Author Cara

Cara Head Teacher and Consultant

There is a great deal of confusion around what the term differentiation means, what different kinds of differentiation look like, and concerns about how differentiation can add to a teacher’s workload. Differentiation in teaching means tailoring learning instructions in classes to suit the needs of individual students. This doesn’t mean that you have to teach every student one-on-one. Differentiated teaching and learning incorporates individual, small group and whole group teaching.

Differentiation can come in many forms, but it is not just adjusting the students’ workload based on their abilities. Nor is it about increasing teachers’ workload by planning ten different lessons in one to meet the individual needs of students. If embedded into everyday practice, differentiation can actually alleviate teacher workload and naturally develop over time so that it does become more regular and part of classroom routines.

Differentiation has been misunderstood as only offering easier worksheets or tasks to some ‘low achieving’ students. But it does not mean having ‘low expectations’, which is how it has sometimes been interpreted. The use of effective differentiation means that we can enable the vast majority of students – of all abilities, needs, and backgrounds – to access teaching and learning.

Differentiated instruction allows for multiple pathways to ensure that students have equal and appropriate access to the curriculum; via a variety of classroom instruction techniques and assessments. Planning for differentiation involves changing the content, delivery or methods of learning to ensure every child learns in a way that’s suitable for them.

Why differentiate?

Not every student is the same, so teachers need to reflect on how some students may struggle with tasks that others excel at. A differentiated classroom provides opportunities for student success, but it is not a guarantee that all students will succeed. Students bring with them their own needs and barriers to learning that may make student achievement challenging, even in a differentiated classroom. Without differentiation, academic performance may decrease. The students in your class may become frustrated or bored – become disengaged from their learning. With a more tailored approach, every student should be challenged at their own level, so they can succeed on their own terms.

How to differentiate?

Teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:

  • Content

    What the students need to learn or how the student will get access to the information.

  • Process

    Activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content.

  • Products

    Projects, tasks, and assessment material that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what they have learned.

  • Learning environment

    The way the classroom works and feels.

There is a range of ways to differentiate, whatever the needs of individual students, depending on what you are trying to achieve. There’s no set way to do it, which is where a teacher’s creativity and knowledge of their learners are important.

Differentiation using ManageBac

ManageBac can support differentiated instruction to meet the needs of all students. This includes assessment differentiation, individual portfolios and project-based learning tools. You can find out more about these resources in this webinar.


Types of differentiation include:

  • Outcome

    Having different expectations of the output students should achieve. This could refer to the quality or quantity of work produced.

  • Support

    Expectations of output may be the same but the support provided may be different for individual or small groups of students. This may be through adult support or the use of resources and displays.

  • Task

    Providing different tasks to suit different students’ needs. This could include different worksheets which could differ in various ways, such as more use of visuals, less text, fewer questions etc. Be careful of making some tasks easier or less challenging, as there is a danger that this means lower expectations.

  • Resource/presentation

    Here the task is the same, but different resources are provided or it is presented in a different way.

  • Time

    The task and expectations for outcomes are the same, but some people have longer to complete it, and/or the task is broken down into shorter ‘chunks’. Increasing the time could apply to homework, where you could offer different deadlines. Chunking of tasks is a very useful strategy for many students and could be used as a general classroom strategy rather than as an exception.

  • Feedback

    Offer different feedback to different students, perhaps written and/or verbal, or make use of technology and provide video feedback. The best feedback is personalised to the needs and next steps of the individual student.

  • Groupings

    Teachers can use grouping strategies to address particular learning needs. Group students in different ways for different tasks such as by ability, friendship group, gender, random or mixed ability. Allocating roles to each member of the group can also help students organise themselves according to their different skills and capabilities.

Overall, teaching methods should be flexible and creative enough to give the best education for all learners. By thinking carefully about different students’ needs, understanding how to best engage them, and employing a mix of methods, all students should have the best possible opportunity to learn.

About the Author

Author Cara


Cara Head
Teacher and Consultant

Cara graduated from the University of Exeter in 2005 with a degree in Biological Sciences. She has over fifteen years of experience teaching in a range of secondary schools in the South West of England, with roles including Head of Science, Advanced Skills Teacher and Lead Practitioner. Most recently, Cara has been responsible for creating educational content for various international and UK-based examination boards.

Cara contributes to our ManageBac Topic Pages, which offer general resources to support best practices in teaching and learning across all subjects. You can access Topic Pages via your ManageBac account – check regularly for new materials, advice and ideas.

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