Teaching Tuesday: Differentiation in the Classroom

High school students sitting at their desks in a classroom

No student should ever be in over their head or in a position where they cannot reach their full potential. With the removal of ability grouped classes in the 1990s, this became a bigger issue than ever before — working at levels above or below ability leads to bored or frustrated students, which leads to discipline and self-esteem problems.1 With that being said, “teaching to the middle” creates both of those situations, in turn negatively affecting academic and social outcomes. The way to combat this is to use differentiation.  

In This Article:

What Is Differentiation in Education?

Differentiation is when the students are given assignments that are tailored to their ability level for any given objective. It has gained popularity as it is an effective approach to keeping all students challenged and others on a level that prevents frustration depending on where they fall as far as comprehension and retention go. 

Using Differentiation To Prevent Boredom and Frustration

There is a misconception that only students that are frustrated become the major discipline issues in the classroom. Students not being challenged become bored, which can lead to as many issues as frustration.2 Teachers must find ways to rectify both ends of the curve. Differentiation is one of the ways to bridge the gap. 

Examples of such would be adding additional questions on higher thinking levels to those that are ahead of their classmates. Also, they can assist the students struggling with the same content or help another way through peer tutoring. The highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Depth of Knowledge are to be able to teach something, demonstrating a clear understanding. Students that teach it to someone else would be demonstrating just that.

For those students that are struggling, assignments may be simplified in many ways. They can only do part of the assignment, answer simpler questions or view examples of correct work. Teachers can tailor assignments and assessments based on the specific needs of individual students. A plan that targets those specific areas has a better chance of success than a generalized approach that targets the grade level.       

Individualized Instruction vs. Individualized Assignments

Because differentiation is an assignment tailored to individual student needs, it can also be created with individual students' interests in mind. A child that loves football would prefer to do an assignment about his favorite player or team than a random topic. This means that the assignments can also motivate the students as well. We might also consider allowing students to compare and contrast the content they are struggling with to something they know very well. This is one of literally thousands of possibilities when reorganizing, simplifying, or making tasks more difficult to meet the needs of the students. 

Planning Differentiation Strategies in the Classroom

While it may seem like a major task for teachers needing to plan addition assignments, it is not as daunting of a task as it may seem. Simple adjustments, extra parts to questions or other minor changes are all required to put a student in a great position to grow academically. Overall, it will save time because teachers will have to spend less time with discipline issues in the classroom and more time teaching!  We must also consider that even if it is time-consuming, the growth of students is reward enough to put extra effort into planning for teachers.   

Ability Grouping

While differentiation is such a hot topic in the education world, it may be a suitable time to reconsider ability grouping. It was removed from schools in the 1990s because many educators felt that it harmed the self-esteem of students in lower groups. However, it may improve the self-esteem of the students in lower groups because if they are successful, it would allow them to gain confidence.  

Imagine joining a gym and being placed directly in the hardest aerobics class. Some people would do ok if they were active before joining the gym, others would struggle, and many would become so frustrated they would quit. On the other hand, if they were placed in a lower aerobics class, they would perform better, gain confidence and be excited to come back to the gym, progress slowly and move up to the more difficult classes.

Also, students can move up and down in groups. Reasons could be because they are performing well overall, or they understand the current subject matter (unit). The groups could be changed regularly based on student progress.3 The fact that most of the groups were permanent (the entire school year) when ability grouping was previously in schools was one reason for the downfall and removal.

Bringing Ability Grouping Back Into Schools

Differentiation in a classroom can assist all students in reaching their academic potential without holding anyone up or rushing others. While individual instruction is not possible, individual, personalized assignments and assessments are. Is it time to bring back a modified version of ability grouping?  Convincing arguments could be made if changes were implemented, and the groups were dynamic rather than static as they were the first time around. With some adjustments, ability grouping may be the answer. It would not require additional planning and students could work in a group that allows them to learn at a pace that is suitable for them. The possibility of students falling behind or not being challenged would be far less likely.

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At Grand Canyon University, we understand the importance of success in the classroom for both teachers and students. The College of Education strives to prepare educators with teaching strategies that work. If you are being called to the teaching profession, GCU is here to help you get started in the right degree program. Complete the form at the top of this page to learn more about joining our education community.


1 Ozerk, G. (2020, September). Academic Boredom: An Underestimated Challenge in the Classroom. ERIC. Retrieved on March 14, 2024.

2 Jason, Z. (2017, Jan. 8). Bored Out of Their Minds. Ed. Magazine. Retrieved on March 14, 2024.

3 Logsdon, A. (2022, Feb. 18). Can Ability Grouping in School Help Your Child? Verywell Family. Retrieved on March 14, 2024.

Approved by the executive assistant for the College of Education on March 20, 2024.

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.