What is differentiated instruction?

Page 1: Defining Differentiated Instruction

Students in a classroomMr. Shelton learns that differentiated instruction is an approach whereby teachers adjust their curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning of all students: average learners, English language learners, struggling students, students with learning disabilities, and gifted and talented students. Differentiated instruction is not a single strategy but rather a framework that teachers can use to implement a variety of strategies, many of which are evidence-based. These evidence-based strategies include:

  • 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.

Research Shows

  • 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:

When a teacher tries to teach something to the entire class at the same time, "chances are, one-third of the kids already know it, one-third of the kids will get it, and the remaining third won't. So two-thirds of the children are wasting their time."
Lilian Katz,
Professor Emeritus,
College of Education,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • 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

Traditional Classroom Differentiated Classroom
Instruction is teacher centered. Instruction is student centered.
Instruction is largely provided in a whole-group setting. Different grouping formats (e.g., whole-group, small-group, pairs) are used for instruction.
When teachers assign students to work in groups, the groups are usually static, based on achievement level (e.g., low, middle, and high achievers). Teachers employ flexible grouping practices based on the students' learning needs and interests.
Teachers target instruction at the level of the middle achievers. Teachers assign challenging and engaging tasks to everyone in the class.
Instruction is provided one way (e.g., via lecture). Instruction is provided in multiple ways (e.g., via lecture, modeling, hands-on, visual representations)
Instructional tasks are aligned with grade-level standards. While aligning with grade-level standards, instructional tasks are designed to address students' needs and differences.
The teacher relies on a single textbook to present information. The teacher uses a variety of materials (e.g., textbooks from multiple grade levels, computer software) to present information.
The teacher assigns the same assignment to all students. The teacher offers several assignment choices.
The teacher assesses the students' knowledge of a unit usually with a written test. Although the teacher may give a written test at the end of the unit, he also provides the students with several options (e.g., written report, model, video) to demonstrate their knowledge.

Teachers use summative assessment to assess the students' knowledge.

In addition to summative assessment, the teachers use formative assessment to guide instruction.

"Fair" means that every student works on the same tasks. "Fair" means that each student works a task, which may be the same or different than their peers', to meet his or her needs.
"Success" means making a good grade or mastering the material. "Success" refers to an individual student's academic growth.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, EdD
Professor of Educational Leadership,
Foundations, and Policy
The University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Teachers often have a number of misperceptions about differentiated instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson addresses two of these (time: 1:33).

View Transcript

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.

Differentiated Instruction Universal Design for Learning
When During instruction when the teacher notices the students' needs When designing the curriculum
How Makes changes or adjustments to the curriculum Builds resources and options into the curriculum

CAST, Inc. (2007)

How does response to intervention (RTI) fit in with differentiated instruction?

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).

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