Differentiated Instruction



Differentiated Instruction (DI) is a method of approaching the planning and implementation of curriculum and instruction acknowledging that individual learners will have different levels of aptitude, achievement, interest, motivation, needs and ability. Since all learners differ significantly a teacher must adapt his or her teaching practices, instructional activities and delivery, materials and pace according to the needs of different students with the classroom environment.

This instructional approach is intended to help teachers to support all learners through strategic assessment, thoughtful planning and targeted, flexible instruction. The approach starts with and is shaped by ongoing assessment for, as and of learning activities. When implemented effectively, DI has been shown to enhance self-confidence and engagements of students and help students become more self-directed and metacognitive about their learning. Moreover, high-risk students and students with higher needs have the potential to see greater success in the classroom. Technology is not an essential component, but is argued to enhance the ability to differentiate instruction and engage students. The ultimate goal is to create learning environments that maximize learning and success for all students, regardless of their skill or background.

A variety of other theories and practices such as multiple intelligences, Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking and Universal Design for Learning are intertwined within the premise of Differentiated Instruction.


Effective implementation of DI requires careful, systematic planning.

  1. A teacher must first ensure that he or she has a full understanding of the curriculum. Within this understanding should come a careful layout of the big ideas, essential skills and processes, logical sequences of instruction (along with points where students will need support), a relation of learning outcomes to different experiences and backgrounds of the students and, what will motivate and engage the students participation and learning.
  2. A teacher should look at the multiple pathways to learning. In essence, he or she must be prepared to teach to different intelligences, learning styles, and interest through development of instructional materials and activities which are open-ended and allow for choice and complex responses. This teaching should take place in a variety of different contexts (independent, partners, small groups or whole class).
  3. A teacher should share the planning responsibilities with the students, working with them to integrate their interests and skills, choice, personalized strategies and build in opportunities for goal setting, reflection, self-monitoring and self-assessment.

Learner Profiles

Differentiated Instruction relies on the premise that the classroom teacher will differentiate his or her instructional methods and materials according to the needs of the student in the classroom. To do this effectively, it is pivotal that the teacher take the time to know the students in his/her classroom. As such, learner profiles of each student in the classroom should be developed through use of inventories such as learner preference inventories, social inventories and interest inventories.

A comprehensive learner profile will include information on student readiness, interests, learning preferences and styles, as well as differences related to gender, culture and personality. Teachers should involve the student in the development of their learner profile as much as possible, and ensure that it remain a dynamic, living document. Ongoing formal and informal assessment should be sustained for the purpose of informing each profile.

DI in the Classroom

Once a teacher has carefully gathered necessary information about the learners and planned for instruction, he or she will begin to deliver differentiated learning experiences. These learning experiences should use different materials and mediums, and provide multiple sources of information for students. Learning logs are considered to be highly useful so that students can become more adept at tracking their own learning.

Differentiated learning experiences should be highly authentic; therefore problem based learning opportunities can be useful. Moreover, tiered activities (with varying degrees of complexity, and abstractness) should be available. Graphic organizers and other supports for recording and synthesizing information should be made available to students, along with scaffolding around their use. Student interests should be obtained before each unit so that learning experiences can be carefully aligned.

Key Features of Differentiated Instruction

  • Flexible Learning Groups
  • Choice
  • Respectful Tasks
  • Shared Responsibility for Learning

Classroom Examples


Students studying effective presentation techniques individually choose to focus on a speakers’ use of images; inflection, pitch and pace; level of language and use of written text; or body language. After listening to and viewing an oral-visual presentation, students work in like groups (e.g., interest, learning style) to prepare a list of what they observed. Students then meet in mixed groups to prepare a comprehensive list, graphic organizer or brief presentation summarizing presentation techniques


Students participate in a class brainstorm of the possible factors that affect soil composition and fertility. Students individually select the factor that most interests them and then design and conduct an investigation to examine their chosen factor. Mini-lessons are provided on experimental design along with investigation recording forms that support learners according to their needs for more or less structure.

(Reach Every Student through Differentiated Instruction, Ontario, retrieved from http://www.edugains.ca/resourcesDI/Brochures/DIBrochureOct08.pdf)


Assessment is an essential component of DI and must also be differentiated. A teacher’s goal is not to have an individualized assessment plan for each student, but to have a manageable class plan that is flexible enough to accommodate a range of students needs.

Assessment for learning is essential in determining a student’s readiness for a concept. Information gathered from such testing can be a tremendous support for determining the pace of instruction, schedule future assessments, flexibly group students, tier assignments and accelerate learning for those in need. Every time pre-testing occurs, information should be offered in a multitude of ways, and reflect the need to provide choice to the students (e.g. mind map, exit card).  Assessment during instruction gives important information to the teacher as the students are gaining knowledge and practicing their skills (e.g. group demonstration). Assessment as learning should be utilized for its benefits in promoting metacognition, and self-assessment (e.g. written log, student checklist).


Students learn in different ways and teachers are responsible for meeting such diverse learning needs in inclusive classrooms. School districts have varying criteria for establishing students who require additional support services, and not all students who require support in the classrooms receive it. Therefore, differentiated, responsive instruction is essential to ensure the success of students with disabilities, English language learners, gifted students and those students who are at risk of dropping out.

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