Differentiation without extra handouts: tips for stretching and challenging learners

Teachers often talk about their desire to meet the needs of different students but how can teachers do this within a demanding workload of planning, preparation and marking? Is it possible to differentiate in ways that are practical and achievable for teachers?

As a teacher trainer and observer, I have seen numerous examples of differentiation that stretched and challenged individual learners without requiring reams of extra handouts for the teacher to prepare and produce.

Some tips

I have observed that many teachers consider differentiation at the planning stage but also respond on the spot to how learners behave. They have a toolkit of approaches to differentiation that they can deploy as and when required, e.g. ways to recycle terminology or concepts quickly; a bank of questions that prompt reflection on learning; quick activities to engage and challenge early finishers. So here are some ways to differentiate for learners of varying abilities, styles and speeds of working:

1. When you plan your lesson, think up two or three meaty questions that consolidate the learning from different stages of the lesson. Note them on your lesson plan or on slips of paper to give to students who finish activities early or who need additional challenge.

2. If computers are available in the classroom, note down on your plan a relevant website and a pertinent research or review question for early finishers to investigate.

3. Ask students to summarise key points from the lesson or topic in a mind map or other graphic organiser. This can be shared with another group or with the whole class and peer reviewed. Some learners will respond well to the peer pressure that is involved here whereas others will not, so you need to know your group before trying this approach.

4. Ask students to come up with 4 questions that they will want answered in the next topic or module, having shown them a content outline.

5. Have a few standard reflective questions on the wall of the classroom, e.g. What have I learnt today? Where else can I use what we have covered today in class? What do I need to practise/research/think about at home? When appropriate, direct students to think about them and hand in thoughts to you or tell you what they came up with.

6. In each lesson, add slips of paper to a terminology box. Each slip should have a different key word from the topic of the day, as chosen by the students. The box can be used for quick recycling activities where students self test or test each other in pairs. Encourage learners to signal when they are ready for you to check their work and then use the terminology box.

7. Early finishers can create a terminology quiz or match up exercise, using their files or textbook or the terminology box for reference. The activity can be used with the class in a subsequent lesson, adding an extra level of challenge.

8. Throughout the lesson, the teacher can use graded questioning targeted to individuals, to help challenge students appropriately. It can sometimes be helpful to note key questions on your plan, maybe even alongside specific students’ names, if you want to check individuals’ progress in a more planned way.  This approach can really develop your questioning skills as you can then reflect in a more focused way on the questions you planned and the impact you noted.

In some lessons I have seen teachers motivate learners through an incentive to focus and complete work quickly and to a good standard. Early finishers who complete work successfully can start homework in class or try online quizzes or games to consolidate learning.  There would seem to be an intrinsic risk here of students rushing work to get to the fun stage but with some groups this approach can work well, if managed with appropriate rigour and consistency.

I would be very interested to hear of any other approaches that you use to differentiate in paper free or paper light ways.


This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, CPD for Teachers, Differentiation, FE, Sharing good practice, Stretch and challenge, Teaching and learning. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Differentiation without extra handouts: tips for stretching and challenging learners

  1. Nina says:

    Anything that empowers students to learn on their own will improve their learning – and learning motivation. You have some good ideas here! 🙂

  2. katyehall says:

    Some really good ideas here, without always having to print of EXTRA work, as when a learner considers the work to be EXTRA then they are unlikely to be motivated to complete the work and instead will choose to either work slower in the future or to even no admit when they have completed their work in case they are given EXTRA work to do. I agree that simply having some questions that can be asked if a good way to stretch and challenge the learners as this can start off a good discussion within the class.

    • Yes, Katy, I think so too. I also feel that stretch and challenge can seem difficult to achieve for teachers, as they can’t ever tailor constantly for each individual in class, so simple techniques that hit the spot such as questioning, are a great thing.

  3. Evelyn Aldous says:

    Yes, I agree as well that stretch and challenge questions, especially in form of evaluative questions, must be prepared in advance and cannot be limited to just one question.

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