Diversity is becoming common in our college classrooms. Not just diversity of race and ethnicity, but diversity of developmental levels and cognitive abilities. With our students’ diverse skills and experiences, faculty members find themselves teaching varied groups of students within one course.

This raises the problem of finding a way to reach all groups. One answer, differentiated instruction, involves providing personalized learning for each group with content and processes that align with each student’s needs. It may seem like a daunting challenge, but with a few techniques the task is quite manageable.

Flexibility of Content
The first element of differentiated instruction is flexibility of content. I taught secondary science methods students simultaneously with secondary mathematics methods students. I also had two other overlapping groups within this course. Some of the students were in their first semester of the teacher education program and some were in their second semester.

I first used the group function in our LMS to put students into separate groups. I then created specific content for each of the groups. Some of the content was pertinent to all groups, such as assessment, cooperative learning, or discussions. But some of the content was specific to each group. For instance, my first-semester students needed lesson planning content; my second-semester students did not. My science students needed laboratory safety content; my mathematics methods students did not. The latter group needed content on error recognition, which was not pertinent to the science methods curriculum. The science methods students had a laboratory safety assignment that the mathematics students did not see or have to complete. The first-semester students had a lesson planning assignment to complete that the second-semester students did not.

Flexibility of Process
The second element of differentiated instruction is flexibility of process. On some class days, all students met face-to-face to engage with content that was common to all groups. On other class days, I would separate the class into groups. Those who needed new content attended class in person, while those who needed application of prior content attended class through the LMS and engaged in either a group discussion, an application activity, or extended exercises.

Conversely, you could use the flipped classroom model and send students to the LMS when they’re learning new content and teach them face-to-face when they’re applying content. Either way, I used the LMS to be in two places at once. I would teach the face-to-face class, then hop on the LMS to monitor the learning there. For example, one day in the semester I taught my science students face-to-face the topic of science, technology, and society (STS). Meanwhile, my mathematics students were reading an article on how Chinese teachers differ from American teachers in how they handle errors. My mathematics students then were involved in an online discussion with question prompts: Why do you think US teachers and Chinese teachers responded differently to errors? What strategies did you take away from this article that you would use in your instruction and why/how? The next class period, my science students were online extending our lesson on STS, and my mathematics students were face-to-face practicing the application of error-recognition strategies with actual student work. In a fully online course, the process would remain the same, although all activities/content/processes would be online.

Flexibility of Student Product
The third element of differentiated instruction is flexibility of product. I provide different groups with different assignments or with the same assignments with different expectations. As mentioned above, my science students had a laboratory safety assignment that my mathematics students did not. Neither group was able to see the assignments of another group, so students needed to be concerned only with the assignments within their group. Because I knew this course provided my first-semester students with their first exposure to lesson planning, but my second-semester students had already learned and practiced this content for one semester, my expectations were different for the two groups. I then used different rubrics that focused on different aspects of lesson planning and adjusted the rubric scoring to match my expectations. The rubric for my first-semester students placed considerably more emphasis on writing objectives and detailed plans. The rubric for my second-semester students focused on strategy choices and the alignment of objectives with the assessment.

Although the groups were set in my course, another option is to allow students to choose their groups and move in and out of groups throughout the course. Formative assessments can be used to determine initial student placement within groups and then to monitor the effects of movement between groups later on. According to Levy (2008), future advancements in LMS functionality may allow students to plan personalized goals and keep records of their progress toward those goals.

Just a little ingenuity is all it takes to differentiate instruction in the online or hybrid classroom to serve the needs of all students.


Levy, H. M. 2008. Meeting the needs of all students through differentiated instruction: Helping every child reach and exceed standards. The Clearing House, 81(4), 161–164.

Julie Saam is an associate professor of science education at Indiana University Kokomo.

Reprinted from “Tips from the Pros: Differentiating Instruction in an Online Classroom,” Online Classroom, 16,5 (2016): 1,7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.