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Differentiation: Content, Process, Product, and Learning Environment

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Watching a concept “click” for a student can be the most rewarding moment in teaching. Differentiated instruction is a useful strategy to help get your students there. In particular, the four key elements of differentiation—content, process, product, and learning environment—inform different strategies to teach a concept and ensure students really understand the lesson. Using differentiated instruction can help all your students meet the same learning outcomes.

Differentiated instruction approaches classroom learning with one goal in mind, but many ways for students to learn it. In her book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains the approach like this: “At its most basic level, differentiating instruction means ‘shaking up’ what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.”

What Are the 4 Elements of Differentiated Instruction?

The four key elements of differentiation are content, process, product, and learning environment. These elements were developed to help teachers consider the individual characteristics of a student when delivering instruction. Content, process, and product are the backbone of differentiation, and learning environment was added as a fourth element to acknowledge the role that physical space plays in learning.

  • Content is the material that students use to learn. Content can be adjusted based on how a student processes information, and how they learn. For example, one student in the classroom can work on a real-world math problem while another tackles a more fundamental math concept, like math facts. Students may progress at different speeds and can utilize different content to reach their learning objectives.
  • Process is how students learn. All students need to achieve the same learning goals, but teachers can differentiate the way students learn the content. There are many ways to acquire knowledge and gain skills, such as in small groups, 1:1 instruction, partner projects, or other supported learning.
  • Product is how students show what they have learned after a lesson. Teachers may ask students to demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept through an assessment, such as a multiple-choice test, a presentation, an essay, among other ways.
  • Learning environment is the setup of the classroom and physical space. Teachers can arrange the desks based on instructional needs; sometimes the desks may be set up for small-group learning, and at other times for whole-class discussion. Teachers can also provide a range of seating options in the classroom, such as beanbags, rocking chairs, or balance balls.

What Are the Benefits of the Key Elements of Differentiation?

There are many benefits of differentiated instruction that allow for teachers to meet students where they are in their instruction. Here are a few key benefits:

  • Flexible Learning: Differentiated instruction allows teachers to practice flexibility within all four key elements. You can change up how your students learn, what they learn, or where they learn, and it can make a big impact in your outcomes. Flexibility lets students learn at their own pace and with their own preferences and this can be a game changer to them.
  • Personalized Instruction: Differentiating instruction means that students are receiving instruction personalized to their needs. It allows teachers to use products that give more flexibility and to incorporate content that engages the student. HMH’s Waggle program leverages technology to help teachers to differentiate instruction with fun, targeted practice for students.
  • Positive Classroom Culture: In a classroom that uses the key elements of differentiated instruction, students are learning in a way that makes sense for them. This can encourage more active participation and help to develop a love of learning. In turn, they can influence the classroom culture in a positive way and encourage others. For more tips on creating a positive school culture, check out our eBook, Building Your School Culture: An Administrator’s Guide.

Examples of Differentiating by Content, Process, Product, and Learning Environment

To give each of the four elements of differentiation more context, here are some examples for classroom instruction.

Differentiating by Content

Content differentiation refers to how a student gets their information and what materials they use to learn. Here are few examples:

  • Personalized Learning: Using personalized learning software allows students to learn in the best way for them specifically. It uses assessment to put students on the correct path for success. Some students may take in content through reading assignments, while others do better with visual graphs. Finding the right fit for the student can improve student outcomes and improve accessibility, and personalized learning platforms can help with this.
  • Tiered Activities: For certain lessons, consider planning various levels of activities. Students can start at a basic level and progress to more complex tasks. This works best if students in the same class get different versions of the same activity depending on their readiness level.

Differentiating by Process

Process differentiation is tailoring your teaching approaches in the classroom. There are many ways to differentiate how you teach, and here are a few examples:

  • Choice Boards: If you want your students to be invested in their assignments you can use choice boards. These act like a menu of activities that encourage students to choose how they learn and master a skill. This can also be helpful as a content differentiation tool.
  • Graphic Organizers: If you are teaching a topic, provide students a choice of graphic organizers to gather their thoughts on a topic and show what they have learned.
  • Flexible Grouping: Different from flexible seating, flexible grouping allows for teachers to group students based on their baseline knowledge of a topic, their learning preference, or by the level of support needed.

Differentiating by Product

Product differentiation centers on how students show mastery of a skill. By allowing different outputs and assessments for lessons, educators can better gauge what their students understand. Here are a few examples:

  • Project Choice: After a lesson, give students a choice of their final project to demonstrate mastering a topic. Ask them if they would prefer to write a paper, make a multimedia presentation, or a visual representation.
  • Digital Portfolios: Instead of an exam, suggest a digital portfolio as a capstone project for students. This can be part written, part visual, and part presentation. Or you can brainstorm a different format with them! Keeping in mind that it will still need to show mastery of skill, stepping out of an exam format may allow some students to thrive.

Differentiating by Learning Environment

Learning environment differentiation lets students thrive in the classroom through their physical space. Here are a few examples:

  • Flexible seating: Vary your seating options for students in the classroom. You can set up small-group tables, create standing desks, offer bouncy balls, or other ways to make students more comfortable in the space.
  • Work Zones: Some students may work better in a quiet environment. Some students may work better in a collaborative space. Find space in the classroom—ideally in a separate area—where students can go if they need to find quiet or where they can make more noise when collaborating.

Differentiation is a valuable strategy! In order to differentiate instruction effectively, use the four elements of differentiation to guide your teaching. You’ll find it easier to engage all your students and to help them to reach their full potential.


HMH Professional Learning provides coaching memberships to support differentiated instruction in the classroom. Learn more.

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