Why Is Differentiated Instruction Important During COVID-19?

This is part of a series of blog posts based on HMH’s recent report titled The Connected Learning Era: Mitigating the COVID-19 Learning Loss.

Teachers have always had different groups of students to track and pay attention to—including English language learners, students in special education, and those who receive free and reduced-price lunch. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a new designation to add. Shall we call it remote learning status? In your classroom during this time, you likely have some combination of learning happening—some asynchronous, and some synchronous, either in person or remotely.

At this time of the year, you’re likely starting to get a good handle on students’ strengths and gaps following last year’s unprecedented interruption in learning. Once you’ve completed the basic assessment plan, it’s time to use the data to differentiate instruction on a weekly or even daily basis, no matter where your students are in their learning status. Research says targeted, differentiated instruction is a powerful way to address learning loss and teach new material. Let’s dig a little deeper together to pick apart what that can mean for your classroom.

The Importance of Differentiation in the Classroom

Differentiated instruction is a method that leverages deliberate practice targeted to the skills students need to work on—and that may be different for individuals or groups of students. Deliberate practice is a systematic and purposeful approach to learning that builds toward a learner’s specific goals by identifying and incrementally improving targeted aspects of performance through expert guidance, feedback, and tasks that are just outside the learner’s current capacity, also known as their zone of proximal development. Because deliberate practice is tailored to the needs of the individual student (or groups of students with similar needs), it’s a bit of a juggling act to differentiate instruction for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests.

Now is a good time to collaborate with your professional learning communities to brainstorm and get creative in matching up your resources—including people, programs, materials—to students’ knowledge, interests, and preferences and boost student growth toward their goals. As John Hattie notes in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Differentiation relates more to addressing students’ different phases of learning from novice to capable to proficient rather than merely providing different activities to different (groups of) students.” Consider how to incorporate content, process, and product into differentiation plans:

  • Content: The skills or knowledge that’s the focus of instruction, or the way content is accessed.
  • Process: The way students interact with the content.
  • Product: The way students demonstrate knowledge and skills.

Research also shows that to be efficient, not all instruction should be differentiated. A mix of whole-class, small-group, and individualized instruction allows teachers to address both common and individual needs of their students in a flexible way. There are ways to do each of the synchronous and asynchronous options below with each sized group.

Synchronous Options

Synchronous Options

Asynchronous Options

  • New content instruction
  • Content review or preview
  • Questions and answers
  • Book readings
  • Show and share
  • Quiz or game
New content instructionContent review or previewQuestions and answers Book readingsShow and shareQuiz or game
  • Videos with worksheets
  • Interactive slides
  • Discussion boards
  • Videos by students
  • Photos or pictures with text
  • Adaptive quizzes
  • Art projects
  • Science experiments

Making a Big Impact: The Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

Although it can be tricky to manage, research shows that responsive, differentiated instruction that meets students where they are and adapts to their needs is well worth the effort. In Hattie’s follow-up book Visible Learning into Action, he explains that a meta-analysis found that differentiated instruction has positive effects, enabling teachers to base their instruction on students’ prior learning and set appropriate levels of challenge.

Research by Carol Connor found that teachers also report that differentiated instruction leads to:

  • Greater student motivation and engagement
  • More personalized learning
  • Greater student success

Her research found that prolonged implementation reduces achievement gaps across several disciplines.

"Responsive, differentiated instruction that meets students where they are and adapts to their needs is well worth the effort."

Instructional Strategies for Differentiation

In order to accelerate and deepen learning through differentiation, let’s talk next about four of the most impactful evidence-based strategies for instruction and practice that lend themselves to differentiation. While reviewing them, ask yourself, “How am I doing this in my classroom daily or weekly?” and “What’s one thing I could do to deepen my practice in this area next month?”

  • Scaffolding: Through a gradual release of responsibility from the teacher, a student can ultimately learn to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal. Students need varying degrees of support from their teachers and peers as they work outside their comfort zone to build autonomy and capacity to master new skills without assistance.
  • Feedback: There are two directions to feedback: teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher. Students are informed if they are on the right track and why, while teachers get information about what supports the students’ needs. The impact and timing of feedback depends on the context, but generally, the faster the feedback, the better.
  • Retrieval and Spaced Practice: Distributing study sessions for different learning tasks over days, weeks, or even months promotes retention. Continual practice both in and out of school can use digital learning platforms that incorporate other effective strategies including feedback and scaffolding. Teachers can adjust the frequency of sessions based on student progress.
  • Storytelling: Incorporating the creative arts can effectively meet the needs of the interconnected social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of learning. Students’ brains are also wired for storytelling, as learning from stories is a skill that humans have honed over generations. Storytelling not only offers a general structure to both teachers and students, it also provides a versatile tool to support cultural responsiveness.

Leverage Digital Tools for Differentiation

Online learning programs provide students with appropriate scaffolding and feedback but may vary in the level of responsiveness. Look for programs that have adaptive instruction, such as Waggle (which includes additional support via hints), or accelerated learning rather than requiring students to follow a rigid path. Assign extension activities through a learning management system such as Google Classroom for students who are ready to learn more. This will keep all students learning without having some of them move too far ahead. Tools that include ways to provide canned or tailored feedback can help save you time while still giving students the support they need.

Since differentiation can make a big impact, take stock in what you’ve been doing, make reasonable goals, and start adding a little more to your planning routine each month to increase differentiation in your classroom.

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How are you navigating a remote and in-person school year? Explore HMH Connected Teaching and Learning to address instructional planning, remote teaching and learning, equity and access, and professional learning.

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