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What is differentiated instruction?

By Geri Coleman Tucker

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:

  1. Content: Figuring out what a student needs to learn and which resources will help

  2. Process: Activities that help students make sense of what they learn

  3. Projects: Ways for students to “show what they know”

  4. 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.

Dive deeper

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 ( ) or

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

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom