Differentiating Instruction

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiation means meeting learners' diverse needs and readiness levels through a planned multilayered approach (Parsons, Dodman, & Cohen Burrowbridge, 2013).

Teacher leaning over to help studentIt's a method of purposeful planning for instruction that takes into account the fact that the learners in the classroom have varying strengths, needs, interests, and preferences, but it doesn't mean meeting all needs all the time. Most teachers say they see a need for differentiation in their classes (Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2012), and differentiated instruction is equally as effective or more effective for student learning outcomes than regular whole group instruction (Reis, McCoach, Little, Muller, & Kaniskan, 2011).

While adapting instruction so that it's based on individual needs, interests, and learning profiles is key in differentiating instruction, adjusting the content, process, and product of instruction is what makes it happen (Parsons et al., 2013). When done well, differentiated instruction leads to autonomous students who feel confident in their ability to learn and who know the content (Pham, 2012; Tomlinson & Imbeau, 2012).

Planning for differentiation

Instruction is differentiated when it is planned in such a way that it builds on what a learner currently knows and can do, focusing on meaningful goals and next steps (Landrum & McDuffie, 2010). This plan involves creating many pathways to provide students with full and meaningful access to the content they need to learn.

Research shows that teachers who effectively differentiate their instruction do these three things consistently (Parsons et al., 2013):

  • routinely assess student progress in several ways
  • are well versed in effective pedagogy and teaching methods
  • are highly reflective

Student reading in libraryWhen you assess student progress, it's best to use low-stakes formative assessment. Learn more about formative assessment. However, in differentiated classrooms, students are also engaged participants in learning who know where they shine and where they need to grow (Anderson & Algozzine, 2007). Students should also take on some responsibility by using that self-awareness to make decisions in their choices of activities and products.

Lastly, even though planning is a foundational piece of differentiation, effective teachers also provide in-the-moment adaptations as needed, as a teacher can't be expected to account for everything (Parsons et al., 2013). Be prepared to make adjustments as you teach, just like you normally would.

More resources

Tools for differentiation

Student showing his geometry work"Differentiated instruction allows all students to access the same classroom curriculum by providing entry points, learning tasks, and outcomes tailored to students’ learning needs." (Watts-Taft et al., 2012)

HyperDocs are an interactive digital resource using a variety of web tools that students follow at their own pace. They can be purposefully designed to meet different learning preferences and to fill different gaps by integrating Google Forms' quiz feature to direct them in certain paths. Learn more about Hyperdocs.

Slides is the perfect tool for creating interactive materials for students because you can link to other slides in the same deck, lending a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure feel to the activity. Learners can choose their own path or be directed via formative assessment or feedback. It could be a choice on how they want to review a topic, which topic they want or need learn more about, or which resource to use to learn. Learn more about creating interactive slide decks with Google Slides.

Google Forms offers branch logic, meaning you can have the survey ask users certain questions based on how they answer other questions. For example, if they choose "I can do this with help" as their answer to a question about their confidence with a skill, you can set the Form up to automatically ask them a reflection question as a follow-up. Learn more about getting started with Forms or learn more about branch logic in Forms.


Anderson, K. M., & Algozzine, B. (2007). Differentiating instruction to include all students. Preventing School Failure, 51(3), 49-54.

Landrum, T. J., & McDuffie, K. A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6-17.

Parsons, S. A., Dodman, S. L., & Cohen Burrowbridge, S. (2013). Broadening the view of differentiated instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(1), 38-42.

Pham, H. L. (2012). Differentiated instruction and the need to integrate teaching and practice. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 9(1), 13-20.

Reis, S. M., McCoach, D. B., Little, C. A., Muller, L. M., & Kaniskan, R. B. (2011). The effects of differentiated instruction and enrichment pedagogy on reading achievement in five elementary schools. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 462-501.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2012). Common sticking points about differentiation. School Administrator, 69(5), 18-22.

Watts-Taft, S., Laster, B. P., Broach, L., Marinak, B., McDonald Connor, C., & Walker-Dalhouse, D. (2012). Differentiated instruction: Making informed teacher decisions. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 303-314.

This page was last updated on March 9, 2021