Differentiation to improve engagement and learning

Teachers who differentiate effectively call on information that pinpoints what students know now, and what they are ready to learn next.

Differentiated teaching is how teachers target their instruction to extend the knowledge and skills of every student in every class, regardless of their starting point. The objective of differentiation is to lift the performance of all students, including those who are falling behind and those ahead of year level expectations.

Differentiation benefits students across the learning continuum, including students who are highly able and gifted.  

When differentiating teaching to suit the needs of individual students, teachers use a variety of strategies to help students become personally invested in, and take ownership of their learning. Differentiated teaching allows students at risk of disengagement to experience meaningful learning.

What is effective differentiation?

Teachers who differentiate effectively use a range of data sources to pinpoint what students currently know, and what they are ready to learn next.

Data enables teachers to plan well-scaffolded learning pathways so that all students have a point of entry. Student data can also identify gaps in knowledge and skills that can be used for learning intervention.

Some examples of potential data sources include observations in the classroom (including the observations of other teachers), formative assessment, and feedback from students and their parents or carers.

Using data, teachers can decide what to differentiate in their instruction, choosing from:

  1. Content - what students are expected to learn
  2. Process - how teachers will teach and how students will explore or undertake their learning. Type of instruction and activities undertaken in the lesson
  3. Product - how the students demonstrate their learning
  4. Learning environment - the physical and effective nature of the classroom. Classrooms should be stimulating and conducive to learning, and places where students feel valued, safe and supported to take risks to support their learning.

Implementing classroom-based strategies to support differentiated teaching

Teachers can draw upon existing sources of evidence to assess student learning needs and strengths.

To implement differentiated strategies to support student needs and strengths, teachers can:

  • reflect on the available information on students as learners and any additional social, emotional and behavioural considerations when planning the learning and teaching program
  • consider the following elements when planning a differentiated approach: the curriculum, the set-up of the learning environment, approaches to classroom management, the use of formative assessments for learning and instructional strategies that are responsive to student need
  • base interventions on information gathered about the student's readiness, interests and learning profiles.

Top tips for effective differentiation

To effectively target your teaching, consider:

  • students with disabilities or disadvantaged backgrounds may need additional adjustments of varying degrees to participate in the classroom on the same basis as their peers
  • input from colleagues including specialist staff can assist to implement a range of teaching strategies that support the different learning goals and learning needs
  • student agency and engagement by providing choice and input into the learning activities from students and assisting them to set realistic and challenging goals
  • using formative assessment practices to monitor student learning progress toward and beyond learning goals and adjust your learning plan in response to this formative feedback
  • undertaking targeted interventions to supplement the learning for groups of students experiencing difficulties. These interventions could be planned as part of a Professional Learning Community, or in collaboration with Literacy and Numeracy Improvement Teachers (for secondary schools) and Learning Specialists.

Starting a conversation with colleagues

The questions below offer conversation starters for discussions in Professional Learning Communities, teaching teams, or individual conversations with learning specialists and other teachers:

  • How can we assess prior knowledge?
  • What ongoing formative assessment tools can we employ to respond to student needs?
  • How well do we collaborate with students to co-design appropriate goals to progress their learning?
  • How can the classroom environment support the student to learn?
  • Where are we located on the continuum of practice for High Impact Teaching Strategies 10: Differentiated teaching practice?
  • What professional learning will support us to improve our practice?

Explore the latest professional practice note

A practice note has been developed to support you and your teachers in implementing differentiated teaching strategies:

Professional practice note 16: excellence in differentiation to increase student engagement and learning outcomes (PDF, 423KB)

For more information, or to share your feedback, email: professional.practice@edumail.vic.gov.au.