Differentiated Learning: Tailor Your Teaching to the Needs of Every Learner

Differentiation is a valuable pedagogical tool for educators to create more equitable learning experiences for every student. Learn about differentiation and how to implement it in your classroom.

‎Derek Wiebke · Oct, 2023

Alt Text

Do you remember coming home from school with a backpack full of books and a couple hours’ worth of homework as a child? If not, you must be pretty lucky to not have had any homework. If so, this scenario may sound pretty familiar.

You ask an adult–perhaps one of your parents, an older sibling, or another caretaker–for help with your homework, and they start using a completely different method to solve the problem than the method your teacher taught you earlier that day. “This is how I learned it,” they may tell you, and you wonder why your teacher hadn’t taught you how to solve the problem this way.

Maybe you’re a little lost at first, but you follow them along and see that they solve the problem with ease. Now you’re curious. You try to complete the same problem using the method you recently learned in class, and you see that you get the same answer using both methods. Why hadn’t your teacher taught you the method that you learned at home?

You ask your teacher the next day before class and find out that the method you learned at home requires extra knowledge about this mathematical concept, which many of your classmates haven’t yet learned. Nevertheless, there are a group of students who do understand this other method, so your teacher starts grouping you together to work on these types of problems.

This is an example of differentiated learning in which the teacher adapts what they are teaching–or the way they are teaching–to meet the needs and readiness of their students.

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is a valuable pedagogical tool for educators to create more equitable learning experiences for every student. At its core, differentiation is a framework for effective teaching that involves providing a diverse classroom of learners with a variety of methods to understand new information, regardless of differences in ability.

In order to implement effective differentiated instruction in the classroom, educators should first do their research on an important subject–their students. By recognising and understanding each student’s unique background, experience, and subject matter expertise, educators can better meet every student where they are and help them on their own learning journey.

While this can be an overwhelming step for educators who have large, diverse groups of students with different needs, levels of readiness, and learning styles, getting to know students better throughout the term will help instructors tailor their teaching throughout the semester, even with limited resources. Macmillan Learning’s digital learning platform, Achieve, can help simplify this step with its Goal Setting and Reflection Surveys that give students the opportunity to state and reflect on their goals and needs, and to share this information easily with instructors.

Components of Differentiated Learning

Once educators have a better understanding of the students in their classroom, they can then turn their attention to the content, process, and product involved in their differentiated instruction.


  • Content = curriculum or what students learn
  • Process = how students learn it
  • Product = what students produce that shows what they’ve learned



At the content level of differentiated learning, educators may have the option to adapt what they are teaching to meet the needs and readiness of their students. As part of the research phase–when getting to know students–instructors might consider including a course readiness assessment or diagnostic test to gain a better understanding of what their students already know. This way they can begin tailoring the content of their lessons or providing additional reading assignments for students who might need to brush up on a few concepts.

Educators may find that they have a very diverse group of students when it comes to readiness and prior knowledge of the course’s subject matter. Some students may be completely unfamiliar with concepts and others may exhibit partial or complete mastery of certain topics.

The goal of differentiated learning is not to raise or lower standards for different groups of students but to provide learning opportunities that are appropriate and effective for each student, providing methods for understanding a concept and absorbing new information.


The process level of differentiated learning further emphasises students’ unique backgrounds, traits, and experiences while focusing on different learning styles. Instruction at many universities has often followed a one-size-fits-all approach, mostly through the delivery of lectures. It was very instructor-centric rather than student-centric.

Differentiation gives instructors that chance to focus on the individual, to ensure that each learner can achieve their fullest potential. Students’ culture, socioeconomic status, language, gender, motivation, ability, disability, previous educational experiences, interests, and many other factors have shaped them to create totally unique learners.

Taking into account different learning styles, educators can help students by working with them to develop tailored study plans or by varying content delivery methods through things like reading assignments, lecture, active learning, peer learning, and so on.


The product level of differentiation is understood as what each student produces at the end of a lesson or course to demonstrate mastery of content. This can take the form of tests, evaluations, projects, reports, or other assessments.

Instructors should think about what they expect students to show and accomplish on each assignment and at the end of the course. They should ask themselves how they might change their grading scale and expectations, acknowledging that each student starts from a different place and that progress is the main goal. Might you choose to grade on a curve or award students points for showing their work?

With differentiated learning, students should have the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in various ways; again, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Tips for Scaling Differentiation in Large Courses


  • Implement one small change. Educators can start small. Cindy Albert from the University of Wisconsin-Eau-Claire advocates that faculty start by making one small change when seeking to level up their teaching. This can also apply to differentiation.
  • Use learning platforms (ed tech) that deliver personalised learning experiences. Learning Curve in Macmillan Learning’s digital learning platform Achieve offers students a more personalised learning approach.
  • Aggregate the data using tools like Achieve and iClicker. Achieve offers Goal Setting and Reflection Surveys, and iClicker can be used to take pulse checks with exit surveys, allowing instructors to quickly see in aggregate what some common needs are across students, and to drill down to the exact student-level needs.