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Improving Science Education with Differentiated Instruction

Differentiating instruction can be a particularly useful practice for science teachers. How well students comprehend complex science concepts and principles is heavily influenced by individual factors, including:

  • Reading ability
  • Competency in mathematics
  • Extent of foundation knowledge present
  • English language proficiency
Learning preferences and learning disabilities affect a student's ability to master performance-based skills in science. Diversity regarding these factors will likely be high in any given classroom.

Fortunately, the study of science lends itself to strategies that support differentiated instruction. It is not difficult to plan science lessons that incorporate hands-on investigations; require critical thinking and problem-solving skills; and provide opportunities for kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning.

With proper planning, science teachers can provide multiple options for students to acquire information, comprehend concepts, and demonstrate what they have learned.

Choices Regarding Differentiated Instruction
Concepts and skills in science can be differentiated based on several different factors.

Instructional choice Varies according to
Complexity of the content Student needs and abilities
Processes and techniques used to communicate content Student learning preferences
Products produced by students and assessments that demonstrate learning Student interest, ability, and experience

Strategies for Implementing Differentiated Instruction
The following specific strategies for differentiation based on content, process, or product can be applied in most science classrooms.
  • Utilize a variety of instructional delivery methods. The lecture method traditionally used in many science classrooms should be supplemented by other forms of content delivery.

    To appeal to Use this strategy
    Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners
    • Demonstrations
    • On-site field studies
    • Audio-visual presentations
    A variety of learning preferences
    • Small-group discussions
    • Problem-solving activities
    • Research, hands-on experimentation
    • Off-site field trips

  • Use flexible grouping and small-group instruction on a regular basis. Science students benefit from interacting and working together toward a common goal. The goal might be completion of a laboratory exercise, problem-solving activity, or assigned project. Teachers may introduce a concept with the entire class, then follow up with small group or pair work. Groups should not be stagnant; frequent regrouping should occur based on complexity of content, student interest, student learning style, or other factors.

  • Have a variety of materials, resources, and texts available for student use. Students exploring a concept should have access to written descriptions, graphic images, and audio-visual representations related to the topic. A student with above or below grade-level reading ability will benefit from studying textbooks and reading materials at the appropriate level. Supporting materials for investigation and experimentation should be readily available, and students should be trained in their use.

  • Vary the degree of complexity of laboratory investigations. Optimum learning does not occur when students are bored. While all students should master the same basic skills and principles, a laboratory experience does not need to be identical for all students within a classroom. Identify ways that gifted students or students with interests related to a topic can move beyond the requirements of the assigned lab exercise. Design activities that force these students to explore the topic at a deeper level, or to relate peripheral issues to the subject.

  • Have students create agendas by choosing from suggested activities, tasks, and projects. Science students rely on their interests when allowed to choose tasks to complete. Develop a list of activities related to a science topic that vary in complexity and address different learning styles. You may partially control choices by assigning some tasks to all students, or specific tasks to individuals based on their needs and abilities. The agenda, or personalized list of assignments a student creates will then be based upon your assessment of his learning characteristics as well as his own interests.

  • Utilize complex instruction. Design an open-ended task related to a current topic of study. Have students work in small groups to complete the assignment. As students are working, move among groups asking questions that extend thinking and stimulate concept development. Design groups based on ability, interest, learning preference, or other factors.

  • Engage students in role play or simulation activities. Activities based on authentic situations can stimulate learning in students with a variety of interests, learning styles, and abilities. Design lessons around computer simulations, debates, or science topics currently in the news. These types of activities have the power to engage students and encourage active learning.

  • Develop learning stations. Create areas in the classroom for independent or small-group investigation of a scientific principle or process. Provide necessary materials and resources at each location. The topic at each station should relate to a major theme of study. Tasks should emphasize thinking skills and should force students to actively solve problems. Move among students as they work, asking questions and cementing understanding.

  • Engage students in orbital studies. Develop a list of topics related to a science concept or theme. Allow each student to select a topic based on interest. Have each student conduct an independent investigation of the chosen topic with guidance and coaching from the teacher. This type of activity allows flexibility in pacing, degree of complexity, and the nature of the product produced by each student.

  • Differentiate assessment tools. Assessment does not always have to occur in a standardized format. Consider using alternative assessments, such as:
    • Laboratory practicals
    • Written opinions supported by data
    • Verbal presentations
    • Multimedia projects that target students with different learning preferences
This article was contributed by Jennipher Willoughby, a writer and former science and technology specialist for Lynchburg City Schools in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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