Differentiated Instruction: Making Online Learning Work For All

Understanding Differentiated Instruction

Picture being in a classroom where every lesson feels like it was made just for you. That’s what differentiated instruction is all about—customizing lessons to match each student’s individual needs, skills, and interests. In a nutshell, it acknowledges that students are all unique and have different learning preferences and paces at which they understand subjects. So, it makes sense to offer various learning options to help each student succeed in their own way.

To start using this approach, just get to know your students first. Figure out what they’re good at, what they struggle with, and what gets them excited about learning. Mix things up with different ways of teaching and materials. For example, in a math class, some students might need a basic explanation while others might be ready to tackle complex equations. Let’s dive into differentiated instruction and see how you can leverage it in online classrooms.

4 Strategies For Identifying Students’ Learning Preferences

1. Surveys And Assessments

What’s a better way to learn about what your students prefer than by asking them directly? The easiest way to do it is through surveys; you can create them online in just a few minutes and deliver them easily through their designated link or via email. This makes it easier for you to analyze their results, too. Your questions should look something like, “Do you prefer texts, videos, or audio material in lessons?” or, “Do you usually need examples to better grasp concepts?” In addition to surveys, you can also create assessments to see how students better assimilate information. These can include problems for the students to solve, with their responses showing what method of learning they like more.

2. Observation

Even in a virtual setting, there are plenty of opportunities to observe students and gather valuable insights. You can do that through interactive activities, like live discussions or group projects, which will allow you to see your students in action. For example, you can tell who prefers working alone or in groups, who likes visual elements or verbal explanations, and who interacts more with the group chat. Participation levels really speak volumes, too. The best way to find out who’s attending full-time is through LMSs and online platforms. These give you data on who’s interacting with what content and how often they do it.

3. Communication

Having open communication with your students allows you to connect with them on a more personal level. Apart from regularly responding to their questions in the classroom’s group chat, try setting up virtual office hours. Invite them to one-on-one meetings to chat about their progress, challenges, and, of course, preferences. During these meetings, ask them how they feel about the material or what they find more engaging, like videos, assignments, or other activities. However, don’t forget to check in with them frequently and exchange feedback. Ask them to tell you which element they found more interesting in the previous lessons or what they thought of the last group project.

4. Data Analysis

Data is key when it comes to differentiated instruction and understanding your students. Most online learning platforms have analytics tools that show you how your students are using the courses. You can see things like which lessons are more popular, which videos your students watch the most, and which assessments they do best on. The most telling data is how well students are performing and at what activity. Those who do well on written assignments tend to prefer reading, while those who excel at interactive quizzes learn best through hands-on practice. This data will also reveal patterns in their learning journey, which will help you identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Tools For Differentiated Instruction Support In eLearning


Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are full of tools that can facilitate your differentiated instruction process. First, they offer you the ability to organize your content in a way that suits the different preferences of learners. For instance, people who prefer audio material can easily find podcasts, and students who understand concepts better through practice can find interactive activities and simulations. Additionally, LMSs help you create assessments that reflect each student’s unique way of learning. Whether it’s polls, quizzes, or written assignments, you can create all types of assessments to meet their needs.

Adaptive Learning Platforms

Adaptive learning platforms are all about using tech to customize learning for each student. They figure out where the students stand with their knowledge, then tweak the content and pace to fit. But how do they do it? Students, upon logging into the platform, take a quick test, which helps the system create a personalized learning path. This means it will recommend activities and resources based on what the students like and need. And, since they’re adaptive, these platforms keep changing the plan as students go along.

Collaboration Tools

By meeting their individual needs and learning preferences, collaboration tools provide students with flexible ways to work and learn together. But how does this help with differentiated instruction? Students have the freedom to work on their own, exactly how they want. With the help of these tools, they can collaborate on group projects while completing their individual assignments, each from their own devices and at their own pace. They can even create separate channels for various projects and use other tools to chat and make video calls. There are also multiple types of other platforms, from programs for task assignments to virtual bulletin boards, all of which help students learn in their own way.

Techniques For Online Differentiated Instruction

Tiered Assignments

Whatever their knowledge level, students will feel comfortable taking on tier-based assignments. That’s because these types of assignments ensure that all students are challenged and supported based on their needs. Specifically, tier assignments include different versions of the same material and are created to help even the students who came completely unprepared. The goal is to give assignments with the same goals but different levels of complexity. So, even though every student heads in the same direction, the route they take to get there is shaped according to their preferences.

Peer Tutoring

Peer tutoring is the practice of matching students with one another so they can help each other while learning. As it makes use of each student’s unique abilities to the advantage of others, this technique can be especially successful in an online environment. It’s a mutual exchange of ideas that benefits everyone, not just advanced students who lend a helping hand to those who struggle in lessons. To do this successfully, identify the students who would work well together and whose skills complement one another. Lastly, give them tasks to complete together, but make sure you’ve outlined the goals first.

Differentiated Grouping

Differentiated grouping involves creating groups of students with the same interests and preferences so that they can help each other. For example, suppose you notice that some students struggle to comprehend a specific concept. In that case, you can put them in a group to offer a more personalized teaching approach while also giving them the opportunity to help one another. In this technique, you’ll need videoconferencing platforms or tools that allow you to manage the different groups you create but also encourage communication and collaboration between team members and different teams.


Trying out differentiated instruction is an unusual approach in online teaching, but it can make a big difference for both you, as an educator, and your students. There’s nothing better than each student getting the individualized attention and support they need to succeed. By customizing your lessons to cater to different learning preferences, you’re not just teaching them important topics but, at the same time, creating a supportive and fun learning environment where everyone has equal opportunities to grow. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to try out different teaching methods from time to time to test out which works best for your classroom.

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