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Today’s One Thing for Teachers: Differentiating Instruction in a Virtual Setting

Bianca Davila

Bianca Dávila

The Learning Accelerator

Last week, we talked about strategies to assess evidence of student learning in a remote setting. Now that you have new data or have looked at existing data through a new lens, it’s time to put that data into action. An impactful way to improve student outcomes is through differentiation. Differentiation is not the same as individualized learning; rather, it’s an adjustment to one or more of the following: “the content (what students learn); the process (how students learn); or the product (how students demonstrate their mastery of the knowledge or skills),” (Tomlinson and Strickland, 2005). Successful differentiation can happen by utilizing students’ strengths and areas of growth to enhance their learning experiences. Three starting points include:

  1. Targeting instruction by strategically grouping students (both homogeneous and heterogeneous groups).
  2. Offering opportunities for choice.
  3. Presenting the same content in multiple ways to ensure universal accessibility of content.

When teaching and learning are shifted to a virtual space, the in-person support that many teachers use to differentiate instruction may look very different, which leads us to our big question this week: How do I differentiate remote instruction?

Though differentiation may take on multiple forms in different contexts, many tried-and-true strategies from the classroom can also be used in remote contexts, such as small groups, playlists, and peer-to-peer support. Remember that these don’t all have to happen in the same session or lesson – some can be integrated into scheduled face-to-face time, while others can be built into independent learning. In the spirit of starting simple, here is an example of a weekly schedule where different approaches to differentiation were used throughout the week:

  • Monday: Meet with the teacher (whole group or small group)
  • Tuesday: Engage in a group discussion on your learning management system or through another interactive virtual forum (e.g., Edmodo, Google Docs)
  • Wednesday: Work through a playlist independently with opportunities for student choice
  • Thursday: Meet with the teacher (whole group or small group)
  • Friday: Independent or team reflection and goal-setting

Most importantly, the strategies you decide to use need to reflect your goals for instruction and your insights around how your students might best learn the material. (Friendly reminder: learning styles are still not a research-backed concept, even in virtual settings!). At the same time, and as discussed in this piece about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in online environments, offering students different means of representation, action, and, expression through multiple entry points can support their ability to internalize and interact with the material. This resource from CAST provides a helpful overview of the guidelines that support UDL.

Explore the strategies below to learn about ways to differentiate remotely to tap into students’ strengths and support their specific areas of need.

1. Targeting instruction by strategically grouping students (both homogeneous and heterogeneous groups)

    Consider moving to small-group, online instruction, which can help you provide more material and support. This method can also open up more ways through which all students can engage and discuss ideas with you and their peers. Use the data you have to decide how to group your students for targeted instruction or group projects. This could be homogeneously (at similar skill levels), or by academic or social-emotional needs or interests. Heterogeneous (mixed ability) grouping is also a powerful, research-based strategy that creates opportunities for peer support, dialogue, and collaboration. Groups can be brought together for more traditional, synchronous instruction or more flexibly for student-driven projects and work time (e.g., through meetups or via asynchronous tools like Google Docs, FlipGrid, or discussion boards). Actions you might take include:

    • Assigning different groups differentiated playlists based on the needs you’ve identified from their data. If you have students that are struggling, work in previous content that other students might have mastered. For more advanced students, bring in more challenging content. This sample playlist from LINC demonstrates one way to do this.
    • Considering using leveled reading tools when grouping across skill levels so that all students can still participate with the content equally. A tool like Newsela can help you find leveled texts for every grade, which can be helpful for ensuring that all students can access and engage with the content together, particularly in social studies and science. At the same time, reading level shouldn’t be a barrier to grappling with rich, complex texts in literacy instruction and should never be the sole determinant of which content a student gets to work with.
    • Grouping students for project-based learning (PBL). When creating groups, take into consideration how students will collaborate with one another. Consider assigning student roles for group work so that each student is held accountable for a part of the project. Plan ahead to identify individual and group goals for each collaborative project. Use MyPBLWorks’s project planner to get started.
    • Have interactive online discussions. Don’t limit your discussions to written text. Allow students to converse with you and with one another via video and audio recording, as well. Interacting with classmates in paired or group discussions allows students to process your lesson content first on an individual level and then in a pair, small group, or whole-group setting. This can be particularly helpful for students who can build off of what they hear other students say. Having these discussions in real time helps students who may not be as comfortable with reading and writing to still participate. For example, use a platform like Flipgrid, which allows students to interact via video recordings and text.

    Offering opportunities for choice

    Creating opportunities for meaningful choice-making can deepen student engagement. Assuming a common, rigorous bar for mastery is applied, structures like playlists and choice boards can be used to give students autonomy and allow them to work at their own pace. Strategies focused on differentiating using choice might include:

    • Providing choice around how students will demonstrate their understanding of learned content. Allow students to choose how they will demonstrate their knowledge using a variety of delivery methods. For example, let students choose between writing an essay, creating a slide deck, or preparing a video to answer a question from a lesson. In addition, students can be offered opportunities to go deeper in a given task or content area.
      • For example, color-code your playlist and choice boards to align with different levels of rigor. Green activities cover basic concepts and require basic mastery, yellow activities require students to apply their knowledge, and red activities require students to go deeper, evaluate, or create.
    • Provide students choice in types and sequence of learning activities.
      • When using online learning platforms like IXL, allow students to choose what learning tasks they’d like to engage with. If you have a predetermined set of tasks students must complete, let them select the order in which they’ll complete them.
      • Use playlists to allow students to work through a lesson, activity, or unit at their own pace. Playlists can be assigned classwide, or for deeper differentiation, you can assign different playlists to students based on their needs. Check out this guidance document from Education Elements on how to build your own playlist or investigate a variety of sample playlists that you can modify to meet your students’ needs.
      • Consider rigor when giving options – students should be mastering the same content, even if it happens through different pathways.
    • Use student interest to create an offline choice board. Consider how you can shift learning offline to give students a break from technology. Prepare an offline activities choice board that prompts students to choose an activity to engage in, reflect, and share their findings with the class.
    • Offer students choice over how they work – and with whom. For example, students could have the option to attend a synchronous lesson or work independently on specific content. Students can also select their own working partners or teams.

    Presenting the same content multiple ways to ensure universal accessibility of content

    It’s important to evaluate how accessible your online content is to your students. Your students have a variety of needs, skills, and interests. In turn, the ways in which they access content and engage with learning can vary greatly. Offering a variety of entrance points, supports, and even timing for your content can help your learners further their understanding and mastery. Some students may learn best through interactive online experiences, while others may enjoy reading articles and writing about their learnings. Even when you’re using multiple entrance points to your content, you need to always make sure that all students are working towards the same common goal.

    Consider the following ways to help your students to engage with the content based on their needs:

    • Offer content in multiple modalities. Don’t stick to only static slides for your presentations – embed videos, graphics, external links, and audio in addition to text to craft a richer learning experience and help your students deepen their understanding. Combine written or verbal material with visual material (graphics, timelines, photos, or graphic organizers) to help them make important connections within the content you’re presenting.
    • Ensure digital content meets accessibility standards. Consider how you can make your digital content more accessible for students with accessibility features like text-to-speech options, image descriptions, or enlarged fonts.
      • Scan websites you may consider using with your students through accessibility scanners, like Wave.
      • Use Open Dyslexic Font to make text easier to read for students who may have dyslexia or visual impairments.
      • Use Mercury Reader to remove distractions and simplify text from webpages.
    • Provide captions for your recorded lessons. Record any live lessons and add captions to help students follow along with the content. Upload your recorded video with captions to your learning management system so students can access the material whenever they need it. This strategy benefits students who may be hard of hearing or students who are learning English – and it helps all students as a general learning aid to improve focus and support comprehension.
    • Provide notes for synchronous learning sessions. In addition to recording all sessions, provide students with a copy of your notes for specific synchronous learning sessions where you might cover new or potentially challenging content. This allows students to supplement their own notes with a structured, higher level of focus and insight into the lesson and can provide extra support to students who may have been unable to attend your live lesson.

    We hope you’ve found these resources helpful! Want to go deeper? Consider exploring these Problems of Practice. While these guides were not designed exclusively for remote learning, they contain many relevant strategies and ideas you can apply now or in your planning for next year!

    Check in with us each week to learn about more vetted resources for remote learning. You can also follow #TLAOneThing on Twitter to track all of our tips in the coming weeks.

    Looking for more help? TLA has partnered with GetSetUp.io to help teachers access free group-based online training on screencasting and video tools. Additionally, TLA has created an Insight on student engagement in virtual and hybrid learning to share more actionable guidance, examples, and resources.

    We would love to hear your feedback on this series – or your requests for additional help! Also, feel free to reach out to us at info@learningaccelerator.org to share your thoughts and questions.

    Bianca Davila

    Bianca Dávila

    The Learning Accelerator

    Bianca Dávila is Chief of Staff at The Learning Accelerator. She blends her expertise and passion for educational leadership, team culture, process innovation, and organizational management to support the TLA team.