout the activity. The second group of students work together with more challenging problems from the worksheet. The final group of students work together to complete the problems as well discuss their answers.

Differentiating content is crucial for a positive classroom environment because it allows the teacher to teach the main concept to all students while using different strategies in order for to be effective for the different types of learners in the classroom.  Lucas Fisher


At XY High School, there is an Algebra 1 class I support, whose teacher does a fantastic job of differentiating content. Within this classroom, there’s a variety of learners, some of which are ready for algebra 2 and others are challenged by solving basic algebraic equations. For a significant portion of the content and activities during this class, the teacher differentiates based on difficulty. Most often this is done through worksheets; some students receive a visually similar worksheet, but the problems or equations are at a more basic level of understanding. In addition to this, the students frequently receive small group instruction within the general education classroom, while learners at a higher level of content knowledge are given self-led discovery type assignments.

For subjects such as mathematics, I believe content differentiation is highly important since there are many prerequisite skills required for many of the higher order objectives. Without the mastery of prerequisite skills, a learner will have a slimmer chance in fortifying a deeper understanding of the latter material. Anonymous


At the high school, I often see teachers differentiating the product, especially in the humanities. However, with the factor of Covid-19, the potential for cheating on traditional tests has pushed some of the math and science teachers into offering other types of assessment, as well. In pre-algebra, a teacher gave a rubric that involved data collection and representation, but the students chose the topic and how to present their information (paper, presentation, website, video, etc.). In tenth grade science, the students were assigned a factor of climate change and had to investigate that issue more deeply. They then had to make a digital product to present their findings. In English, the students had the opportunity to share their short story on Flipgrid or through a written document. For English and Social studies (which are cotaught at the high school), I’ve also seen students illustrate the plot of a story, write a letter to a real or fictional person, make a political cartoon, write a song, make a book trailer, and build dioramas.

For my lesson, I will differentiate the process by allowing them to choose their materials to practice their math with (white board, pen and paper, or verbal responses). I will also provide a graphic organizer. I think in the case of the coordinate plane and word problems, a KWL chart might be a good idea, especially since it provides the student with an opportunity to state what they know and to see their own learning progress as they fill in the final column of what they’ve learned. Rachel Stoudt


For my lesson, I will differentiate the process by offering my case study student (and any others in my small group that need it) the use of manipulatives such as base-10 blocks to help model and break apart numbers. I will also allow those that need it the use of a multiplication chart, as I want to ensure they are mastering the concept of the lesson rather than spending all of their time on the multiplication facts within each problem. Finally, some students may need more time or a reduced number of problems to complete on the exit ticket, so I will differentiate the product if necessary by making these adjustments. Anonymous


There are many examples of differentiation in the process such as using tiered activities or learning enters to ensure each student has their own level of needs met.  Also, activities where the class is broken into small groups with each needing to master one concept can be used to differentiate based on student needs. Another way to differentiate in the area of process is through the manipulative used.  These are concrete objects that can be provided to students needing the extra assistance in comprehending a subject.  The concrete object aids in the connection to the abstract subject being taught.  The last two methods to be discussed are graphic organizers and interactive journals.  Graphic organizers come in all shapes and sizes and so can easily be used to differentiate instruction based on need.  They can be made to require deeper and more complex thought or simplified down to the bare bones to allow initial understanding.  Interactive journals, or communication journals, are a method in which the educator ‘communicates’ with their student through prompts written specifically for them.  This removes the stigma of having a different prompt from others because everyones’ are different.  When thinking of methods to differentiate one’s process, it is important to reflect first on the students’ readiness and interest with the topic as well as their individual learning profiles to ensure the most fruitful results from the differentiation can be had. Annie Lewis


By offering students different means of demonstrating their knowledge, teachers are providing ways for students to best express themselves.  This concept must be monitored in order to prevent the student from always choosing the same method.  One example I see daily for differentiating the product in my third grade classroom is when the students complete work in their reading/writing journals after we complete a chapter or two from the book we are currently reading as a class.  The students must either write or draw a picture with a short description about what is going on in the book.  They must address one of the following prompts:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Relate something from the reading to their own personal experience

By allowing each student to choose to either write a paragraph or draw a picture with a description we are differentiating the product.  We are able to further differentiate the product by allowing them to choose one of the five prompts.  We monitor it to ensure they do not always choose the same method and prompt each day.  The students enjoy this method quite a lot. Tim Fahey


I spend most of my work day in life skills classrooms so most of the products requested of the students are most always differentiated before requested. When I venture out into the general education classrooms, I see many written tests and/or papers being given as formative assessments. Differentiation of these assessments that I have requested of the teacher or have seen being given as choices include: WeVideos, PowerPoint presentations, posters, written formative assessments that are multiple choice versus short answer, as well as allowing the student to produce the product alone or in a group- just to name a few.  Sarah Carroll. 


For my lesson, I will differentiate the process by offering my case study student (and any others in my small group that need it) the use of manipulatives such as base-10 blocks to help model and break apart numbers. I will also allow those that need it the use of a multiplication chart, as I want to ensure they are mastering the concept of the lesson rather than spending all of their time on the multiplication facts within each problem. Finally, some students may need more time or a reduced number of problems to complete on the exit ticket, so I will differentiate the product if necessary by making these adjustments. Anonymous


In my lesson that I will be teaching, I will be providing skeleton notes for the students to fill in as we go through the lesson. Each step is given a visual component to help reinforce the connection and the order of the steps. Once completed as a class they are posted online to my classroom as a way for the students to access them again if they lose their copy or missed a section of the notes. Anonymous


One day per week, I teach the Unified Arts Library classes at our school.  In our current rotation, I have a Kindergarten class that has a very diverse group of learners.  We are currently working on using databases (PebbleGO) to research animals from a story that I read aloud to the class.  I shared my computer screen on the projector and taught the class how to find and navigate through the database in order to fill in the research worksheets that corresponded to their chosen animal.  While some students were able to quickly become independent researchers, others needed more support.  For one student, I had his 1:1 Paraprofessional scribe his answers as he gave them to her orally.  Another small group worked as a team to find the information on the computer, discuss what was needed for the research sheet, and write the information onto their sheet.  One student had a hard time with the sequence of the steps needed to navigate the database so I made picture cards, showing the steps, for him to follow.  By differentiating the lesson to suit the needs of this diverse group, I was able to teach the lesson to many different types of learners.  Beth Corbett


The K/1 kids I work with have also been exploring PebbleGo during library for the past couple of weeks. We are beginning a nonfiction unit, and we use this resource to help them explore topics that are interesting to them. We ask them to follow up each research session by providing information one thing they learned. For the first graders who perform at or above grade level as well as some advanced k’s, this means writing 3-4 sentences. For most of the kindergarteners as well as a few first graders, we use Padlet. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but it’s such a great tool for kids who struggle or aren’t quite there yet with their literacy. They are able to record videos of themselves talking and explaining what they learned, then are able to draw a picture to go along with it. Differentiated methods for response is so important in our classroom, as I’m sure it is in everyones!  Shayna Morin


Early Childhood Education

As an example of differentiating the process, we played bingo in my Pre-K 4 class. Each student was given a bingo card and the students were told that all the cards are different. Each card contained letters of the alphabet. For the more advanced students in the classroom their cards contained all lowercase letters. The students who are having trouble identifying their cards had all uppercase letters. The rest of the class had cards which contained both upper and lower case letters. Anonymous


At our grade level (Pre-K) differentiating content is often simplified as we are working with children who are just learning the basic concepts of math and literacy.  We have a wide range of abilities in our classes.  In one class I have students who are able to count past 20 and others who cannot count past 3, then the rest fall in between.   All of this comes with a variety of instructional supports that are tailored to the students.  At this age, anything hands on helps drive the concepts home and works for almost all students. We also love to use media, such as boom cards in instruction as they can be tailored to all abilities while being fun and interactive. Deanna Hanley


With the group of students I am working (PreK- 4 year olds) with for my upcoming lesson, I have a wide range of abilities and many of them have IEP’s. My activity allows for adult support for those who need it. I will present a graphing activity with my preschoolers. For a few examples, we will be focusing on labeling colors and sorting colors fro graphing. For others, they will  work on 1:1 correspondence and cardinality. I will give my students more or less objects based on their preassessment skills. For students with more developed fine-motor skills I will ask them to write the number totals themselves. Others will count with the help of teachers or trace the numbers.  Jillian Mercer



Image source Fruit bowl Image by Carlos Felix from Pixabay

Differentiation Graphic from: New South Wales, Differentiatiting Learning  CC BY

Applications of Educational Technology by Susan Stansberry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted

Differentiation. Authored by: S. Abbott (Ed.). Provided by: Great Schools Partnership. Located at: http://edglossary.org/differentiation/. Project: The Glossary of Education Reform. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike\

Differentiation, (2013, Nov. 7). The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/differentiation/  (CC BY NC SA)

Shaelynn Farnsworth, July 2, 2019 (CC BY NC)

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 http://aem.cast.org/about/publications/2003/ncac-differentiated-instruction-udl.html  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Myths and Misconceptions. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.alludl.ca/myths-misconceptions  (CC BY NC SA)

Updated 10.14.22