Ideas for effective differentiation

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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How do you teach a mixed-ability class effectively? Helen Webb offers some practical advice and ideas to help achieve effective differentiation in your classroom

For the majority of my teaching career, nearly every science class I have taught has been set by ability. The differentiation required to successfully deliver the curriculum was within relatively narrow limits.

This year, due to school changes in age range, intake and subsequent timetable implications, this is no longer the case. I am now teaching mixed-ability groups at all levels.

My current attention is focused specifically on my GCSE year 10 biology classes in which the distribution of ability is not only wide but fairly evenly spread across levels 1 to 9. Previously, I was able to pitch lessons to the majority and slot in a little extra targeted support for the few that were either struggling or needed stretching that bit further. This strategy is no longer effective for these particular classes as I now have students barely accessing the entry level content of the curriculum in the same class as exceptional students requiring challenge beyond the key stage.

While I appreciate there are primary and secondary teachers across the country that deal with this challenge successfully every day, I have found this new issue challenging.

With increased demands on workload, I have less time to reflect on and improve my practice and like many schools across the country, budgets are extremely tight; I am faced with large class sizes, minimal planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, reduced admin and technical support, fewer teaching assistants, and even budgets for photocopying new resources are tight.

So here the problem lies: without having a negative impact on my own workload and with no teaching assistant support, how do I effectively differentiate my teaching approach to ensure that students of all abilities make progress in my classroom?

With the advice and collaboration of colleagues and the use of current literature I have focused on tweaking rather than completely redesigning my current delivery of the specification. The following is a summary of some of these strategies.

Past exam questions

My immediate attention had to go to some exceptionally bright girls who in the initial lessons this academic year were flying through work at lightening speed and then sitting politely waiting for the next task while other students had barely started.

To further challenge these students, I began preparing packs of higher tier past exam questions, generated through Exam Pro, an online test-maker for AQA.

Another useful idea was to provide mark schemes for those brighter students and encourage them to take responsibility for self-assessing and improving their own work. I encouraged them to search online if they had initial queries (using their SmartPhones), which not only promoted a little bit of initiative and independent learning on their part but also released me to work with other students.

Conscious of not just supplying extra work to the more able students, I now sub-divide the module into small chunks and provide past exam questions every few lessons.

In Differentiation Pocketbook, Peter Anstee states that “few things motivate students better than knowing they are learning and successfully meeting new challenges”.

Regular use of past exam questions certainly does inform you and your students how effectively they are learning what they are supposed to.

Also, by using the simple strategy of mark-plan-teach based on these past exam questions, it enabled me to appropriately pitch subsequent lessons.

I now also label each past exam question as foundation, middle or higher to indicate to students which level of work they are accessing.

However, Peter Anstee also states that “differentiation for ability does not involve different provision for the more able, the middle ability and the less able; it involves provision for all students to develop their ability to the next level and beyond”.

As such, I tend to offer students the choice of completing all the questions or choosing the level of question depending on the timings of the lesson, offering them further challenge if and when they are ready.

Although, using online test-makers is a relatively quick and easy way of making an effective resource, the available foundation questions do not necessarily test exactly the same content as the some of the higher questions for a given topic, so this can pose a difficulty if you are trying to track the progress of an entire class on a specific criteria.

Teacher explanations

A high-quality, concise and understandable explanation of a concept is essential for any student to make progress in a classroom. However, in mixed-ability classes I now can’t just keep explanations simple for foundation students. Concepts also have to be explained thoroughly enough to challenge students at all levels, without daunting and losing the attention of the weaker students.

I try to include images, diagrams and video clips to support any explanation given in class, not only to increase engagement in what I am saying but also to enable students with different learning styles to understand the concepts I am discussing.

Recording information

A typical lesson for me would involve a teacher explanation, the recording of key information to reinforce understanding and then an activity to challenge and apply that knowledge. I have developed a number of strategies for reinforcing the teacher explanation, which is key for mixed-ability teaching.

  • The simplest technique is to ask students to copy a couple of sentences from the board into their book, with foundation students perhaps just recording the key words that I have underlined.
  • More able students can create their own notes from a textbook having been given clear learning objectives to meet or a series of structured questions to answer.
  • Students may copy and/or complete a cloze paragraph with or without clues to the blank spaces, such as the first letter provided or jumbled answers to choose from.
  • If there is a large quantity of material to record, I particularly like “spot the mistake”. You can differentiate by indicating how many mistakes to find, telling students roughly where the mistakes are and challenging more able students to correct the mistake.
  • This is also a golden opportunity while students are engaged in a relatively simple task to circulate, trouble-shoot and target questions to key students.

Promoting independence through research

With large class sizes at GCSE and without teaching assistant support, it has been more essential than ever for me to promote independence in the classroom.

At a simple level this has included differentiating the research material. We have textbooks available to students in the classroom, however it is often necessary for students to read several pages of information in order to select the relevant information for their task.

This is a relatively difficult task for those with weak literacy skills (and the unmotivated). I now encourage students to buy and use their course revision guides in class. This is partly because required information is usually found on one page and is fairly concise, but it also enables me to teach students how to use their own revision guide at home.

I also now regularly provide an A level textbook or detailed information sheets (e.g. factsheets about diseases from NHS Direct website) to my most gifted and talented GCSE students to allow them to research lesson content to a much greater depth. Rather than daunting students, this strategy seems to have really motivated some of my more able students too.

Initially I provide no specific guidance of where to find information (e.g. encourage some initiative on using contents pages or indexes). Differentiating for weaker students I then layer up the support, providing the chapter or page number and then ultimately direct students to the specific paragraph, sentence or diagram.

Seating plans

The jury is still out on seating plans for me. I like students to sit in pods of four, as I regularly incorporate co-operative learning strategies into my lesson plans.

As such, in the past I have tended to keep a mix of boys, girls, personality and ability on each table. The benefit here is that your higher ability students can support others in their group.

With my current classes, I have been more relaxed with who sits where and there seems to have been a natural selection of ability grouping within the class.

This has worked in my favour in that I know which sections of the classroom I can allow to be more independent and I know where I need to direct my initial support when embarking on a new task.

It also enables me to “chunk” the class in terms of differentiating the type and/or pace of activities on offer.

Designing tasks

I have found that more successful lessons have had fewer chunks and flow more fluently. This enables me to circulate, trouble-shoot and worry less about the pacing issues evident when students complete several shorter tasks that require separate explanation.

A choice of task can offer students independence and an opportunity to plan their own route through the lesson. Tasks that provide opportunity for creativity and exploration of a subject work particularly well when differentiation by outcome is appropriate. However, to be effective you do need to provide clear guidelines and expectations of what is to achieved within the specified timeframe for all students.

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit


Differentiation Pocketbook, Peter Anstee, 2011, Teachers’ Pocketbooks.


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