20 ways teachers can give differentiated instructions to students

There are so many different classroom teaching strategies. Think about blended learning, microlearning, mastery learning, individual teaching, flip the classroom, project-based learning and so on. No matter what method you choose, your job stays the same: teach students. It’s proven that direct instruction and instructing students at the beginning of a lesson is the most effective strategy when it comes to teaching. But that doesn’t mean you just have to stand in front of the class and talk: instructing students can come in so may different ways.

Instructing your students can mean anything. You just have to explain what the new lesson topic is all about. The way you do that is entirely up to you. Do you want some tips on teaching instruction? In this blog post, I’ll give you many ways to instruct your students.

3 basic rules for giving successful instructions to students

1. Don’t assume your students know what you mean

This is a very common mistake. You assume your students already have knowledge about the topic when they don’t. When you start building on knowledge students don’t have, there will always be a huge gap in your foundation. Compare it with the princess and the pea: no matter how many new matresses or new knowledge you add, the princess will always feel the uncomfortable pea (or, in our case, the gap of knowledge)

Of course, some students might already have a head start, but make sure to involve the students who don’t have that foreknowledge as well by keeping them up-to-date. You can always give instructions to students individually as you will see in some of the differntiated instruction examples.

2. Keep the instructions as simple as possible

Make sure your instruction is very clear. Don’t jump from one topic to another without following a clear structure or mentioning the links between the topics or lesson material.

Explain everything chronologically, and only start building on the next step when the previous one is understood by your students. Ask lots of question to measure understanding.

Just keep the learning goals close so you know where you are going. Split the larger learning goals into small learning goals. Teach those small learning goals in a structured way.

3. Give concrete examples

Like Daniel T. Willingham states in his must-read book: “We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

This means you must explain a concept by using examples that are easy to understand for your students. Students understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they know). That’s pretty obvious.

Make sure your lesson materials or resources add real value to your lesson topic and are easy to comprehend. It’s always better to add audio, video or images to your spoken words or a written text. Try pouring your lesson content into a structured scheme like a timeline, a story, a planner, …

Let me make these instruction rules more concrete:

Ask yourself these questions when giving classroom instructions and try to answer them. The easier these questions are to answer, the better your instructions are.

  • Destination: What will I be able to see, hear, experience when I’ve followed the instructions?
  • Procedure: What are the exact steps I need to take or follow to reach the destination. What tools and resources will I need? What special information do I need to finish the instructions?
  • Time: How long do I have to accomplish the instructions?

20+ classroom instructions for teachers

Keep in mind the three golden rules above when instructing students, and you’ll do just fine. Here are some fun and practical ways to instruct your students so you don’t get stuck in just one way of teaching new lesson material. Of course, there are many more ways to use instructions in your classroom.

! Almost every instruction method in this post can be used as differentiated instructions, as it gives one single student the chance to learn at their own pace or according to their own needs, competences, and interests. Differentiated instruction strategies make sure students don’t get left behind when the teacher moves forward. Not every differentiation strategies have to be time consuming. You’ll find out how small steps can lead to big changes.

1. Explainer video

Use apps like Explain Everything or MySimpleShow to create your own explainer video of the lesson content. It’s very easy to create and it allows students to go through them at their own pace. If they didn’t understand something, they can just look back at the explainer video and pick up their learning again.

2. Quiz with automatic feedback function

When you create a BookWidgets quiz, you can add a YouTube instruction video students have to watch first. Then, check for understanding in the questions that follow. The BookWidgets quiz has an amazing option called “automatic feedback”, using which you can give your students feedback depending on their score on the quiz questions.

If they make too many mistakes, you can send your students back to a video or a text with instructions, or even to a certain corner in the classroom with teacher instructions or paper instructions.

If your students did well on the quiz, this means they understood your video instructions. They will get an automatic feedback message with instructions to move on to a new topic or harder exercises.

3. Storytelling with Instagram or Snapchat

Want to “fit in” more as a teacher and reach your students in their real world? Then you should try out this way of giving instructions in the classroom. Create an Instagram or Snapchat story explaining, for example, geometry in real life.

Take pictures of objects and draw on them. Add the right area formulas and hit the send button. Ask your students to check your story. Of course, these are just basic instructions. Make sure to talk about it more in detail in the classroom, and ask your students to make a story themselves to check for understanding.

4. Use audio

Provide an alternative instruction route so that students with special needs have no problem understanding or completing the assignments. With BookWidgets, you can easily add a voice-recording of your voice to every instruction or question. This way, students can also choose in what way they want to absorb the instruction information.

5. Timeline

Dual coding or visual learning is one of the most effective learning strategies. Structure text in a timeline and use images to go along with the text. Students can use the images and the timeline structure to recall the text (or the other way around).

With BookWidgets, you can create two types of timelines. Here’s the fixed timeline version. This can serve as a theoretical explanation your students have to study. Then, maybe on a test, your students get an editable timeline and need to recall their knowledge.

6. Webinar

In a flipped classroom, you can use apps like zoom.us to create an interactive webinar in which you explain the concept. Students can ask questions online and get immediate answers. Students can ask questions in the group chat, or just directly to the teacher. This is pretty handy to encourage every student to ask questions.

7. Planner

With the BookWidgets planner, you can give your students clear instructions in a planner format. Students can follow the different steps at their own pace and bring the assignment to a good end.

You can also add other interactive exercises or new instructions to each step of the planner, so students get new information in little chunks.

For differentiation, you can quickly duplicate a planner and make some changes for students that need more instructions.

8. Demonstration

Demonstration is a really common way to deliver instructions and is often used in practical and technical courses. Show students what a successful performance looks like so they exactly know what is expected from them and how they have to do it right away.

You can choose to do the demonstration two times. First for the quick learners, so they can get to work immediately. And the second time, much slower, with even more instructions.

Another suggestion is to do the second demonstration somewhere in the middle of the assignment, so students can look back at what they did until now, and still make changes to their work.

9. WebQuest

A webquest can combine all learning materials in one place, using a clear structure and path the students have to follow. You can include all sorts of multimedia in this lesson, and add some clear examples and exercises in just one learning environment. Include BookWidgets quizzes with a feedback function so students have to complete every quiz one-by-one in order to go to the next step and learn something new.

There are many ways to use a webquest, including for differentiation or as an instruction bundle.

10. Student level pairs

Explain the new learning materials using any kind of instruction methods mentioned in this post. Then, do a quick test. After this test, pair students that scored very well with students that need more help and don’t understand everything yet.

Now, let the students that master the learning material instruct the other student. This way, the student has a personal “coach” and can ask questions directly to someone who understands and can explain what the learning content is all about.

11. Student level instructions

Student level instructions work just like the student level pairs above, with the difference that students don’t get paired up. When doing the quick test or exercise, for example with a BookWidgets quiz with automatic feedback, the students will get a feedback message dividing them into 3 groups.

For example:

  • The survivors: students that understood all the instructions and can get to work independently, without any help.
  • The athletes: students that understand everything and are taking the lead. They can start working on extension assignments.
  • The scouts: students that need more instructions and can sit down with you around the “instruction table”.

Make sure to let your students reflect afterwards on whether they think they were in the right group.

12. Instruction groups

The Instruction Groups method divides students into groups, but not because of their understanding level. As a teacher, you give your students the choice in how they want to absorb the lesson instructions.

For example, set up 4 different corners in your classroom with:

  • an instruction video
  • text
  • an audiobook
  • an open learning conversation with your students

Here, students choose how they want to receive instructions. They can still switch spots if they want, for example, a more visual explanation.

13. Known - want to know - forever know

At the beginning of the lesson, when introducing a new topic, you give your students a card with 3 columns: known, want to know and forever know.

Before you give more instructions, you ask your students to write down everything they already know about the topic in the column of “known”. They also have to write down what they want to learn about the topic or what they are curious about in the “want to know” column.

After your instructions and exercises, you let them write down what they’ve learned and remember clearly in the “forever know” column.

14. Split-whiteboard

Use a split-whiteboard widget from BookWidgets to introduce a theoretical text. Add a text on one side, and ask your students to summarize it on the whiteboard on the other side. Students can draw on it to associate the text with images. You can also add suggested stickers students can use in their summary to make it more visual, as I did in this example. Check it out and click on the “star” icon to use stickers.

Let your students send it back to you, so you can check for understanding. If they haven’t understood the text, you can give them the image that represents the text and give more instructions.

15. Feedback choice

Here, students can ask for feedback an extra teacher instruction.

This is a good instruction method when students are working on a bigger project that takes a lot of time. Students get the chance to hand in their work and ask for feedback or “new instructions”.

This way, students can work more targeted towards a qualitative end result.

16. Work zones

First, give instructions using any method you want. Then divide your classroom into 3 different working zones:

  • Zone 1: Students can start working independently in silence.
  • Zone 2: Students can work in pairs
  • Zone 3: Students can work using your support

Make sure to point out that their choice must be the most efficient way of working, not the easiest or the most fun one. Let them explain why they chose a certain working zone.

17. Choice of theme

When creating an instructional video or a text, give your students the choice to choose a theme that responds to their interests. In one video, you could explain how to calculate the gradient of a ski slope using the Pythagorean theorem. The other instruction video would show you the Pythagorean theorem applied to a ladder against the wall.

Besides varying your instructions, you can also do the same with assignments: students get to choose which exercise they want to solve.

18. Buddy

Indicate a “buddy” for students who need more help or have extra needs. These students can appeal to their buddy whenever they need extra help with the learning material or when the instructions go too fast.

19. In-between questions

After giving complete, but basic, instructions, students get to work. Students get 3 “in-between” questions about the assignment they can put in during the assignment. Here they can ask for more instructions.

This way, you get an overview of students that still struggle with the learning material and students that are good to go.

20. Documentary

For courses like geography, biology, and history, there are many good documentaries on the topics you’re teaching. Use them to do the explaining for you, and let your students summarize them to check for understanding. Afterwards, you can still give extra instructions to students that need it.

Wrap up

I hope these different instruction strategies give you some new inspiration to keep your students on track in a fun and more interactive way. Of course, there are many more ways to instruct your students, and they probably also work great! You can use them as long as you feel your students understand the lesson material. I also would like to introduce you to this post with 20 interactive teaching activities to create a more interactive classroom.

Many of these instruction strategies mention BookWidgets. That’s because BookWidgets exercises can be used for differentiation. Create an exercise or widget yourself:

Create An Interactive Exercise

I also would like to thank Schoolmakers. Their Dutch course on “learning how to differentiate” gave me lots of new ideas and is worth following. I mention their differentiation strategies in this post.

20 ways to give ifferentiated instructions

Lucie Renard

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