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[Personalized Learning] 5 Steps to Differentiated Instruction

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 -- McKenna Wierman

Sometimes, the “one size fits all” approach just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with jeans, shirts, or coats, and if you’re an educator, you probably know it doesn’t work in the classroom. In every classroom, regardless of grade level or subject, you’ll find a mix of learners; some will be quick to digest new concepts, others will require more instruction, and some will sit comfortably right in the middle. As an educator, it can be challenging to find approaches to instruction that allow you to stimulate and support learning for all at one time.

This is where differentiated learning comes into play. Taking a differentiated approach to instruction recognizes that a variety of tactics must be utilized in order to reach every student. Teachers who apply this approach modify the content, the process, and the way students demonstrate learning within their regular instruction. A differentiated approach comes with the added benefit of incorporating variation naturally into daily instruction and, in doing so, prompts students to stay involved during lessons, interact with their peers, think creatively, and develop a firmer grasp on concepts.

But, just like finding that perfect fitting pair of jeans, stepping away from a more “one size fits all” approach to instruction can seem daunting. Here are five simple steps to help you get started:

1. Benchmark your students

The beauty of benchmarking is that it allows you to find out where your students are in comparison to where they need to be, while there is still time to intervene. Once you have the benchmark results, you can determine where each student is in your curriculum and begin planning instruction from that point. If you have students who have large skill gaps in their learning (behind one or more grade levels), you might need an adaptive assessment to help you quickly place learners within domains at their appropriate grade level.

2. Align to standards in a new way

Once you’ve determined where students in your class stand, take a look at the standards and objectives they need to achieve and work backward. Are there prerequisite skills that some of your learners need to meet grade-level standards? Start there. Are there deeper ways in which your high flyers can access standards—perhaps by reaching for higher levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy? Looking at standards in a new way will allow you to see more diverse ways of presenting information to your range of students. Ensure that you have a variety of content, lessons, and activities aligned to each standard and objective.

3. Create individualized learning paths

Once you know where your learners are academically, the most important step in differentiation is creating learning paths that target the needs of your unique students. In most cases, this means assigning content for the next step on their educational paths. For some students, it will mean assigning some remedial content to give them extra practice before they go on. Finally, for students who are ahead, it will mean providing advanced content that allows them to go deeper into a topic.

4. Monitor progress and formatively assess learners

Assessing learners is an important part of differentiated learning. It needs to be done not just at the beginning and the end of a school year or semester but also used continuously throughout the year. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to easily incorporate formative assessment into your daily class routine. Formative assessments (informal or formal) and progress monitoring will help you determine if students are on track and give you the insight necessary to make adjustments.

5. Rinse, Wash, and Repeat

Adaptive instruction can be one of the most frustrating steps of the process. However, when you are truly engaging in differentiated learning, you’re constantly making changes and adjustments to optimize teaching and learning for your students. Think about differentiated learning like a recipe you’re fine-tuning. Each person who tastes it may want a twist on the original, and still there are those who will push it aside and ask for something else altogether. With patience and determination, together you and your students can arrive at results that lead to success.

Doing all of these steps manually can seem like an overwhelming task, but classroom technology enables educators to automate many of these processes. Adaptive assessments, prescriptive content, and actionable, user-friendly formative data are just a few of the tools that technology offers to help make true personalization possible. Interested in learning more about how Edmentum’s online programs can support your efforts to differentiate instruction? Check out our new solution for K–8 personalized learning, Exact Path!