What to differentiate

Differentiating learning can be enabled by differentiating the teaching approach to content, process, product and the learning environment.

Deciding what to differentiate

Teachers can differentiate classroom elements in relation to student needs.

Image: Differentiate the classroom elements of content, process, product and learning environment and differentiate by student characteristics such as readiness, interests and learning profile.

Differentiating by classroom elements

Classroom elements which can be differentiated include content, process, product and learning environment.

Differentiating content

All students need to be given access to the same core content and taught the same big ideas and concepts. Content includes:

  • what the teacher plans for students to learn
  • how the students gain access to the desired knowledge, understanding and skills.

Differentiating access to content involves adjusting the degree of complexity. For example, if the learning goal/ intention is for all students to write persuasive paragraphs, some of the students may be learning to use a topic sentence and supporting details, while others may be learning to use outside sources to justify their viewpoint.

Differentiating process

Process can be thought of as the learning experiences that are designed to help students make sense of, understand and use the content. An effective learning experience involves students in using an essential skill to come to an understanding about a critical idea and is clearly focused on a learning intention/goal. For example, one student may independently explore a topic while another may collaboratively work on a task with others.

Differentiating product

Product refers to the artifact/ item a student can use to demonstrate their knowledge understanding and skills. A good product allows students to:

  • apply what they can do
  • extend their understanding and skill
  • become involved in critical and creative thinking
  • reflect on what they have learned.

For example, to demonstrate understanding of the plot of a story one student may create a skit while another student writes a book report.

Differentiating the learning environment

Learning environment refers to the way the classroom works and feels. When differentiating the learning environment the teacher considers the students’ ‘environmental’ preferences. For example, some students need lots of work space, some need a quiet area, some like to engage in discussions, some like to work alone.

Differentiating access to content

Content includes curriculum topics, concepts, or themes. It reflects the prescribed standards, state or national, and presents essential facts and skills.

Differentiating content involves:

  • providing students with choices in order to add depth to learning
  • providing students with additional resources that match their levels of understanding.

  • use pre-assessment to determine where students need to begin, then match them with appropriate activities, such as:
    • student/ teacher conference
    • a short 5-minute talk
    • K-N-W chart
    • What do I Know, Need to know & Want to know
    • journal
    • write what you know about...
    • List - If I say ... What does it make you think of?
    • concept map
    • pre-test
    • student reflection
  • use ‘hands on’ activities for some learners to help them understand a new idea
  • use texts or novels at more than one reading level
  • present information through both whole-to-part and part-to-whole
  • use a variety of reading-buddy arrangements to support and challenge students when working with different texts
  • re-teach students who need a further demonstration or exempt students who already demonstrate mastery from reading a chapter or sitting through a re-teaching lesson
  • use texts, computer programs, tape recordings and videos as a way of conveying key concepts to varied learners
  • use Bloom’s Taxonomy to encourage thinking about content at several levels.

Differentiating process

Differentiating process refers to how students make sense or understand the information, ideas and skills being studied. It reflects student learning styles and preferences.

Differentiating process involves:

  • providing varied options at different levels of difficulty or based on differing student interests
  • offering different amounts of teacher and student support for a task
  • giving choices about how students express their understanding
  • varying the learning process depending upon how students learn.

  • use tiered activities through which all learners work on building the same important understandings and skills but proceed with different levels of support, challenge or complexity
  • provide interest centres that encourage students to explore subsets of class topics that are of particular interest to them
  • develop personal agendas (task lists written by the teacher and containing both ‘common’ work for the whole class and work that addresses the individual needs of learners) to be completed either during specified ‘agenda time’ or if students complete core work ahead of time
  • offer ‘hands-on’ supports for students who need them
  • vary the length of time a student may take to complete a task in order to provide additional support for a struggling learner or to encourage an advanced learner to pursue a topic in greater depth
  • provide access to a variety of materials that target different learning preferences and readiness
  • develop activities that target auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learners
  • establish areas/stations for inquiry-based, independent activities
  • use flexible grouping to group and regroup students, for example, according to content, ability, interests.

Differentiating product

Product tends to be tangible items, such as reports, tests, brochures, speeches or performances, and reflects student understanding.

Differentiating product involves:

  • providing challenge, variety and choice
  • giving students options about how to express required learning, for example, create a puppet show, write a letter or develop an annotated diagram.

  • allow students to help design products around learning goals/ intentions
  • encourage students to express what they have learned in varied ways
  • allow for varied working arrangements - alone, with a group
  • provide or encourage the use of varied types of resources in preparing products
  • provide product assignments at varying degrees of difficulty to match student readiness
  • use a wide variety of assessments
  • work with students to develop rubrics that match and extend students’ varied skill levels
  • use a continuum:
    • simple to complex
    • less independent to more independent
    • clearly defined to 'fuzzy' problems.

Differentiating the learning environment

The learning environment is the 'climate' of a classroom. It includes the operation and tone of the classroom, including class rules, furniture arrangement, lighting, procedures and processes.

Differentiating the learning environment involves:

  • considering the look and feel of the classroom
  • providing a safe and positive environment for learning
  • allowing for individual work preferences
  • managing the learning space.

  • make sure there are places in the room to work quietly and without distraction as well as places that invite student collaboration
  • provide materials that reflect a variety of cultures and home settings
  • set out clear guidelines for independent work that matches individual needs
  • develop routines that allow students to get help when teachers are busy with other students and cannot help them immediately
  • help students understand that some learners need to move around to learn while others do better sitting quietly
  • vary the places where learning occurs, for example, the lab or outside
  • use alternative seating
  • identify classroom management procedures that would make the learning environment safe or more supportive.

Differentiating by student needs

Teachers can differentiate according to student needs or characteristics, as students differ in:

  • their readiness to work with a particular idea or skill at a given time
  • their interest in pursuits or topics
  • their learning profiles which may be shaped by learning style, group and environmental preferences.

When a teacher differentiates, the 3 factors to consider individually or in combination are:

  • Readiness: readiness refers to the skill level and background knowledge of the student. Teachers use diagnostic assessments to determine a students’ readiness.
  • Interest: interest refers to topics that students may want to explore or that will motivate them. Teachers can ask students about their outside interests and even include these in their planning processes.
  • Learning profile: students’ learning profile includes learning style (for example, is the student a visual, auditory, tactile or kinaesthetic learner?), grouping preferences (for example, does the student work best individually, with a partner or in a large group?) and environmental preferences (for example, does the student need lots of space or a quiet area to work?).
Image: Detail of the classroom elements that can be differentiated - content, process, product and learning environment - and student characteristics of readiness, interests and learning profile.


  • Tomlinson, C. A., & Allan, S. D. (2000). Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms.
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