What Is Differentiated Instruction?

Teaching is all about helping students realize their full academic potential in the classroom, and that means reaching learners where they’re at. Every student has a preferred learning style, unique interests outside of school, and different skills. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to deliver content to students. Visual learners might want to watch a video to deepen their understanding of international relations or use infographics to illustrate the molecular structures of isotopes. Aural learners might get more out of classroom discussions of macroeconomics or listening to a novel on tape. Schools rarely do a good job accommodating these varying student needs, often due to a lack of resources.


However, differentiated instruction strategies allow individual instructors to better serve their students by providing a personalized education. Differentiated instruction aims to support student learning by giving each student the type of resources and support they need to succeed. Planning differentiated lessons generally takes more time than preparing a generic lecture, but increased engagement and academic performance are more than worth the extra effort. As such, the demand for differentiation is on the rise.


You might think that differentiated instruction would be impossible online, but with the right tools, it can be done well. Echo360 has developed the Echosystem: educational software designed to empower inspired learning. EchoVideo is a video content management solution unleashing the potential of video in the classroom. EchoEngage is a learning engagement platform facilitating more effective teaching through unparalleled course management tools. Knowbly gives instructors numerous ways to make presentations pop. EchoExam is an intuitive test creation tool that can help anyone create fair assessments. PointSolutions is real-time polling software with multiple applications in the classroom. In this article, we’ll explore what differentiated instruction means and how the education experts at Echo360 can help you implement it in your classroom! 

Carol Ann Tomlinson - Photo by UVA Today

What is differentiated instruction for students?

Carol Ann Tomlinson was one of the first education experts to argue that teachers should differentiate instruction based on the unique needs of their students. Tomlinson defines differentiation as considering individual students’ learning styles and levels of readiness before starting a lesson plan, shifting the priority of education toward the needs of the individual. She remains a thought leader in the field.


Today, differentiated instruction can be defined in several different ways. Some call it an approach whereby teachers adjust their curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning of all. Others argue that differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Ultimately, differentiated instruction means incorporating more inclusive teaching practices into daily lesson plans. 

Most of the scholarship around differentiated instruction focuses on younger kids, using examples such as allowing elementary school students to select books to practice reading and using cardboard money to help tactile learners understand the value of different coins. However, differentiation strategies that work for younger learners don’t make sense for older students. But while some college professors may think that higher-level instruction cannot be differentiated, nothing could be further from the truth. 


The benefits of differentiation are constant for students of all ages and ability levels and may be easier to implement at the university level since older students likely already know which strategies work best for them. The trick is figuring out how to differentiate your classroom in a way that doesn’t consume too many resources or disrupt the learning of others. 

The 4 key areas of differentiated instruction

Tomlinson identified four ways instructors can differentiate instruction: content, process, product, and learning environment. 


Content can be the most challenging of the four because you don’t want to limit students’ access to new topics if they don’t master concepts as quickly as their peers. Instead, all students pursue the same goals while content delivery is differentiated. For example, all students might study the same concepts, but high-achievers might be given assignments asking them to do more with these concepts. 


Process refers to how learning takes place and is probably the easiest point of differentiation to implement. Allowing kinesthetic learners to complete interactive assignments and providing recorded lectures to aural learners are examples. 

Product refers to how students show you the knowledge and skills they’ve mastered throughout their education. Tests are the most common example, but students may feel more comfortable demonstrating their skills in other ways. For instance, you could ask your students to design a mock lesson plan or relate abstract academics to jobs they might be considering. 


The best environments for learning entail physical and psychological elements. For example, separate spaces for collaborative work and independent study can ensure all students have the environment they need to pursue their learning goals. 


All four of the examples above might feel a little abstract, so let’s take a more specific look at how the Echosystem can help you incorporate differentiated instruction into your teaching.  

Adapting content to each student

The first step in adapting content to each student is understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classification of levels of intellectual behavior progressing from lower-order thinking to higher-level thinking. The six levels are as follows: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. 

You can use these levels to effectively challenge all of the students in your classroom without driving them to frustration. Using EchoEngage, you can make assignments for all levels of students and assign the appropriate one with just a few clicks. For instance, let’s say you’re an English professor teaching John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Struggling students could be assigned basic reading comprehension questions to make sure they are interpreting the archaic language correctly, while high-achievers could be asked to place Milton’s work in its historical context or evaluate the arguments presented to demonstrate higher-order thinking. Sortable dashboards are available so you know how each student is faring, ensuring that everyone gets the right assignment. Furthermore, you’ll be able to see all of the variations in one convenient location 

Similarly, EchoExam includes a robust question bank with thousands of items sourced from academic textbooks and publishers. Many of these can be toggled between multiple-choice and short-answer formats with a single click, allowing instructors to design worksheets and study guides of varying difficulties easily. Multiple-choice questions are great for struggling students because they may be able to deduce the correct response by eliminating answer choices, while advanced learners looking for a challenge will appreciate a more open-ended format. 


You can even use Knowbly to author self-paced assignments where content is locked behind comprehension quizzes, ensuring that students cannot progress too far without demonstrating at least a conceptual understanding of the material. These questions can also give you the evidence you need to determine where each student is in their learning journey so you can intervene appropriately.  

Incorporating flexible teaching processes

All students are capable of learning, but each individual student learns differently. One of the major goals of differentiated instruction is to empower every student to learn on their terms. With Knowbly, instructors can easily produce courses and assignments that take each learner’s preferences into account. For example, you could add multimedia elements to an existing PowerPoint presentation to help visual learners with difficult concepts while creating interactive activities to help hands-on learners with the same information.  

Learning can be expedited by engaging multiple senses at once and EchoVideo can help with that. With ASR (automated speech recognition) technology, you can choose to have transcriptions made available to students so they can read along with recorded lectures. Transcribed data is also added to a searchable database, helping teachers and students find anything quickly. Students with sensory impairments or other learning differences can benefit as well. If you want to make content even more accessible, you can use a trustworthy captioning service such as Rev to transform transcriptions into fully compliant captions. 


Students also need different levels of support to pursue their learning goals and EchoEngage can help ensure everyone gets the help they need. For instance, high achievers might be able to work independently through certain material using self-paced assignments. This allows them more freedom to progress beyond what’s being covered in classroom lessons to keep learning stimulating. Alternatively, those finding the material more difficult can easily reach out for one-on-one support from their instructor. In contrast, the traditional school day may not always offer enough time for students to get the help they need. 

Differentiating instruction through the final product

Whether you call it a test, quiz, or standardized assessment, students are typically evaluated by some kind of exam. With EchoExam, you can design a test and automatically generate up to 26 different versions of it to promote equity. You can also publish your test online so students can take it wherever they feel most comfortable, adding another layer of differentiation. 


Some students tense up during examinations, so you might get better evidence of their progress through less formal means. PointSolutions offers you a way to incorporate comprehension questions into day-to-day teaching, helping you identify who needs help without requiring anyone to proactively ask for it. Then, pertinent resources can be made available to the students who need them. Polling can be an excellent way to jumpstart classroom discussions, too, promoting student engagement.  

You can take differentiated instruction to another level by doing away with traditional exams entirely. For example, students can take advantage of EchoVideo’s Universal Capture capabilities to record themselves performing a skit or delivering an oral presentation, giving educators evidence of their progress without a traditional test. Working this way also allows outgoing students to collaborate on projects while students who prefer to fly solo can submit an individual project. Letting students dictate the terms of their education increases engagement, and most end up learning more as a result. Instructors also get something more interesting to grade than a few dozen bubble sheets.  

Customizing the learning environment

If you’ve ever looked up how to establish a differentiated classroom, you might be wondering how it could be applied to remote learning. After all, it’s tough to rearrange classroom furniture for virtual students. 


Once again, Echo360 has you covered. With EchoEngage, live classes can be broken into virtual breakout rooms to facilitate group work. Students who want to collaborate can do so, with the instructor popping in and out as needed to keep them on task or answer questions. Students who prefer a quieter educational environment can be given their own breakout rooms so they aren’t distracted by their peers. The end result is comparable to what you would expect in a differentiated classroom at a brick-and-mortar school.  

Implementing differentiated instruction strategies is easier with Echo360

Many teachers know the answer to the question “What is differentiated instruction?”, but knowing what it is and incorporating it into your teaching can be two completely different things. Differentiation requires more prep work than more traditional instruction strategies, but research from Tomlinson and others suggests that it offers superior benefits to all sorts of students. Education becomes more rewarding for students and teachers, and individual learners can enjoy lessons tailored to their specific needs. Differentiation is a valid strategy for students of all ages, from young children to college undergraduates and beyond. 


Our Echosystem is predicated on our e3 philosophy of equity, evidence, and engagement and places students at the epicenter of their own instructional ecosystem. It offers numerous ways to support differentiation, including multimodal learning through EchoVideo, virtual breakout rooms on EchoEngage, personalized assessments with EchoExam, and real-time polling with PointSolutions. Most importantly, the entire Echosystem was designed with ease of use in mind so you don’t need to learn complex skills to take full advantage of its features. 

We encourage you to request more information today to learn more about how Echo360 supports education! We would love to tell you more about how the Echosystem facilitates stronger, more effective differentiated instruction. 

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