I recently had a reader ask me to clarify the difference between tracking and differentiation. I said that tracking refers to the systematic grouping of students into classes based on their overall achievement. By contrast, differentiated instruction is the adjusting of lesson activities and tasks for students in a single class who are at different levels. 

Students grouped for an activity by ability level.

Students grouped for an activity by ability level.

Most teachers face the daunting task of teaching a wide range of skill levels in a single class. They must stimulate and engage intellectually gifted students, while simultaneously scaffolding curriculum to support students at a lower level. This delicate balance is what many argue separates the best teachers from the herd.

Differentiated instruction involves assessing individual students to determine where they are in terms of content knowledge or skill level, then using a variety of strategies to effectively create curriculum that is, in effect, individualized.

Teachers may use any of the following strategies to differentiate instruction in a given class:  

  • Design curriculum of varied complexity
  • Use a variety grouping strategies
  • Modify expectations for outcomes
  • Tailor delivery
  • Provide tiered projects
  • Use technology/adaptive software to personalize practice 

Differentiated instruction excites the brilliant student to uncover deeper layers of learning, while simultaneously structuring curriculum to support lower level students or students with learning disabilities–both identified and unidentified.

Just as consumers know that a one-size-fits-all won’t work when buying a pair of jeans, educators know that one standard approach to teaching will not meet the needs of all–or even most–students. Without an attempt to vary instruction to meet the individual needs of each student, the curriculum is bound to bore some and baffle others.  Differentiating instruction is the key to reaching all students.

Do you have tips or strategies you have found useful differentiating your instruction? If so, please post a comment and share them!

19 Responses

  1. Great distinction. I am designing a self-paced mastery U.S. History course and I am struggling with how to individualize instruction. Right now I am thinking pre-assessment and students who score 80%+ will complete individual research while those below 80 will have a choice of activities ( videos, guided reading) to develop content. Is this truly differeniation or should I plan individually based on the pre-assessment? If so, wouldn’t that be time consuming? Thanks for the feedback

    • That sounds like an excellent approach, Kevin. I believe assessment must be ongoing so we can regularly regroup based on where students are at in relation to particular skills and learning objectives.


    • I love the idea of self-paced, but have so many “what ifs”! I teach math and feel that students could really benefit from this, but the biggest question is how to ensure everyone gets to where they need to be and ready to move on to the next class? Thanks for sharing!

    • A pacing guide may help to build within your units as well. If you give suggested due dates to keep kids moving, you can include tiered assignments, more practice, and extension options within each unit. If kids master the concepts faster than others, then they can “opt in” to the extensions to go deeper. If you provide more than one option, you’re also allowing them some choice. For example, in our Geometry class, an extension option was to build a geometrical sound city in Minecraft using angles, etc. to extend their learning. Kids jumped all over that one, but only if they had mastered all of the learning checks throughout the unit. This is how we flipped our mastery-based Geometry class in high school. Suggested pacing is key for kids.

  2. The key difference, as I understand it, is that tracking has to do with a student’s ability level while differentiation is not limited to ability level. We can differentiate based on ability level (readiness), interest or outcome.

  3. What does the process of differentiating lessons look like? How can a novice blended learning teacher learn to differentiate lessons using data without getting overwhelmed by the enormous amount of data he/she collects on a weekly basis?

  4. Does anyone know of any high performing high schools that have replace tracked math classes with purely differentiated classes?

  5. You can always differentiate according to: content (such as offering different Lexile-leveled readings), process (such as some students watching a YouTube video about moon phases, another group completing a simulation about moon phases, and another group- facilitated by the teacher- reading a non-fiction piece with pictures about moon phases), or product (such as some students creating a Google presentation, some students creating a brochure, and some students creating and performing a rap about their understanding of the concept).

  6. I think an important distinction is that differentiation allows for flexible grouping (ex: a student is ready for more depth/complexity with topic A, but not for topic B) and tracking is a longer term commitment.

    • Toby- this is an important point. It’s about what entry/exit points are provided to kids to keep testing the waters and extending their own ability/achievement/interest boundaries. With tracking, the decision is usually made once a year and that sends a strong message to all kids.

  7. I think if you focus on growth you will find students with lower achievement have more growth with differentiation than with tracking systems. Being exposed to the content is a huge factor. Use scaffolding and accommodations and watch for growth. I think you’ll find it worth the effort. Learning in the Fast Lane by Suzy Pepper Rollins has some great low- tech ideas.

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