How to Differentiate Instruction Online to Meet Different Learning Needs

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young girl writing on a piece of paper while watching her teacher on a laptop.

Differentiation is something that happens all the time in the classroom. It is the ability of the teacher to meet the diverse needs of learners within the classroom. While there has been much research and professional development done regarding differentiation in the classroom, the world of differentiation during online instruction has not been widely explored. With the current increase in online instruction, it is important for educators to understand how online instruction can be differentiated in order to meet the diverse needs of students.

How to Identify Individual Learning Needs

Before instruction can be differentiated for students, educators must first identify individual learning needs. This can be done in a variety of ways, one of which is increasing one’s capacity for understanding different types of learners. Learners acquire knowledge at different paces, have different interests, and soak in information in a variety of ways. Howard Gardner famously describes eight intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial-visual, musical, naturalistic, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. This theory of multiple intelligences resonates with educators who find that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching does not work. Some students may need access to hands-on activities in order to grasp concepts, while others may learn best through song. Considering this, how does an educator plan to deliver various types of instruction to students that learn in different ways? The first step is to identify individual learning needs. This can be done by having students take a learning style preference inventory. Such inventories will allow students to have a voice in how they receive instruction and will allow the teacher a glimpse into how the student would like to learn.

In addition to identifying learning preferences and styles, teachers must also meet students where they are academically. Pretests can be a good gauge for what students know and need to know about any given topic or objective. These can be delivered virtually using tools such as Google Classroom. Many online programs also give students pretests, then use the data from pretests to start students on a learning path that fits their unique learning needs. Some of these programs include, but are not limited to, iReady, ReadWorks, and Achieve3000. These programs are beneficial because they provide consistent data to teachers as students progress through online lessons.

How to Differentiate Instruction for Online Learning

Once educators have identified the learning needs of their students, it is time for them to start planning for differentiated online instruction. This can happen in a variety of ways. The following are examples of how educators can provide students with differentiated instruction during virtual learning.

  • Small Groups – Teachers can provide students with small-group instruction by utilizing websites and tools such as Google Hangouts and Zoom. These tools allow teachers to meet with small groups for guided reading lessons or small math groups. Teachers can even begin with a whole group lesson and then send students into Breakout Groups for more individualized instruction. It is important to remember that students should be supervised during breakout sessions. Teacher assistants or specialists can help supervise small breakout groups.
  • One-on-One Instruction – One-on-one instruction can also be carried out through Google Hangouts and Zoom. Teachers can meet with students one-on-one to reteach objectives and scaffold as needed.
  • Peer Collaboration – Websites such as FlipGrid and Google Slides allow students to collaborate on presentations and projects. Teachers can put students in groups and assign projects for students to collaborate on.
  • Multiple Forms of Content Delivery – Teachers can differentiate instruction by providing content to students in a variety of ways. Teachers can present content using online lessons they have recorded, share videos of content, share songs regarding content, and/or assign lessons in various online learning platforms. This gives students multiple avenues to access the curriculum.
  • Choice Boards – Choice boards are a great way to provide students with choice and access to the curriculum no matter their readiness level. Choice boards include activities on various levels. Of these activities, students are only required to complete a certain amount (determined by the teacher) of activities of their choosing.
  • Product Variation– Teachers can choose to allow students to demonstrate their mastery of subject matter by allowing them to present their knowledge in a variety of ways. For example, some students may choose to display their mastery by creating a slide show of what they have learned. Others may choose to write a paper or create a drawing of a concept they have mastered. Content mastery does not always have to be evident in the form of taking a test.

In summary, it is possible to create unique virtual learning experiences for students. Transitioning into eLearning is doable. By taking the time to understand differentiation and researching multiple ways to provide students with personalized instruction, educators can meet the online learning needs of every student.

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