Differentiated Instruction

So far in this discussion, we have ignored the obvious variety among students. Yet their diversity is a reality that every teacher recognizes. Whatever goals and plans we make, some students learn the material sooner or better than others. For any given goal or objective, some students need more time than others in order to learn. And any particular teaching strategy will prove more effective with some students than others. Effective teaching requires differentiated instruction—providing different materials, arrangements, and strategies to different students. The differentiation can include unique structural arrangements in the school, such as special tutoring for individuals or special classes for small groups needing particular extra help. Differentiation can also include extra attention or coaching within a classroom for individual students or small groups (Tomlinson, 2006; Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007).

Video 8.5.1. Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not as Hard as You Think provides an introduction to differentiation in instruction.

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.

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)

Video 8.5.2. Differentiating Instruction: How to Plan Your Lessons provides suggestions for including differentiation in lesson planning.

The Debate on Equity 

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 Implication for Universal Design for Learning

To differentiate instruction is to recognize students’ varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, and interests; and to react responsively. As Tomlinson notes in her recent book Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2014), teachers in a differentiated classroom begin with their current curriculum and engaging instruction. Then they ask, what will it take to alter or modify the curriculum and instruction so that each learner comes away with the knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary to take on the next important phase of learning. Differentiated instruction is a process of teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. Teachers, based on characteristics of their learners’ readiness, interest, and learning profile, may adapt or manipulate various elements of the curriculum (content, process, product, affect/environment). These are illustrated in the table below which presents the general principles of differentiation by showing the key elements of the concept and the relationships among those elements.

Table 8.5.1. Principles of differentiation by key elements


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:

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

The Principles identified that shape differentiation include

  • creating an environment conducive to learning
  • identifying a quality foundational curriculum
  • informing teaching and learning with assessments
  • designing instruction based on assessments collected
  • creating and maintaining a flexible classroom

Teacher Practices are also essential to differentiation, highlighted as

  • proactive planning to address student profiles
  • modifying instructional approaches to meet student needs
  • teaching up (students should be working just above their individual comfort levels)
  • assigning respectful tasks responsive to student needs—challenging, engaging, purposeful
  • 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 the 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 ongoing 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 support, additional motivation; and varied tasks, materials, or equipment for different students in the classroom.


  • Initial and ongoing assessment of student readiness and growth are essential. Meaningful pre-assessment naturally leads to functional and successful differentiation. Incorporating pre- and ongoing 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 8.5.2). 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 for employing teaching methods of UDL to support this lesson in Table 8.5.3. 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 8.5.2. 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.
Source: Hall, Vue, Meyer, 2004.

Table 8.5.3. 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 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?
Source: Hall, Vue, Meyer, 2004.

Training in Differentiated Instruction

The IRIS Center of Peabody College, Vanderbilt University provides a training module for those that wish to learn more about Differentiated instruction: Maximizing the learning of all students.


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