Differentiation: Top 10 tips

Differentiation has been the buzz word for the last few years in curriculum. At times, it can feel like we’re over complicating a pretty simple concept. In essence, the objective is to reach every student in the class and help them ‘make meaning’ for themselves; about the content, concepts or skills. Too often, we tend to set questions or tasks that result in the student regurgitating the content without truly engaging.

So here are 10 things you can do to aid differentiation...

1. Pre-testing

Always get a snapshot of where your students are at before you begin. This may be at the start of a unit or at the start of an individual lesson. By conducting a pre-test, you are immediately getting an insight into students’ prior knowledge and breadth of understanding. Some examples of efficient pre-testing include: Entry ticket – students write down what they know on a piece of paper and submit to the teacher. This may be ‘three facts’, or in answer to a specific question such as ‘list five famous rivers across Australia.’

Google forms – creating a Google form allows for quick development of basic questions. The teacher gets an immediate snapshot of student understanding in the spreadsheet that is automatically collated. Google forms also has a ‘quiz’ option where the student is automatically given their results upon completion. This is suitable when the teacher is looking for a quick, qualitative assessment in order to move forward with the class tasks.

2. Feedback

As teachers, we often collect feedback in the form of class work, assessments and tests. Just as importantly, we need to be systematically gathering feedback from the students about their perceptions of the teaching. By routinely gathering feedback on the students’ perception of our teaching, we can gain insights into the effectiveness of the methods and approaches we are using. In turn, we can then make adjustments, thus ‘differentiating’.

3. Alphabet key

One of Tony Ryan’s renowned ‘Thinker’s Keys’, the ‘alphabet key’ can be applied across a multitude of year levels, subjects and competency levels. Students are required to write (or type) each letter of the alphabet down the side of the page. The teacher sets a task to be completed according to the letters of the alphabet and the topic. Tasks can be allocated at a class level (for example, all students create a sentence) and then differentiated for individuals or groups.


Beginner level: Write a word for every letter of the alphabet relating to ‘the outsiders’:

Middle level: Create a sentence for every letter of the alphabet related to ‘technology’.

Higher level: Construct a question for every letter of the alphabet related to ‘chemical reactions’.

Cross subject examples

For example, you might have asked students to brainstorm persuasive techniques and then write a word for each letter of the alphabet. The second example, for Australian history, is to write a sentence beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

4. Graphic organisers

The point of the graphic organiser is to allow students to organise and classify information in a simple and visual way. Many graphic organisers were first used for business purposes and boardrooms, subsequently filtering into schools as part of the ‘thinking curriculum.’

In a PMI chart, students must justify what they think should go in each column for ‘Plus’, ‘Minus’ and ‘Interesting’.

A Venn diagram provides a framework for information that displays differences and similarities.

A cross classification chart is a simple table layout that allows students to gather information on topics and break it down into separate categories. This is a great starting point to have students identify some basic facts or information which they are then required to classify under different headings.

5. Brainstorming (working interdependently)

‘Working interdependently’ (one of Art Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind) allows students to learn from others and build on knowledge and ideas in a collaborative environment. Padlet is an example of a platform that allows for collaborative brainstorming. It is also useful as students can access it online.

Brainstorm carousel (class activity)

A piece of poster paper or butcher’s paper is placed on each table group. Students start in small groups and add to the poster their brainstorming ideas. Groups rotate through the tables, each with a different topic to add information to.

Example: ‘Sustainability’

Table 1: Water

Table 2: Solar Power

Table 3: Food

Table 4: Recyclables

Table 5: The planet

6. Flipped learning

Creating a video can be a time efficient way of providing information. While there are countless videos available online, students tend to learn best when it’s coming from a person they already know, i.e. their own teacher. The benefits of flipped learning are:

  • It can be viewed as homework
  • It can be viewed, and reviewed, at the student’s own pace
  • It can be built on as a repository of different topics (for example, once a video on ‘Writing an Introduction’ is constructed, the teacher can use this in subsequent years and for multiple classes)
  • It’s kept short and sharp, approximately 5 minutes.

7. Visual representations

Having students represent their knowledge in a visual way can reinforce learning. Students must first process what they are learning in order to plan what they want to represent. They then need to conceptualise their learning in a visual way. This could be in the form of:

  • a cartoon strip
  • selecting images from the internet to represent an idea.

8. Activity matrix

An activity matrix allows for student choice and negotiation of tasks. There are many examples of matrices using Thinker’s Keys, Multiple Intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy. The point is to provide a range of activities that are appropriate to the topic and offer scope for students to work at different levels and across a range of learning styles. It can be a good idea for the teacher to set some sort of criteria to ensure that students are not choosing from all of the same level or mode (for example, all ‘understanding’ tasks or all ‘kinaesthetic’ tasks).

9. Be the author

To ensure that the students are ‘making meaning’ we must provide structures and tasks that allow them to re-conceptualize the information.


  • Write a newspaper article:

– “The true story of the Black Death”

– “Maps - are they a thing of the past?”

  • Create a recipe of the characteristics of a character:

– 1 cup of flowing black locks

– A pinch of cynicism

– Mix it with some sense of humour etc.

  • Write a letter to the author of the textbook explaining what you liked and disliked about the chapter you’ve been studying (eg the solar system)
  • Create a timeline of important events
  • Write a series of true/false statements to share in a partner activity.

10. Peer feedback

Having students read and critique each other’s work encourages critical thinking. It also allows for them to learn from a peer instead of the teacher. This strategy provides an opportunity to look at how other students complete or interpret a task. Suggestions for conducting peer feedback:

Pair students and have them read each other’s work. They must then offer two compliments and one suggestion for improvement.

Another suggestion is to do as above, but students have a series of ‘appointments’ on a clock. All students draw the clock face with times 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. They must then circulate the room to allocate a different person for each ‘appointment’. When the teacher instructs them to meet with their ‘3pm appointment’ the students find their partner for that time. The feedback session should have a specific time limit to ensure students are focused.

Abbey Boyer, Kolbe Catholic College Greenvale Victoria is a teacher and member of the IEU VicTas Branch.