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Differentiating Instruction in the Mathematics Classroom

It doesn't take long for most mathematics teachers to discover that their classrooms are filled with a diverse cross-section of students. Students arrive in the classroom with varying abilities, learning styles, learning disabilities, and facilities with the English language.

What can you do to help all students reach their full potential? One option is to differentiate your instruction; in other words, teach using a variety of techniques and strategies that address the varying needs of all students.

Getting Started
Differentiating instruction requires a degree of preparation that can occur at the beginning of any year, semester, or unit.

  • At the beginning of the year, review student records, examining standardized test scores and previous mathematics grades to help you understand the level of each student.
  • Before beginning, give students a learning style inventory to determine which strategies will work best for each student. You can find a sample inventory at www.gbrownc.on.ca/saffairs/stusucc/learningstyles.html.
  • Throughout the year, give students interest inventories to determine real-world situations that interest them. For example, are students more interested in sports statistics or architecture? Use these topics to help you design assignments and projects.
  • Before you begin a topic, chapter, or unit, give the students a pre-test to assess their knowledge and skill level for the content. To write the pre-test, make a list of the objectives you want your students to accomplish and write items to measure each objective.
  • Keep a file folder for each student with pertinent information you have compiled.
Lesson Planning and the Learning Environment
Prepare your lessons and the learning environment with differentiated instruction in mind.
  • Have your room arranged so that workstations can be quickly set up or rearranged.
  • Provide a variety of materials neatly arranged and organized for student projects. These may include computers with Internet access, reference books, manipulatives, construction and drawing materials, and audio/visual materials.
  • Think about the complexity of tasks and the thinking skills involved. Adjust your lesson plans to encourage thinking at various levels. Refer to Bloom's Taxonomy to view a continuum of thinking skills.
  • Offer several projects from which students can choose that cover the objective(s) on which you will be focusing. Have the choices reflect various learning styles. For example, visual learners may want the option to present what they have learned in a poster or brochure.
Teaching Strategies
Use the following teaching strategies to incorporate differentiated instruction in to your classroom.
  • Distribute learning packets for skills-based mathematics topics where mastery is essential. Packets can include practice sheets and assessments for students to use at their own pace.
  • Vary your delivery style during each class period to appeal to several styles of learners. For example, have handouts outlining the topic for visual learners, use discussions for auditory learners, and have a hands-on activity for kinesthetic learners. Limit the time spent on lecture.
  • Have computers and/or a variety of resource books available to facilitate student-directed research.
  • For projects or activities, group students according to ability or interest. For example, during a unit on percent, several students may be interested in population growth.
Students with Special Needs
Preparing for special needs students allows appropriate instruction to take place.
  • Ask the special education department about resources that are available. For example, will an aide be provided to assist you with these students? Are one-on-one tutors available?
  • Have older students act as aides or tutors during class to help students with special needs if your school allows.
  • Group ESL students with students who may have some knowledge of their language. In small mixed language groups, have ESL students share basic terms in their language with English-speaking students.
  • Don't forget the gifted student. Find projects or activities that will challenge these students.
Assessment Ideas
Differentiating instruction requires that you rethink your assessment of student learning. Consider the following when constructing assessments.
  • Offer students several assessment options. Design assessments with various skill levels, learning styles, and thinking skills in mind.
  • Show sample work and share with students the rubric or scoring criteria you will use to evaluate open-ended assessments and projects.
Next Steps
Adjust your expectations as you attempt to integrate differentiated learning techniques into your class. Follow these general guidelines when starting out.
  • Start small. Try differentiating instruction for one short unit.
  • Use differentiated instruction only part-time. Try one unit and then use your regular method for the next unit.
  • Take time to reflect upon what was successful and unsuccessful. Make notes and keep them on file to refer to for your next unit.
  • Don't expect miracles overnight. Students may need to adjust to this method of learning.

Learning to differentiate instruction is a process. If you truly want to succeed, take it in small steps and constantly revise what does not work.

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