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Teacher Tested Strategies for Differentiated Instruction

Most educators agree that differentiated instruction can dramatically help students to succeed, but good differentiation needs careful planning to make sure students of all abilities are engaged and it can be a challenge when teachers are already so pressed for time.

That's why we searched the Edutopia community for tips and strategies that can help with differentiating instruction.

Teacher Tested Strategies for Differentiated Instruction

  1. 1. 18 Teacher-Tested Strategies for Differentiated Instruction from the Edutopia Community
  2. 2. Introduction Most educators agree that differentiated instruction helps students, but the reality is that implementation can be a challenge when faced with students with diverse needs and abilities. In this presentation, you’ll find 18 helpful tips and strategies for differentiating instruction contributed by the educators of Edutopia’s community through various discussions and blogs. You can join Edutopia’s community at
  3. 3. They Own It Tip: Use inquiry to encourage student ownership “I find that inquiry activities and open-ended projects allow for maximum creativity and differentiation. I allow my students to collaborate on and evaluate our rubrics to give them ownership. Project-based learning allows my students to go at their own pace and helps them push themselves at their own level. When the student owns the learning process differentiation naturally occurs.” —Chad Brannon
  4. 4. Interest Surveys Tip: Survey and tie student interests into content “Interest surveys are a great tool. For example, students can compute football scores for math (data analysis, etc.). According to brain researchers, relating math and other subjects to personal experience, jumpstarts the brain.” —Diane Van Dyke, Middle School Special Education Teacher (NJ)
  5. 5. The Five Senses Tip: Stimulate the students’ senses “I differentiate by incorporating visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic components in my lessons as much as possible. I use graphic organizers frequently to aid in comprehension and to map out ideas as we cover key skills. I use picture cards to correspond with the vocabulary words, so that the students have a visual support to picture the word's meaning in their mind. I use manipulative objects in math class quite frequently. Of course, I also have to modify assignments and assessments for some of my students, but they are still focusing on the same skills and concepts that their peers are working on.” —Johnna, 3th/4th Special Education Teacher, Chester, WV
  6. 6. Cross-Training Tip: Think about the whole child, use multiple approaches “Placing learners into a single learning style container ignores the reality of the whole person. Teachers need to cross-train students by using two or more approaches to thinking styles profiles when planning differentiation...This is where learning profile cards, student profile surveys, and student learning perceptual quick surveys can provide detailed insight about students that spans across multiple thinker processing categories.” —John McCarthy, Education Consultant & Blogger, “How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching”
  7. 7. Variety is the Spice of DI Tip: Give students choice, vary your assessments “Differentiation comes from giving students choices in how they complete a targeted goal. Each format hits the essential question, but scaffolds it in a way that will allow the student to express their knowledge in a way best suited to them. I equate it to the variety cereal pack. Would you want to do the same type of assessment day in and day out? You still want to eat cereal right? Just not the same kind everyday.” —Sarah Minnick, Online High School Social Studies Teacher, Pennsylvania
  8. 8. Do Your Homework Tip: Gather background information on your students prior to the start of the class/year “Generally, within the first couple of weeks I can get an idea of what prior knowledge my children have retained and what direction I need to begin with them. However, my first action is reviewing student's files and finding out as much information as I can prior to their arrival into my class.” —Deborah, Pre-K Teacher, North Carolina
  9. 9. Feedback Tip: Offer individualized feedback for each student “I work with students who experience some difficulty with executive function -- the ability to self-monitor and self-prioritize tasks. I try to provide personalized, flexible work plans and individualized feedback that students can use to track the completion and mastery of their own work and learning to help them organize themselves rather than depending on adults in the classroom to do that for them.” —Chad Sansing, Middle School Humanities Teacher, Charlottesville, VA
  10. 10. Shoo Away the Monster Tip: Remember you are probably already differentiating “I hear in professional development meetings all the time that no one ever has time for X or Y. It’s in part about priorities, and it's in part giving people easy ideas so that "differentiation" is not come scary monster -- it may be something they are already doing already, but just don't realize it.” —Whitney Hoffman, Producer LD Podcast
  11. 11. That’s Not Fair! Tip: Explain fairness to avoid competition/ostracizing “I co-teach in a 4th grade inclusive classroom. We always like to remind our students that fair is not everyone getting the same thing, but rather everyone getting what they need to be successful...Going over this concept has helped eliminate a competitive mindset in our students, where they are overly concerned about their assignment or project in comparison with their peers.” —Jon Wopat, Special Education Teacher
  12. 12. Peer to Peer Tip: Assign peer helpers during group work to help with accountability “We have a hard time finding ways to help our sixth graders learn different concepts and stay focused. We assigned each student a peer helper and they responded well to that. They assist each other in the work. The peer helper makes sure that the student got all the notes copied and completed their work for that day...” —bjames, Special Education Teacher
  13. 13. Unique Strengths Tip: Share your own struggles/strengths with students “With the students I teach, I often find that their confidence and self-esteem is pretty damaged...Much of what I do to differentiate is to find what they are good at and help them begin to be successful. EVERYONE is good at something and EVERYONE has difficulty in something...I share with students that I'm a really bad speller...I share my shortcomings with them and how I overcame them.” —Erika Saunders, Middle School Teacher
  14. 14. Mini-Lessons Tip: Use mini-lessons to reinforce goals “In addition to being a great management strategy to prevent ‘time sucks’ in class, mini-lessons are a great way to differentiate. Perhaps you ‘offer’ mini- lessons to support your students' learning. After reflection and goal setting, this is a great way to have them connect their goals to specific mini-lessons. Not all students may need the mini-lesson, so you can offer or demand it for the students who will really benefit.” —Andrew Miller, Blogger, “Six Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in Project-Based Learning”
  15. 15. Let Your Questions Be Open Tip: Ask open-ended questions “Some kids will give elaborate sentences, and others more to the point. Some won't answer the question or prompt at all, but will write something completely different. Some will surprise you with their understanding and depth of knowledge. This sort of prompt or question will let every kid, regardless of their ability, approach the problem and give you a better sense of what they know than a multiple choice test ever will.” —Whitney Hoffman, Producer LD Podcast
  16. 16. The Core Material Tip: Figure out what’s essential “My answer is to not try to cover it all...Choose the essential standards for your course and hit them very hard from multiple perspectives and with engaging activities and appropriate practice...Expect mastery of the core material from all students but be reasonable...This to me is the heart of differentiation: challenge each student appropriately and engagingly.” —Scott Gunderson
  17. 17. Mix ‘n Match Tip: Group students with their strengths and interests in mind “Knowing how to group students is key. If you can find students with similar interests and existing friendships, these groups can be powerful. Also, just because the students have different learning abilities doesn't make them less valuable to the group. For example, a dyslexic student might excel in leadership qualities whereas a gifted & talented student might be an introvert. Both can help each other by working together.” —Melissa Hanson, High School English Teacher
  18. 18. Aim High Tip: Set high expectations and support growth “I swing for the that I mean I teach to the top of the class and figure a way to get the rest to get up there. If you do that, they learn to expect more from themselves and they learn to be a team...helping each other do more than they thought they could and finding ways to compensate.” —Marsha Ratzel, Middle School Math/Science Teacher, Leawood, KS
  19. 19. By the Clock Tip: Consider a time limit for homework “I differentiate homework, giving a base assignment and requiring 20 minutes of honest work, rather than completion of the problems. My experience is that the majority of the students will complete the assignment, while those with real difficulty will work 20 minutes and have a parent sign off to that effect (not my requirement, but one self-imposed by students and/or parents).” —JM, Middle School Math Teacher
  20. 20. Goals, Not Labels Tip: Group based on goals, not labels “Defining student potential based upon the labels they've been given is a mistake. I often find students that have been labeled as underachievers provide unique and resourceful perspectives to the classroom. Gifted students get bored if not challenged. The key for me has been to keep goals attainable and provide suitable, varied resources.” —DC the Coteacher, 7th/8th Grade Language Arts Teacher
  21. 21. Additional Resources More tips from Edutopia and around the web: ● Edutopia’s Differentiated Instruction: Resource Roundup includes articles, videos, links, and other resources that offer advice for differentiating for diverse groups of learners and needs. ● John McCarthy’s Two-Part “DI Myths” Blog Series: o Part 1: Myth-Busting Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths o Part 2: There's No Time to Differentiate: Myth-Busting DI, Part 2 ● TeachThought: What Differentiated Instruction Is–And Is Not ● Schools That Work: What Works for Differentiating Instruction in Elementary School ● Cult of Pedagogy: A Starter Kit for Differentiation
  22. 22. Reading Suggestions Book recommendations from Edutopia’s community: ● Wormeli, Rick: “Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom” (2006) ● Diller, Debbie: “Practice with Purpose” (2005) ● Fox, Jenifer & Hoffman, Whitney: “The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists” (2011)
  23. 23. Special thanks go to the educators who contributed to this presentation. For more tips and tactics, visit