Teaching Tuesday: 5 Differentiated Instruction Strategies for a Focused Lesson

focused student in class

We jump into our lesson because we have a lot to cover, right? So let me ask you this: True or false: When the bell rings and class begins, students are equally ready to learn. If you answered true, then I have a flying pig I’d like you to meet! One of the beauties of differentiated instruction (DI) is the ability to meet the needs of all learners — through varying the process, product or content.

However, before we can even think about meeting their needs through DI, we must recognize the students’ individualities. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, DI is guided by the teacher’s understanding of student needs: readiness, interests and learning profile.1 Interests and learning profiles are fun to uncover as we reveal interests, passions, culture traditions and more. The readiness piece is where it may get fuzzy.

We must first define what it means to be ready. The dictionary defines readiness as the state of being fully prepared for something and/or the willingness to do something. We can also add what Tomlinson shares about a readiness to learn which involves a learner’s attitude, their experiences with a topic and/or their knowledge and skills on a topic.1 The learner may have preconceived notions or assumptions about the topic as well (“I am not good at math!”).

When we take the readiness piece into account, it may get overwhelming to begin to teach. One could argue that getting the student in a place where they are willing to learn is probably a great place to start. Ahead, we’ll discuss five strategies that will get your students much closer to being “ready,” and you’ll have a launching pad to meet each student’s learning needs.

In This Article:

1. Cultivate a Willingness to Learn

A willingness to learn must be first, therefore mining this must precede all activities. In fact, students must know that you believe in them and that you think they are capable of learning.

This means:

  • Encouraging them that not only are they all capable of succeeding, but that your teaching approach is to not leave anyone behind.
  • Encouraging them that they have the power to choose their attitude.
  • Encouraging excitement: If I’m excited to teach, they’ll be more excited to learn. This sets them up for the fact that I may have them learning in a different way than their peers.
  • Encouraging them to embrace their learning differences.

We all are different in how we learn; it may behoove you and them to share that we all have different learning styles — VARK: visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic. You’ll be celebrating the fact that each student may have a unique way to learn; therefore, they can understand that I may have different approaches for each student to learn the concepts.

2. Pre-assess

Setting them up for maximized learning will then lead to the next phase of readiness — pre-assessment. Here are a few key benefits of implementing the pre-assessment strategy:

  • Pre-assessment helps them to understand the why behind it which is hopefully what has occurred with the willingness, encouragement and discussion about learning styles.
  • Pre-assessment helps you determine your students’ prior knowledge and skills in order to create instructional groupings. This will save a massive amount of time in your lessons as you can design the future lessons for the various levels of readiness and of knowledge level.
  • Pre-assessment provides evidence to help you effectively match instruction with the needs of students and can help you make decisions about content, pacing, materials, grouping and specific learning activities. Also, if a student already understands the concept, the lesson can be given to them in an extension where they are doing something different from the various groups.

3. Monitor Progress (Formatively Assess)

Once you have pre-assessed, the learning does not stay linear. It’s vital that you continue to monitor student progress which means more evaluation called formative assessing. Here is what that looks like:

  • Formative assessing can be as simple as a short quiz to your various groups, an exit ticket of questions as students leave the class, or a simple check for understanding via discussion in pairs. Remember, formative assessing never assumes that our students understand it and remain ready once you begin a lesson.
  • Formative assessing allows you to intervene from the start (as opposed to waiting until the unit or benchmark test to realize your students need additional support).
  • Formative assessing enables check-ins, and having the hesitant students practice in small groups, building their confidence.

Checking readiness is not a one and done event as previously mentioned with the importance of formative assessing. Behaviorally, it could show up as well. For example, a student placed in a group may be growing daily in his understanding. Yet one day he completely checks out. We may misunderstand this as a behavior issue when it could be a readiness issue. A little intervention in the form of assessment and one-on-one time could quickly lead to a needed course correction.

4. Schedule Brain Breaks Into Lesson Plans

As noted, readiness is not one and done, so keep it alive by providing short bursts of sensory breaks. Here are the benefits of brain breaks:

  • Brain breaks help learners from becoming overwhelmed or frustrated with a course or subject.
  • Brain breaks can be as easy as playing a quick game of Kahoot, drawing for a couple minutes, or even just taking a short walk outside to restore focus and readiness.
  • Brain breaks scheduled into your lesson help students come back to class refreshed and ready to digest the material.

5. MOVE!

Finally, don’t be afraid to get those students moving. Movement is one way to successfully enrich cognitive functions. It also increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. The brain needs a boost as well as those dendrites which can become still. Movement allows for the hard work to happen, and this will serendipitously improve morale and excitement in the class. Try this: Stop every 20 minutes or so and get your students to do a stand up, hand up, pair up with either a content question or just for fun. It does wonders to keep the readiness to learn pumped and primed.

Ready, get set, GO! Now you are ready to teach, and they are ready to learn.

Pursue Your Education Degree at GCU

At Grand Canyon University, we encourage the importance of differentiated instruction strategies in the classroom. Learn more about the various teaching degree programs available through the College of Education. Read more Teaching Tuesday posts from our expert education faculty.

1Tomlinson, Carol Ann. How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms. 3rd Edition. February 2017.

Approved by the senior adjunct professor for the College of Education on March 29, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.