Make or Break: Differentiation in the Online Classroom


  1. Why are differentiation strategies important in teaching?
  2. What are the four types of differentiation?
  3. What is differentiation in the online classroom?
  4. How do you differentiate online lessons for neurodiverse students?


Differentiation in the online classroom is one of the most important tools you as a tutor can use for your students to provide equity in the classroom, both on and offline.

While your lesson content could be well-planned, creative, and reviewed down to the smallest detail, without differentiation, not all students will be able to access it and make progress.

Here’s our helpful guide on all things differentiation in the online classroom.digital-nomad

Why are differentiation strategies important in teaching?


A differentiated classroom is one where the teacher or tutor has adjusted their lesson plan and content for the needs of the group.

The main aim is to ensure that all students in the lesson are able to properly access the content (this just means they can not only hear it and understand it but make use of it and keep up with the goals of the lesson). 

With so many students having specific learning needs, differentiation is vital for everyone to be included, and for progress to be made. Tutors who take the time to consider the varying needs of the students they work with are the most successful in seeing progress.

Differentiation in the online classroom is a form of personalised learning. In essence, the best tutors will have a flexible approach to their practice and lessons, being willing and open to change the way they communicate ideas and information for the needs of the student. It’s not one size fits all!

How can you successfully meet the needs of the students that you tutor in the online classroom? 

In this guide, we’ll first talk you through the different types of differentiation and why they are important, as well as some more traditional strategies and examples from the physical classroom. Then we’ll prepare you even further for online tutoring with a toolkit of differentiation strategies where you’ll realise that so much more is transferable than you think!

It’s important to remember that there’s no right way to differentiate and that this practice can take a long time to develop and master.


What are the four types of differentiation?


The purpose of differentiation in the online classroom is to use your understanding of the needs, attainment levels, and learning preferences of your student(s) to implement responsive tutoring strategies to increase the depth of understanding. Understanding their starting point is pivotal to knowing how and how long it’ll take you to support them to get there. 

Differentiation is a way of teaching in its own right, not a program or package of worksheets to give to students.

Educator Carol Anne Tomlinson said that differentiation means giving students multiple options for taking in information. She ascertains that four classroom elements can be differentiated based on student learning needs:

1. Content

This is the lesson material itself.

As a tutor, you’ll have prepared a session based on a particular thing, idea, or process that you want the student to learn. For differentiating in the online classroom, by adjusting the content (and the rate at which you share it with students) and delivering different parts of the sequence and curriculum at set times, you’re thinking carefully about how much you expect them to learn and when. 

This then leaves much more scope for them to gain deeper knowledge, in digestible pieces. Sometimes it won’t even require you to change the content completely, just the way that you deliver it. For example:

  • Prepare reading materials at varying readability levels (this might require you to reduce or break down language ahead of your session
  • Get students to start sessions with vocabulary and definition match-ups so they begin to strengthen their cognition 
  • Provide students with spelling or vocabulary lists for challenging words 
  • Use both auditory and visual means to present ideas (for example, a mixture of written, formal ideas, images and being read to by you) 
  • Being prepared to reteach content with regular, planned recall until students are confident
  • Provide them with a short lesson summary (or send them the slides after!) so that they can either review it independently or with their parents

2. Process

This involves differentiating in the online classroom by changing the activities or tasks in which the student engages to get them to where you want them to be by the end of the session or sequence of sessions. Changing the methods = changing the way that they learn = a quicker, and easier route to progress! 

Taking time to understand your student’s way of learning is imperative to being able to change your planned processes before your tutoring session.

Often in the traditional classroom space, teachers will struggle with the mixed-attaining nature of their classes (up to thirty-five differently-attaining students and learning styles). In your sessions, you’ll just have to focus on one!

Whilst it’s difficult to be collaborative online, tutors can make the most out of the online space by using modelled approaches or multimedia. There are a number of other examples of differentiated instruction when changing the process:

  • You could use tiered activities between the varying attainment-levels of your students, don’t want to change the session completely if a student is struggling? Have a few different approaches to the task ready to go, and you could give your students a choice as they learn and grow
  • Remember to interest them in learning right from the start. As a tutor, you’ll be feeling the pressure to maximise the session with learning, but if you don’t spend time at the start making them feel included and piquing their interest, they’ll lose motivation!
  • Set clear time boundaries for the process so students know how long each activity or part of the session will take
  • Vary the length of time for each activity and give each part of the session a clear name (e.g. Do Now for the starter, the Warm-Up task, the Main Activity and the Exit Ticket at the end)
  • Add in quick quizzes like Seneca and Kahoots at the end of the lesson to check for understanding 

3. Products

By culminating projects that ask the student to apply or extend what you’ve been teaching them in the session or sequence of sessions, you’re varying the way in which they are learning what they learn. Tutoring isn’t differentiated when you’ve set the same task for every student that you tutor, and expect the same result! 

Typically in the classroom environment, this could involve students teaching each other, or by working in carefully selected groups. Online, you won’t have this choice, but plenty of options still remains:

  • Give students options about how to express their learning (e.g. single word answers, writing up sentences or a paragraph, creating a mind-map, drawing an image of filling in a table)
  • Remember to clearly set up the session to follow a structure that students can follow (e.g. Rosenshines I / We / You lesson structure works perfectly to be accessible and inclusive of all learners) 
  • Use homework or home learning time to consolidate what’s been learned in the session, or to pre-learn terms for your next one!
  • Online, you have the benefit of no peer distractions, so you’ll be able to give your specific student more options about how they want to learn once you’ve gotten to know them

4. Learning Environment

The way in which the learning space is built and feels is also incredibly important for accessing learning and is sometimes what throws students working or transitioning to work online. In a traditional classroom space:

  • Students need quiet spaces in a room to work without distraction, as well as creative spaces to make them feel open to collaboration
  • They need to feel calm and comfortable in a space, which is why many students struggle in the classroom, feeling a sense of overwhelm or worry 
  • Learning environments also include routines; clear starts and finishes, time for collaboration, and time for independent thinking and learning. The more that students know about when and where this is coming, the more they’ll be open and receptive to changes!
  • Some students even need to move around regularly; factoring in rest breaks is hugely important, especially for those with ADHD
  • Learning online means that students will likely be logging on from home, which our reviews tell us are of huge benefit to feeling comfortable when they learn. But, they should still be away from distraction and preferably at a desk so that they can concentrate!

What is differentiation in the online classroom?


Just because you're tutoring students virtually, doesn’t mean you have to give up the best practices. In actual fact the virtual classroom has a whole range of benefits that the traditional classroom doesn’t; students are focused on you and not their peers, they are in the comfort of their own homes, and you can tailor all of your teaching tools to their needs. 

Differentiating instruction means that you observe and understand the differences and similarities among students and use this information to plan instruction. This means that the first step is to get to know students really well! 

Find out their likes and dislikes, and invest in their interests; they will learn to trust you more if you do this regularly, and keep a positive attitude, rather than overdoing the lesson content and activities at the beginning. 

Online, students are likely to drift off when staring at a screen too long if they aren’t used to it, so factor in regular rest breaks and time away from the screen (for example by writing down answers that can be self-assessed with a checklist by you, rather than over the computer). There are several ways that you can speed up your process of differentiation in the online classroom:

  • Regular, formative assessment

By continually assessing students' learning through differentiation in the online classroom (yes, this means every single session and multiple times within it!) you can meet students' needs and help them move forward. Never presume a student has learned what you want them to just because you feel a learning moment has gone well. 

There are a number of ways to check for understanding within online lessons: use virtual whiteboards like Jamboard to monitor your students’ work during a task, set quick quizzes at the beginnings and ends of lessons using Seneca or Google forms, make use of the chat function on Google Meet to require instant answers (especially useful for quieter students!) and plan regular end-of-unit quizzes after a few weeks. Then, tailor your future sessions to suit.

  • Recognise diverse learners

Every good tutor recognises that there will be some reason why their students haven’t found success in the traditional classroom space. Afraid of sharing answers with others? Need 1:1 attention? Low confidence? Prefers to work at home or has had a long period out of school?

As a tutor, you are in the advantageous position of being the person who changes a student’s attitude toward learning. But first, you’ll need to fully understand their learning needs and amend your teaching as a result.

Don’t forget to speak to parents or even their teachers to find out what has worked so far, and what hasn’t, before planning your sessions. The same principles for physical classrooms can be applied online. Using a professional-looking space with good lighting for video lectures, offering small-group virtual breakout rooms, student-led chat forums and virtual office hours can go a long way in creating a comfortable virtual space for students!

And don’t forget that pace doesn’t necessarily mean success… Some students will want to speed through content at a faster pace, but not be able to master skills enough to repeat what they’ve learned after longer intervals. Students who want to go slower can often have a deeper understanding of challenging content and be able to apply it to more examples down the line. 

Tomlinson says that rather than at the end of a unit, “Diagnostic pre-assessment routinely takes place as a unit begins, to shed light on individuals’ particular needs and interests in relation to the unit’s goals”. So start your sessions or units with a quick quiz so you aren’t wasting unnecessary planning time by guessing.

  • Offer choice

Offering choice (student-driven differentiation), even in the online space, will help students to transition to online learning with you, without feeling like they are being ‘forced’ to complete extra work. Of course, everything you offer or plan next should be based on your formative assessment and checking for understanding done in previous sessions. 

Remember with each choice to model what you want the student to do next before they have a go themselves (e.g. by talking through how you approach a maths problem, or by live-writing a model, analytical paragraph). 

Strategy-specific choice boards present learners with a variety of strategies and choices that you can re-use repeatedly (and track their choices). This allows them to engage in what you want to teach them, but in the way that they prefer. It requires a little more planning, but once created, can be used over and over again! You can also add to them and create a knowledge organiser, so students can review as they go. 

Choice boards and revision boards allow you to free up some of your time in the session and increase student agency, perhaps so that you can assess previous work. Not all your assessment should happen after the session; make use of the valuable time you have! 


How do you differentiate online lessons for neurodiverse students?


The nature of differentiation in the online classroom means that you’re already being inclusive right from the moment you start planning. Effective teaching through a variety of different tasks and activities? With proper time set aside for each, and clear time boundaries? Neurodiverse students will feel equity in their learning as a result.

But also, learning has to be made fun! Starting lessons with a game like Wordle provides a fun and collaborative warm-up and makes students feel comfortable (with your support!). 

Game-based learning is perfect for neurodiverse learners, especially those who are dyslexic, have ADHD or struggle to express themselves. Look for platforms that allow you to monitor students, perhaps even generate reports (such as Seneca), to assess learning and where any gaps exist.

Differentiated instruction can be time-consuming, and for a lot of teachers and tutors, it’s easier to just deliver the same lesson, time and time again. But ultimately you’ll find yourself taking longer, and not seeing results, without properly changing the way the lesson content, product, and process is received by various learners if you don’t take time to differentiate.

As a GoStudent tutor you are 100% prepared to share your excellent teaching and knowledge with your students, tailoring what’s best for them along the way.

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