Skip to main content

How Differentiated Instruction Supports All Students

September 25, 2023

Today’s classrooms are becoming more diverse. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that the percentage of U.S. public school students who were white was 45 percent in 2021, compared with 52 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic students, for example, increased to 28 percent, compared with 25 percent previously.

However, students’ race is not the only apparent difference in classrooms. A more diverse student population brings a broad variety of experiences, interests, and aptitudes to education. Students differ in characteristics ranging from their cultural norms to the style of learning that fits them best.

Differentiated instruction works to ensure that all these students can excel, regardless of their distinct backgrounds, abilities, and interests. Education degree programs often focus on this teaching approach as a way to promote equity in learning for today’s diverse student population.

Effective Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) programs, for example, include differentiated instruction in the discussion of high-impact teaching practices.

What Is Differentiated Instruction? 

Before exploring why it is an important component of teacher training, it is necessary to understand what differentiated instruction is. Put simply, differentiated instruction requires teachers to design lessons that respond to all students’ needs. 

Differentiated instruction recognizes a diverse student population; various learning styles and unique experiences influence how individual students respond to teaching. It provides an inclusive environment by using various teaching styles, allowing students to learn in the way that works best for them.

Teachers using this style of instruction work with students in small groups or individually to accommodate characteristics such as:

  • Readiness to learn
  • How they learn
  • Prior knowledge
  • Languages they speak
  • Personal interests

Students may have learning disabilities that affect their ability to learn in a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction, for example. They may also have a preferred method of communication that makes one type of assignment—such as making a poster instead of writing an essay—more effective. Differentiated instruction is what allows educators to focus on these specific needs, with learner-centered curriculum development that acknowledges students’ unique abilities and interests.

Taking student differences into account, teachers can adjust their approaches to:

  • Lesson content—the material that students learn and the resources that assist them
  • Student activities—the types of work that teachers assign to reinforce their lessons
  • Required assessments—the ways that teachers measure student learning
  • Classroom environment—the room setup and the way students work together

Components of Differentiated Instruction

A five-step process informs educators about the types of teaching strategies that they should employ to ensure equitable learning opportunities. Differentiated instruction begins with determining what students actually need to optimize their learning, instead of simply assuming what will work best. The process is as follows:

  1. Identify students’ needs through analysis of test results, observation of class activities, and assessments of classwork.
  2. Establish educational goals for individual students according to their needs.
  3. Adapt how and at what pace to provide instruction, with plans tailored to each student.
  4. Assign different types of work to students according to their characteristics, with students’ needs informing the difficulty and amount of work.
  5. Evaluate students’ progress toward achieving the lesson goals to determine the effectiveness of the instruction.

Benefits of Differentiated Instruction 

Differentiated instruction supports all students in various ways, from encouraging their participation to celebrating their uniqueness. Below are some critical benefits of differentiated instruction.

Gives Students an Active Role

With differentiated instruction, students have more responsibility in their education. In many cases, they can select the approach to learning—and show what they have learned—instead of receiving the material in a way that may not fit best with their background and learning style.

Accommodates All Learners

By offering multiple learning paths, educators can ensure that they are catering to the entire class. Differentiated instruction accommodates everyone from students who are ready for more advanced instruction to students with learning disabilities who have specialized plans for addressing those issues. 

Encourages Student Engagement

Differentiated instruction aims to reach students in a way that fits them best. Because it appeals to their own interests and background, the approach often builds greater student interest in the subject matter. 

Honors Individual Differences

A hallmark of differentiated instruction is its focus on students’ differences—and its celebration of those differences. This type of instruction openly acknowledges that many factors can affect how students learn, and curriculum planning adjusts to make the most of each person’s experiences and abilities.

Supports Student Equity

Another benefit of differentiated instruction is that it facilitates student equity. It recognizes that the playing field is not level for all students as they approach learning, because of differences in their background and aptitude. Differentiated instruction works to close equity gaps and facilitate each student’s success, promoting social and racial justice.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies 

Some basic strategies for curriculum planning and classroom management can make differentiated instruction more impactful. Below are some key differentiated instruction strategies.

Conduct Ongoing Assessments

Effective differentiated instruction requires regular assessments of student learning. The results should help educators determine which educational approaches are working—and which require adjustments to best reach students.

Assign Fulfilling Tasks

Instead of assigning some groups of students more engaging activities than others, educators should work to ensure that all groups of students receive assignments that are fulfilling, according to the styles of learning that are most likely to connect with them.

Vary Student Groups

Another differentiated instruction strategy likely to yield positive results is varying the groups with which students work. To encourage students to interact with various classmates, on some days, teachers can assign students to work with those who are similar to them in learning readiness; on other days, teachers can assign them to work with those with the same preferred learning style.

Build Classroom Rapport

Mixing up the groups in which students participate is one way to build rapport among those in the classroom. Another strategy for developing relationships—and encouraging honest conversations that can inform differentiated instruction practices—is for educators to communicate openly with students about their interests and past experiences. 

Differentiated Instruction Examples

What are some ways that teachers can enact differentiated instruction in their classrooms? Below are examples of differentiated instruction.

Scaffolded Activities

With scaffolded activities, teachers assign different types of tasks to different groups of students according to their own characteristics. Reading materials related to the lesson are at appropriate levels for each group, for example. Alternatively, some groups engage in visual lessons while others’ lessons cater to their preference for auditory learning.

Student-Selected Assessments

With student-selected assessments, educators allow students to select the way to show what they have learned, based on their own interests and talents. For an end-of-unit assessment, students might choose to create a poster, write an essay, or provide an outline of what they have learned.

Technology-Enabled Instruction

With technology-enabled instruction, students choose between synchronous or asynchronous learning using technological tools such as tablets. Another differentiated instruction example is to accommodate the ways that students communicate, using interactive whiteboards for those with speech limitations.

Maximize Each Student’s Learning Potential 

Differentiated instruction provides equitable learning opportunities for today’s diverse learners. If you are ready to strengthen your ability to connect with students in ways that accommodate—and celebrate—their differences, explore the online MAT degree program from American University’s School of Education.

By addressing institutional and systemic racism, emphasizing essential practices for effective teaching, and relying on scientifically proven learning principles, the program can prepare you to excel in educating all elementary school students. The online program includes fieldwork in classrooms in your local area.

Discover how AU’s online MAT degree can help you reach your goals as an educator.