Differentiation refers to a wide range of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students with diverse learning needs in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation supports universal design for learning (UDL), diversity of learning preferences across activities, and opportunities for students to make their learning visible. In addition, differentiation reduces the impact of teaching style and preferences on the ability of students to demonstrate what they can do or what they know.
As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares many features with scaffolding, which refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to help students progress toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, toward greater independence in the learning process.
Because differentiation and scaffolding techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—in some contexts, the two approaches may be blended together to the point of being indistinguishable.
When teachers differentiate instruction, they might do the following:
- Assign students different readings or assignments that match their performance on previous assessments
- Provide choices in reading assignments, so that students may choose something that aligns with personal goals and interests
- Offer choices in assignment formats (for example: write an essay, create a presentation with a recorded voiceover, or create an illustrated essay in graphic/comic form)