7 Tips on Classroom Differentiation during a Pandemic

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Due to the pandemic, teachers are grappling with how to support students with unfinished learning. This blog post consists of tried and true tips on how you can create differentiated learning opportunities for students with diverse academic needs.

Differentiation. This is a key strategy that allows teachers to modify their educational practice in order to suit the socially, cognitively, culturally and otherwise individually diverse students in the classroom. There is no one size fits all solution, but there are multiple strategies that can be implemented in order to assure that students have what they need to achieve their maximum potential.

Differentiation proves especially powerful at this moment as teachers, due to the disruptions of the 2020 pandemic, are grappling with how to support students with unfinished learning. Parents are scrambling to best support their kids's learning at home. All students are adjusting and progressing at different rates that require unique support and this is amplified with the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of distance learning.

The ASSISTments platform allows for the application of many differentiation strategies and to exemplify this we invited 3 teachers: Renah Razzaq, a Math and Computer Science teacher at Doherty High School in Worcester, Massachusetts; Megan Randolph, an 8th Grade Math teacher at Centennial Middle School in Yuma, Arizona; and Alfons Prince a 7th Grade Math teacher at Center City PCS in Washington, D.C., to join our monthly webinar series and share their best differentiation strategies. You can watch the webinar here.

These experienced teachers share the top 7 strategies they are currently implementing to differentiate for the diverse learners in their classroom:

  1. Words are Important - Don’t expect your students to know the definition of key words. Whether they are a native English speaker or not math can be considered its own foreign language. You can help your students understand by frontloading key words, working through models together before assigning asynchronous work, and pairing students together so that they help each other.
  1. Routine is Key - Your class is working towards the same goals, but each student’s learning journey looks different. With so much change that is happening around your students, creating a routine that focuses on the learning goals will help students to work at their own pace in an asynchronous environment and encourage autonomy within a clear structure. Your clear expectations will let them know what to expect and how to stay on track. As a bonus perk, the phrase “I didn’t know that was happening today” will no longer apply! And in the event that it is, you can sit back and beam with pride as your other students say “What do you mean? We do this everyday.” Ultimately, routines mean stability and security and result in students taking accountability of their own actions and work.
  1. Master One Skill at a Time - The ultimate goal is to have all students fully comprehend the work in a way that goes beyond the lesson. Once they can apply their knowledge in various scenarios, then students begin to demonstrate mastery. This can be difficult to do when there are multiple things to learn and may result in frustration. In order to avoid the slump, have students focus on one part at a time moving on as they are able to grasp the material. ASSISTments Skill Builders are problem sets that target specific common core skills and have an adaptive feature that is perfect for differentiation. They can be integrated in any part of the lesson, from a Do Now to an Exit Ticket, and are useful in assessing prior knowledge and practicing newly formed skills by allowing students to get just the right amount of practice. This may mean starting off with work that is a couple of grade levels below where they are to build confidence and cement mastery of the basics.
  1. Encourage Autonomy - Now more than ever, students need to understand that their education is in their hands and whether they are in the classroom 5 days a week or learning asynchronously accountability is key. When students feel empowered to act autonomously, learning becomes more of a partnership between the teacher and students on their unique progression toward learning targets. In this blog, middle school teacher Barbara Delaneyexplains how teachers can help develop student autonomy by getting students to reflect,  using ASSISTments data to “figure it out myself” and encouraging effective student habits. 
  1. Be Data Guided not Data Driven - Students won’t always tell you (or know) where they are or what help they need. They will however know if they don’t understand a topic and may communicate that with frustration or incomplete assignments. The ASSISTments Data Report is your key to understanding what your students may be reluctant to convey and will guide your instruction by revealing student needs. You can identify trends to see where students were starting to ‘get it,’ use common wrong answers to focus class time on misconceptions, and pull out differentiated groups by identifying who is struggling and who needs more challenging material. You’ll proactively keep your students on track and help them understand where they are. Plus, if you invest students in using the data to track their own learning you can destigmatize the fear of failure and instead reorient them to the joy of progress.
  1. Provide Feedback - Giving feedback encourages student autonomy by allowing them to understand where they are in their unique learning journey, and adjust course to stay on track. It also results both in less struggle/frustration and an increase in performance, because feedback creates a conversation that invests students, and allows them to apply feedback to their independent practice. Without feedback, students can make the same mistakes over and over again on assignments filled with similar problems. With ASSISTments -  students use feedback (in the form of hints, multiple tries and the show answer button) to work through problems on their own. When they apply the feedback from one problem to the next problem, teachers can identify where the learning takes place - and even reduce the number of problems assigned. This post, from our evidence based practice series explains the research behind Immediate Feedback. 
  1. Challenge Your Students By Assigning Meaningful Work - At times, struggling students may require more attention than the students who just “get it,” but it is still important to meet the needs of the students who are ready to advance. Students know the difference between “busy work” assigning a myriad of problems that don’t help with knowledge progression and “meaningful work” that is focused on growth. Try differentiating groups based on learning progression (check out how to do that here for Google Classroom and Canvas) and assigning them the problem sets that will challenge that unique group, giving them advanced Skill Builders, or going above/below grade level. This student reflection sheet can help support your students in taking on the challenge by having them think about the results not in the sense of “right” or “wrong” but without the mindset of “how can this help me grow?”

Use and customize these tips in a way that best suits your classroom. For the full webinar: click here. 

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