GuidesWebinarsCase studiesWhite PapersBlogOther Resources

What does a differentiated curriculum look like?

Mary DeanNovember 27, 2019

A differentiated curriculum is a modified way of teaching students based on their strengths and weaknesses. It comes in many shapes and forms, but overall, the structure of differentiated curriculum should keep students interested and meet their needs, even if they differ from their peers.

Often, when a student masters a certain unit in class, they’re allowed to complete an independent study. Meanwhile, the rest of the class works toward understanding and mastering the coursework through a traditional learning approach. It doesn’t take any more time for teachers, and each student will have ample time and attention to master areas in which he or she needs some extra support.

Keep reading to learn more about this method of using differentiated instruction and how it can benefit both you and your students.

How using differentiated curriculum might look

The best way to determine which students will benefit from this setup at any given time is to assign a practice test. The typical rule of thumb is that any child who scores above 85% on the test can use teaching time as a free period to focus on independent work. However, if you’d like to require a higher score for the cutoff, you can certainly modify these requirements.

Offer students who score below the minimum extra support to be successful. It is important to note that these students are not singled out or thought of as less intelligent. They are simply grouped with students of similar aptitude so they can all learn at their own pace. This ensures organization and structure during class time. It also helps teachers to target specific goal areas identified through testing.

Typically, each student will have strengths in at least one area of coursework. Let’s suppose one of your students excels in math but struggles with literature. You could permit them to do independent study during a math lesson but instruct them at a regular pace in literature. The system gives everyone a chance to participate in independent study, ensuring that no one feels left out.

alphabet-class-tech-cube-Photo Pexels web
Photo: Pexels

Who benefits from a differentiated curriculum

When a differentiated curriculum is correctly implemented correctly in a classroom, everyone benefits. It allows instructors to identify and assist students who need more help in certain areas. You will be able to spend your time more wisely, giving support to students who need it the most. This isn’t to say that more skilled students won’t receive your attention. Rather, you won’t need to check on them as frequently.

Differentiated curriculum for gifted students

Gifted students also benefit from a differentiated curriculum, as it allows them to learn at a faster rate. It can be difficult to take a one-size-fits-all approach to differentiating curriculum for gifted students since each is special and unique in his or her way.

There are many ways that you can go about modifying your curriculum to accommodate a talented student. One example is offering a chance to complete classwork faster. There’s an expectation that a gifted student will comprehend ideas and master skills at an accelerated pace as compared to their classmates. Fostering an environment that encourages them to work at their own pace and rewarded for doing so ensures that they’re able to reach their full potential.

Differentiated curriculum for students with special needs 

Students with special needs succeed well in classrooms with a differentiated curriculum. If you have a student who needs more face-to-face time, this approach is a wonderful way to identify this need.

Additionally, a differentiated curriculum gives these students a chance to shine in their strongest areas. They can have extra time to focus on things that interest them and that they perform well in. This will boost morale and self-confidence, which will encourage your students to come to class motivated to participate and learn.

Here’s an example: Say you have a student who struggles with reading and writing and is significantly below grade level. Instead of requiring everyone to write a research paper, allow students (including this one) the option of creating a visual representation instead. When you embrace their strengths, students feel much more confident about their personal abilities.

composition-creativity-desk-education-Photo Pexels web
Photo: Pexels

How to implement a differentiated curriculum in the classroom

When a student has successfully passed the requirements to pursue independent study, there must still be structure in their school day. A good way to ensure that students understand your expectations is to draw up a contract. The contract should state students who score above a certain percentage on the unit test can work independently during the teaching period. The activity they choose isn’t of much significance, but they must commit to being productive.

For example, when teaching a math unit, you can allow students who already exhibited mastery of the section to work on more difficult problems, or they can play math games. A student might also choose to work on a completely different subject entirely. Whether or not you should allow this in your classroom depends on your comfort zone and the student’s desires.

Similarly, if you usually assign writing prompts on Wednesdays, use the Thursday or Friday before to give a similar test to the whole class. You can exempt students that show mastery of the week’s literature skill for the week. They might use their free time in class to work on more difficult concepts, or they can choose to tutor another student using their knowledge. 

Not only will this ensure that students get the most out of their learning experience, but it will also create a team environment in your classroom. Each student will feel supported academically, as they will have endless resources at their disposal when they need extra help.

Some teachers worry about students goofing off during free time, but there are ways to avoid this. One is to use interactive behavior management systems like Classcraft that encourage students to make good decisions while working independently.

The concept of “do-overs”

In a standard classroom environment, teachers hand out assignments or tests, students get graded, then case closed. In a class that works according to a differentiated curriculum, the rules are a little different.

The primary goal of this method is to make sure each student gets it right eventually. Some students will turn in a perfect product on their first try. Others may need a few revisions to get there, but they will eventually rise to the same level as their peers with a little extra instruction. The idea is to suggest changes and help propel your students to reach that desired level of mastery.

Consider each new assignment a rough draft. Those who score well can move on to study areas of their choice. The group that needs more help in an area can work together to determine what went wrong and how to fix it. You might even be able to help a conversation about what extra support students need.

Tips for organization

Keep in mind that the time students have earned by showing mastery in one area shouldn’t remediate another. They must have time to work on whatever they wish. The basic premise of a differentiated curriculum is to encourage students to succeed and reward them for it. Forcing a child to work on a subject he is not strong in or doesn’t enjoy is likely to have a negative effect.

Keep a “Work in Progress” folder for each student in this class. You should utilize this folder to store independent study projects while not in use. This way, you and your students can keep tabs on all the work completed. If needed, you can hold a student accountable for breaking their contract.

students throw paper
Photo: Aleksandr Skrypko/reshot

Concerns about behavior problems

Behavior problems are usually linked to one of two causes: inappropriate curricula or lack of structure in a learning environment. Some teachers have a concern that students will display poor behavior if they work on independent projects. This is a valid fear, but this only happens on very rare occasions. Again, Classcraft is another option if you want to encourage your students to care about their learning community and stay on topic.

The learning environment is conducive to focusing on subjects that they are passionate about which allows students to make the most of their education. Other tools, elements, and customizations support PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) efforts in the classroom and can be used to create a more positive school culture.

Never stop learning

Differentiated curriculum recognizes that both the teacher and the students are constantly learning. You should always be looking for new opportunities and ideas to bring into your classroom to help your students succeed.

As you make these changes, you may find things that work and others that don’t along the way. Flexibility will go a long way in this case. If something doesn’t work for your class, move on and find something new to do in the future.

If you find that an idea or activity worked well in the past but now seems stagnant, there is no shame in switching things up! The classroom is an ever-changing environment. You must be willing to keep things updated and organized.

Another thing to keep in mind is that one test cannot determine a student’s capabilities forever. As you progress and each child begins to get a better grasp on coursework, they may move to the group that exemplifies mastery. This is why it is so important to test your kids on their skills often. It may surprise you to see how giving students permission to study subjects that interest motivates them to succeed in other areas!

Photo: Google Edu

Personalized Learning

The Griffon

Want to stay in the loop about Classcraft? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for updates on new features and fixes, pedagogical content, and much more!

Want to stay in the loop about Classcraft? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for updates on new features and fixes, pedagogical content, and much more!