Differentiated Instruction

6 Ways to Deliver Differentiated Instruction for Gifted Students

8 Min Read
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What Does Gifted Mean?

Before we discuss how to differentiate instruction for gifted students, we should explore what gifted means. There isn’t a simple definition. In fact, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)’s 2018–2019 State of the States in Gifted Education report shows that nearly every state has its own definition of gifted, and some states don’t even define the term.

The definition used by the state of New Jersey gives one such example, which states that a gifted and talented student is a “student who possesses or demonstrates a high level of ability in one or more content areas when compared to their chronological peers in the school district and who require modifications of their educational program if they are to achieve in accordance with their capabilities.”

It’s important to remember that students can be gifted in different ways—such as athletics, leadership, or social and emotional skills—and nobody is gifted in everything. “There are lots of different areas that people can be gifted in, but in school, we rely on the academic piece because that’s what we serve,” says Jennifer G. Beasley, EdD, director of teacher education at the University of Arkansas. “Since there is no common definition of gifted, we need to appropriately assess students to discover the strengths and areas we can support.”

It’s also important to remember that the strategies discussed in this blog can be used for “non-gifted” students as well.

Why Do Gifted Students Need Differentiation?

Just as a student who finds the classroom material overwhelming may zone out or misbehave, so too may a gifted student. Even worse, when students who are gifted are routinely unchallenged, they may never learn how to learn. Gifted students need opportunities to analyze, evaluate, create, and reflect. They should gain experience by asking and investigating complex questions and completing challenging tasks.

Although we are focusing on differentiated instruction for gifted students, it is important to note that the strategies discussed in this blog can apply to all populations of students. “Differentiation is meeting the needs of learners where they are at,” says Beasley. “It’s a philosophy—not a bag of tricks or a strategy. It’s about thinking about the pieces we can differentiate by readiness, by interest, by learning profile, and so on, for whatever type of learners are in your class.”

How to Differentiate for Gifted Students

Teachers can differentiate content, process, or product (see chart below), but they need to start by building the right kind of classroom community. “If a student—gifted or not—doesn’t feel safe and accepted by their teacher or classmates, it will be difficult for them to trust what you’re doing or take risks and learn and grow,” says Beasley.




Provide more challenging reading materials.

Assign work for individuals, pairs, small groups, and the whole class.

Allow your learners to choose the method in which they demonstrate learning (video, report, etc.).

Have them work on problems without solutions.

Create an area for independent/skill work.

Offer leveled projects.

Use topics of interest to the student.

Let students who finish their work early enjoy free reading or work that feels like a “reward.”

Assign authentic tasks for a real audience. For example, ask them to watch several TED Talks and then outline a TED Talk they could give.

Other key principles of differentiation include flexible grouping, a high-quality curriculum, and ongoing assessment. If one of these factors is missing, it will be more difficult to differentiate. Once these principles are in place, there are a variety of strategies teachers can use to differentiate instruction for gifted students.

6 Ways to Differentiate Instruction for Gifted Students

1. Create Tiered Assignments

Tiered assignments allow learners to complete the same assignment at different levels of difficulty. By varying the level of difficulty, you’re letting each student demonstrate understanding. Some teachers do this by designing an assignment for the middle tier and then adding in an additional challenge for students who are gifted. For example, you could ask gifted students to apply a skill in two ways instead of one. Other educators prefer to plan the lesson for the students who are gifted and then differentiate by providing support for the rest of the class. Differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson believes that this method “challenges advanced learners more than trying to pump up a ‘middling’ idea—and serves other students better as well.”

Beasley has gotten this strategy down to a science. She’ll collect data, do a quick assessment, and plan two levels of an activity. “We typically think of planning for three levels of an activity, but it depends on what your assessment shows. There may not actually be any students that are above grade level on a particular skill.” She starts by planning the above-grade level task because that’s where she wants everyone to be, and then adds in scaffolding, such as a graphic organizer or supplied reading material, for the students who are at- or below-grade level.

Tiered assignments can be time-consuming, with lots of upfront work. Beasley suggests collaborating with colleagues. If you do it for one unit or chapter, might another teacher do it for a different unit or chapter?

2. Allow Gifted Students to Work at Their Own Pace

By giving a pre-assessment at the start of each unit, you can let students who already know the material handle the lessons differently. Perhaps there’s an independent project related to the topic that a gifted learner could work on, or maybe the student could skip some of the earlier assignments. How about letting the gifted students work on two assignments at once or giving them fewer directions?

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3. Offer Open-Ended or Self-Directed Assignments & Activities

Open-ended tasks can have many valid approaches, and students can apply their unique skills and ideas. In addition, an activity that is open-ended can stimulate higher-order thinking. Let gifted learners be responsible for their own development by giving them a say in how far they take their own learning. Ask higher-level questions and encourage students to offer creative responses, work in pairs to question each other, and find ways to stimulate further exploration. You may even allow your students who are gifted to work on an independent study in an interest area whenever they have free time.

4. Compact the Curriculum

Whether it’s an entire unit or a lesson, if you can give students the opportunity to show they already understand the material, they can move on to something else. “Compacting” refers to tossing out the part of the lesson that students already know, which frees them up to work on something more challenging. In a math class, for example, you might choose the essential problems that demonstrate mastery. If students can correctly solve those problems, they can move on to an extension activity.

Beasley calls this the “Five Hardest First.” For any assignment, she’ll choose the five most difficult questions and let all students attempt to answer those first. “If the students understand these five, I know they have met that learning goal.”

5. Deliver Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL), which the Buck Institute for Education defines as a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects, lets students who are gifted flex their intellectual muscles. More than “just a project,” PBL encourages intellectual and emotional development by asking students to conduct deep research, ask complex questions, exhibit critical thinking and problem-solving, collaborate, and improve time-management skills. To solve problems or come up with physical solutions, students need to develop timelines and summon inner strength if their solutions don’t work. In some schools, students can display or present their projects, helping them develop public speaking skills. These types of projects give students increased independence and the ability to study material at their own pace. PBL is a great strategy for all types of learners, but it can be particularly compelling for gifted learners due to its depth and complexity, student choice, real-world skill development, and collaboration opportunities.

6. Pair Gifted Students Up

NAGC research shows that allowing students who are gifted to work together in small groups boosts their achievement because they challenge themselves. The Davidson Institute says that academic competition is important for gifted students to learn how to deal with success and defeat. In fact, the Institute lists academic competitions that are designed to entice students to work independently or in teams; this kind of work helps gifted students handle pressure and gain experience in real-life challenges. When you let gifted students work together, they can work on advanced content or assignments at their level. Because students can be talented in different ways, you can use this strategy to help them learn from each other and expand their horizons.

Communicating Your Goals

Whichever of these differentiation strategies for gifted students you use, by doing so, you’ll be helping to meet gifted learners’ needs. Communicate your goals and plans for differentiation to your students and their families and caregivers. “Be sure to introduce and define differentiation,” says Beasley. “Let students know that their classmates may be doing different things, and that just means we have different interests.” By getting buy-in upfront, you can help everyone understand your methods. It’s important for everyone to be in the know about the ways we educate.


Besides these strategies for differentiation for gifted learners, older gifted students may benefit from being challenged with college-level material. Request an online preview of any of our AP and elective courses across math, science, and social studies.

Giving students a head start on college-level coursework with the HMH Advanced Placement & Electives.

Get our free guide to differentiated instruction.

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