High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching

PLC Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that all students can master their individual objectives and continually grow.

Differentiation is a key high impact teaching strategy (HITS) used by teachers to craft lessons that provide the right amount of support and challenge for every student.

Professional learning Communities (PLC) Regional Manager Shane Lockhart explains how differentiated teaching can ensure that all students can master their individual objectives and continually grow even if they aren't necessarily at the same starting level.

The whole purpose of differentiation is to look at the relevant skill level s of students and ask: "What are we going to do to increase depth, broaden, extend and improve upon the knowledge and the skill base of every student in the class, regardless of the starting point," explains Shane.

'It doesn't matter whether the student is at the top end of the academic spectrum, or whether the student requires additional support, such as a PSD-funding– it's relevant to their starting point.'

Differentiated teaching explained: Adjusting content, process and product

'Teaching isn't differentiated when a teacher sets the same task for every student, provides little variation, assesses all students against a general criterion, applies differentiated teaching techniques only for gifted students, and consistently establishes inflexible teaching groups,' Shane explains.

Differentiated teaching occurs when a teacher plans a lesson that adjusts either the content being discussed, the process used to learn or the product expected from students to ensure that learners at different starting points can receive the instruction they need to grow and succeed.

'A good differentiated teaching program means high quality, evidence-based instruction that meets students' needs within their zone of proximal learning development and has clear SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) goals.'

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting content

By adjusting content, you deliver different parts of the curriculum to different students depending on their starting level and what you expect them to learn in that lesson.

Practically, this may mean refining foundational areas for students or supporting others to extend themselves deeper into the curriculum.

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting the process

When you adjust the process of a lesson, you are changing the methods you use to teach and how you expect students to learn. This adjustment could look like employing collaborative learning with excelling students and explicit instruction with others, or using modelled approaches or multimedia.

Adjusting the process allows you to construct a lesson that supports individual learners to meet their learning outcomes in a way that suits their specific needs.

Differentiating a lesson by adjusting the product

When you adjust the product of a lesson, you are changing the specific success criteria for students to demonstrate what they have learned.

Teachers can differentiate the product of a lesson by asking some students to teach another student how to complete the object of the lesson, or to use the specific learning outcome to complete an authentic task. This can be comparable evidence of success and achievement.

In each instance, when making use of student grouping, careful consideration should be given to how/when to use mixed ability groups (to foster peer learning, peer teaching, modelling etc.) and same ability groups (to hone in on an identified need).

In action: Examples of how teachers and schools implement differentiation strategies in everyday teaching

As suggested by Shane, there are many different ways in which teacher can differentiate instruction for students. Differentiation starts from the assessment of students' prior knowledge and skills and the setting of individual learning goals. As much as possible, the goals and the respective success criteria should be set with the students. This fosters metacognition and self-regulation, empowering students to monitor their own progress.

Some of the most common strategies are illustrated below:

Response to Intervention (RTI)

Generally implemented as a whole school implementation strategy, RTI is a highly effective differentiation strategy. This multi-tier approach to classroom learning enables teachers to identify the abilities of individual learners and provide additional instruction to learners who may benefit from support in smaller, more targeted settings.

For more information about RTI in action, visit: Differentiated teaching at Carlton Gardens Primary School – In Our Classrooms

Explicit Teaching (HITS #3)

Explicit Teaching is one of the 10 HITS and it focuses on providing students with a sound and common understanding of the new knowledge and ideas, opportunities for group and independent practice.

The stages of the process, often simplified to "I do, we do, you do", provide multiple opportunities for differentiation.

During the "we do" phase, as teachers model the application of the new knowledge, they can assess the general level of understanding, provide feedback to the group, provide additional support to the whole class and plan for targeted interventions.

During the "you do" phase teachers can rove the room and provide individual feedback, set up small groups for additional and targeted instruction, or call individual students for conferencing.

To explore this teaching strategy, refer to: High impact teaching strategies (HITS) (pdf 2.47mb)

Multiple activities

As Shane suggests, one of the most common ways of differentiating learning is to differentiate the 'product'. By setting up multiple activities, teachers provide students with the opportunity to work on the same concepts and ideas, but at different levels of proficiency.

Students can therefore work within their zone of proximal development and, with the support and feedback of the teacher, gradually progress to the more challenging tasks.

To explore multiple activities in the classroom environment, watch the video: Differentiation in Maths at Sunshine College – AITSL

Multiple tasks can also be used to provide opportunities for multiple exposure, group work, targeted feedback and extension. Watch an example: Multiple activities to engage students at Humpty Doo Primary School - AITSL


Feedback plays a crucial role in differentiation. Timely and actionable feedback enables students to identify the next steps required to progress in their learning. In conjunction with clear learning intentions and success criteria, group and individualised feedback can promote self-regulation.

The use of peer-feedback can also assist students to deeply reflect on the success criteria and what their peer/themselves can do to improve their outcomes.

Watch an example of this teaching approach in action: Learning through feedback at Our Lady of Mercy College – AITSL

Flipped Classroom

In a Flipped Classroom the direct instruction phase of the learning happens online and often at home instead of homework. Students can access the instructional content (usually in the form of videos prepared by their teachers) at any time.

This model provides great opportunities for differentiation as it frees up time in the classroom allowing the teacher to spend more time working with students (e.g. providing feedback, addressing group or individual needs). Students can also learn to self-regulate and forge ahead or use the recorded materials to revise content that needs revision or clarification.

Watch an example of this tactic in action: The flipped classroom model - AITSL

Extra resources and models

High impact teaching strategies: Differentiation

Effective teachers use evidence of student learning readiness, learning progress, and knowledge of individual student learning profiles, to make adjustments for individuals so that all students experience challenge, success and improved learning.