Because differences are our greatest strength
What is differentiated instruction?
By Geri Coleman Tucker
Expert reviewed by Kylah Torre
At a glance
Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to students’ different learning needs.
It lets students show what they know in different ways.
It doesn’t replace the goals in a child’s IEP or 504 plan.
Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach that tailors instruction to all students’ learning needs. All the students have the same learning goal. But the instruction varies based on students’ interests, preferences, strengths, and struggles.
Instead of teaching the whole group in one way (like a lecture), a teacher uses a bunch of different methods. This can include teaching students in small groups or in one-on-one sessions.
Students have “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn,” says Carol Ann Tomlinson, an educator who has done innovative work in this area .
According to Tomlinson, there are four areas where teachers can differentiate instruction:
- Content: Figuring out what a student needs to learn and which resources will help
- Process: Activities that help students make sense of what they learn
- Projects: Ways for students to “show what they know”
- Learning environment: How the classroom “feels” and how the class works together
This approach works well with the response to intervention (RTI) process used in some schools. The goal of RTI is to address learning struggles early. Students get extra support before they fall behind their peers.
How differentiated instruction works.
Differentiated instruction can play out differently from one classroom to the next — and from one school to the next. But there are a few key features:
Small work groups: The students in each group rotate in and out. This gives them a chance to participate in many different groups. A group can include a pair of students or a larger group. In all cases, it’s an opportunity for students to learn from each other.
Reciprocal learning: Sometimes students become teachers, sharing what they’ve learned and asking classmates questions.
Continual assessment: Teachers regularly monitor students’ strengths and weaknesses (in both formal and informal ways) to make sure they’re progressing in their knowledge and mastery of schoolwork.
Educators, learn more about how to use flexible grouping with small groups.
Differentiated instruction and special education
A teacher uses differentiated instruction to give every student multiple paths to learning. That includes students with Individualized Education Programs ( IEPs ) or 504 plans .
Differentiated instruction doesn’t replace the goals in an IEP or a 504 plan. Instead, the teacher personalizes teaching to help kids meet those goals.
Learn more about setting annual IEP goals .
How it compares to other approaches
Differentiated instruction is not the same as individualized instruction. That type of teaching changes the pace of how students learn. It also requires an individual approach for each student, which isn’t the case with differentiation.
Differentiated instruction is also different from personalized learning. With personalized learning, students have their own learning profiles and paths to follow.
Find out more about personalized learning and the difference between individualized instruction and differentiated instruction .
What to watch out for
Critics say differentiated instruction doesn’t work in every classroom. If there are too many students in a class, or if the teacher isn’t experienced with the approach, the classroom can get distracting and chaotic. It can also be time-consuming for teachers.
Other critics say that differentiated instruction is a reaction to students’ needs. They say educators should use Universal Design for Learning to proactively create an environment that suits all students’ needs.
Discover more about Universal Design for Learning .
About the author
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for
Kylah Torre is an instructor in the department of special education at Hunter College.
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What Is Differentiated Instruction?
Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.
- How to vary the level of content you present,How to provide a variety of learning environments,Different ways students can show what they've learned
At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.
Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:
- Content – what the student needs to learn or how the student will get access to the information;
- Process – activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content;
- Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit; and
- Learning environment – the way the classroom works and feels.
Examples of differentiating content at the elementary level include the following:
- Using reading materials at varying readability levels;
- Putting text materials on tape;
- Using spelling or vocabulary lists at readiness levels of students;
- Presenting ideas through both auditory and visual means;
- Using reading buddies; and
- Meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill for struggling learners, or to extend the thinking or skills of advanced learners.
Examples of differentiating process or activities at the elementary level include the following:
- Using tiered activities through which all learners work with the same important understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support, challenge, or complexity;
- Providing interest centers that encourage students to explore subsets of the class topic of particular interest to them;
- Developing personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both in-common work for the whole class and work that addresses individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified agenda time or as students complete other work early;
- Offering manipulatives or other hands-on supports for students who need them; and
- Varying the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth.
Examples of differentiating products at the elementary level include the following:
- Giving students options of how to express required learning (e.g., create a puppet show, write a letter, or develop a mural with labels);
- Using rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skills levels;
- Allowing students to work alone or in small groups on their products; and
- Encouraging students to create their own product assignments as long as the assignments contain required elements.
Examples of differentiating learning environment at the elementary level include:
- Making sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction, as well as places that invite student collaboration;
- Providing materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings;
- Setting out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs;
- Developing routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately; and
- Helping students understand that some learners need to move around to learn, while others do better sitting quietly (Tomlinson, 1995, 1999; Winebrenner, 1992, 1996).
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 403 245.
Sternberg, R. J., Torff, B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (1998). Teaching triarchically improves student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 374-384. EJ 576 492.
Tomlinson, C. (1995). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-ability Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 386 301.
Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 429 944.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
Winebrenner, S. (1996). Teaching kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. ED 396 502.
Excerpted from: Tomlinson, C. A. (August, 2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Perspectives & resources, what is differentiated instruction, page 1: defining differentiated instruction.
- Page 2: General Principles
How do teachers differentiate instruction?
- Page 3: Know Your Students
- Page 4: Differentiate Instructional Elements
- Page 5: Differentiate Content
- Page 6: Differentiate Process
- Page 7: Differentiate Product
- Page 8: Evaluate and Grade Student Performance
How do teachers prepare their students and their classrooms for differentiated instruction?
- Page 9: Communicate with Students and Parents
- Page 10: Organize the Classroom
- Page 11: Employ Effective Behavior Management
What does differentiated instruction look like in the classroom?
- Page 12: Classroom Implementation
- Page 13: References & Additional Resources
- Page 14: Credits
- Employing effective classroom management procedures
- Grouping students for instruction (especially students with significant learning problems)
- Assessing readiness
- Teaching to the student’s zone of proximal development
Although differentiated instruction as a whole is yet to be validated by scientific research, a growing body of evidence shows that the approach has positive effects on student learning.
- Strategies used to differentiate instructional and assessment tasks for English language learners, gifted students, and struggling students were also effective for other students in the classroom. McQuarrie, McRae, & Stack-Cutler (2008)
- Students with learning disabilities received more benefits from differentiated instruction than did their grade-level peers. McQuarrie, McRae, & Stack-Cutler (2008)
- In one study, the reading skills of elementary- and middle-school students who participated in a reading program that incorporated differentiated instruction improved compared to the reading skills of students who did not receive the program. Baumgartner, Lipowski, & Rush (2003)
In addition to using the kinds of evidence-based strategies listed above, teachers who differentiate instruction often:
- Use a variety of instructional approaches
- Alter assignments to meet the needs of the students
- Assess students on an ongoing basis to determine their readiness levels
- Use assessment results to adjust instruction as needed
- Provide a variety of options for how students can learn and demonstrate their knowledge
- Strive to make lessons engaging and meaningful
- Employ different grouping formats for instruction (e.g., whole-class, small groups, independent instruction) and use flexible grouping
A fluid or dynamic method of grouping students. Rather than being set, group membership changes to meet the different needs of the students.
Click here to see the attributes of a traditional classroom contrasted with those of a differentiated classroom.
Teachers often have a number of misperceptions about differentiated instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson addresses two of these (time: 1:33).
Carol Ann Tomlinson, EdD Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy The University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
Transcript: Carol Ann Tomlinson, EdD
One is it takes too much time to plan, but the other is it takes too much time in a classroom to differentiate. The planning piece, of course, is a matter of saying differentiation doesn’t say spend an hour planning tonight like you always did and then add differentiation to it. What it would say is, if you have an hour to plan, think about how you can do that in a way that’s going to work for kids. And, again, if you go slowly it doesn’t need to eat your life in any way at all. But the issue in terms of it takes too much time in class is an intriguing one to me because it turns out that differentiation is not what takes extra time in class. What takes extra time in class is giving kids chances to work with ideas and manipulate ideas and come to own the information. It doesn’t take as long just to tell kids things or just to cover standards, but we also don’t have any evidence that students come away with understanding or the capacity to use what they’ve learned to transfer knowledge. When you take time to let kids think and make meaning of stuff, that slows us down some in terms of coverage. If you let kids make meaning of stuff in two different ways, or if you let kids make meaning of stuff working alone or working with somebody, or if you let kids making make meaning working independently or working with a teacher, that doesn’t take any longer. Where it got to take longer was in the making meaning part.
For Your Information
What is the difference between differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
Both attempt to maximize the learning of all students by offering multiple ways to learn content or skills and to demonstrate that knowledge. Additionally, both emphasize learning environments that are engaging and utilize ongoing assessments to make adjustments to meet the instructional needs of students. So what is the difference? The difference is in when and how changes are made to address the needs of students.
CAST, Inc. (2007)
How does response to intervention (RTI) fit in with differentiated instruction?
response to intervention (RTI)
A multi-tiered method for delivering instruction to learners through increasingly intensive and individualized interventions.
Both are instructional frameworks. Whereas the purpose of differentiated instruction is to address the needs of all students, the purpose of RTI is to identify and address the needs of struggling students. Though the two frameworks overlap—differentiated instruction is often provided in an RTI classroom—under RTI, students may receive more intensive levels of instruction than they would normally receive in a differentiated classroom.
How do adaptations (i.e., accommodations and modifications) fit with differentiated instruction?
Differentiated instruction might not be enough for some students to succeed. Those with disabilities might need additional supports—accommodations or modifications—to learn the concepts and skills being taught. These supports are identified in the student’s individual education program (IEP) .
individualized education program (IEP)
A written plan used to delineate an individual student’s current level of development and his or her learning goals, as well as to specify any accommodations, modifications, and related services that a student might need to attend school and maximize his or her learning.
Differentiated instruction involves teaching in a way that meets the different needs and interests of students using varied course content, activities, and assessments.
Teaching differently to different students
Differentiated Instruction (DI) is fundamentally the attempt to teach differently to different students, rather than maintain a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. Other frameworks, such as Universal Design for Learning , enjoin instructors to give students broad choice and agency to meet their diverse needs and interests. DI distinctively emphasizes instructional methods to promote learning for students entering a course with different readiness for, interest in, and ways of engaging with course learning based on their prior learning experiences ( Dosch and Zidon 2014).
Successful implementation of DI requires ongoing training, assessment, and monitoring (van Geel et al. 2019) and has been shown to be effective in meeting students’ different needs, readiness levels, and interests (Turner et al. 2017). Below, you can find six categories of DI instructional practices that span course design and live teaching.
While some of the strategies are best used together, not all of them are meant to be used at once, as the flexibility inherent to these approaches means that some of them are diverging when used in combination (e.g., constructing homogenous student groups necessitates giving different types of activities and assessments; constructing heterogeneous student groups may pair well with peer tutoring) (Pozas et al. 2020). The learning environment the instructor creates with students has also been shown to be an important part of successful DI implementation (Shareefa et al. 2019).
Differentiated assessment is an aspect of Differentiated Instruction that focuses on tailoring the ways in which students can demonstrate their progress to their varied strengths and ways of learning. Instead of testing recall of low-level information, instructors should focus on the use of knowledge and complex reasoning. Differentiation should inform not only the design of instructors’ assessments, but also how they interpret the results and use them to inform their DI practices.
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Steps to consider
There are generally considered to be six categories of useful differentiated instruction and assessment practices (Pozas & Schneider 2019):
- Making assignments that have tasks and materials that are qualitatively and/or quantitatively varied (according to “challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, and/or resources”) (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) It’s helpful to assess student readiness and interest by collecting data at the beginning of the course, as well as to conduct periodic check-ins throughout the course (Moallemi 2023 & Pham 2011)
- Making student working groups that are intentionally chosen (that are either homogeneous or heterogeneous based on “performance, readiness, interests, etc.”) (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) Examples of how to make different student groups provided by Stanford CTL (Google Doc)
- Making tutoring systems within the working group where students teach each other (IP Module 2: Integrating Peer-to-Peer Learning) For examples of how to support peer instruction, and the benefits of doing so, see for example Tullis & Goldstone 2020 and Peer Instruction for Active Learning (LSA Technology Services, University of Michigan)
- Making non-verbal learning aids that are staggered to provide support to students in helping them get to the next step in the learning process (only the minimal amount of information that is needed to help them get there is provided, and this step is repeated each time it’s needed) (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible) Non-verbal cue cards support students’ self-regulation, as they can monitor and control their progress as they work (Pozas & Schneider 2019)
- Making instructional practices that ensure all students meet at least the minimum standards and that more advanced students meet higher standards , which involves monitoring students’ learning process carefully (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible; IP Module 5: Giving Inclusive Assessments) This type of approach to student assessment can be related to specifications grading, where students determine the grade they want and complete the modules that correspond to that grade, offering additional motivation to and reduced stress for students and additional flexibility and time-saving practices to instructors (Hall 2018)
- Making options that support student autonomy in being responsible for their learning process and choosing material to work on (e.g., students can choose tasks, project-based learning, portfolios, and/or station work, etc.) (IP Module 4: Making Success Accessible) This option, as well as the others, fits within a general Universal Design Learning framework , which is designed to improve learning for everyone using scientific insights about human learning
Hall, M (2018). “ What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It? ” The Innovator Instructor blog, John Hopkins University Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.
Moallemi, R. (2023). “ The Relationship between Differentiated Instruction and Learner Levels of Engagement at University .” Journal of Research in Integrated Teaching and Learning (ahead of print).
Pham, H. (2011). “ Differentiated Instruction and the Need to Integrate Teaching and Practice .” Journal of College Teaching and Learning , 9(1), 13-20.
Pozas, M. & Schneider, C. (2019). " Shedding light into the convoluted terrain of differentiated instruction (DI): Proposal of a taxonomy of differentiated instruction in the heterogeneous classroom ." Open Education Studies , 1, 73–90.
Pozas, M., Letzel, V. and Schneider, C. (2020). " Teachers and differentiated instruction: exploring differentiation practices to address student diversity ." Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs , 20: 217-230.
Shareefa, M. et al. (2019). “ Differentiated Instruction: Definition and Challenging Factors Perceived by Teachers .” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Special Education (ICSE 2019).
Tullis, J.G. & Goldstone, R.L. (2020). “ Why does peer instruction benefit student learning? ”, Cognitive Research 5 .
Turner, W.D., Solis, O.J., and Kincade, D.H. (2017). “ Differentiating Instruction for Large Classes in Higher Education ”, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education , 29(3), 490-500.
van Geel, M., Keuning, T., Frèrejean, J., Dolmans, D., van Merriënboer, J., & Visscher A.J. (2019). “Capturing the complexity of differentiated instruction”, School Effectiveness and School Improvement , 30:1, 51-67, DOI: 10.1080/09243453.2018.1539013