How to Differentiate in Math

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Differentiating math instruction is an important skill to have in order to meet the needs of the different learners in a classroom. Math objectives can be differentiated based on process, content or product. Process is how the students learn information, content is what the students learn and product is how the students demonstrate their learning. When teachers can successfully execute one or more ways to differentiate, they are able to engage students in more meaningful learning.

    Successfully differentiating math lessons requires knowing the students. Knowing the students strengths, weaknesses and learning style will help the teacher to personalize math lessons in order to ensure mastery. Administering a pre-assessment will give a better picture of where the students stand in relation to the topic being taught. Some students will need extra support, some students will be right in the middle and others will already have mastered the content and will need further extension. Another useful tool is a learning styles inventory, which will reveal the modes in which students learn best.

    Differentiating for content is the first area to differentiate for math. Tiered lessons are a good way to differentiate content. In a tiered lesson students are exposed to a math concept at a level appropriate for their readiness. Tier 1 is a simple version of the average lesson, Tier 2 is the regular lesson and Tier 3 is an extended version of the lesson. For instance, if students are learning about understanding and representing common fractions, Tier 1 students can fold paper "pizzas" into equal pieces to share, Tier 2 students can fold a paper pizza in order to share it with a certain number of people and Tier 3 students can divide the pizza in three different ways to get two equal parts.

    Knowing how students learn best will lead to deeper understanding of math content. There are several meaningful ways to differentiate for process. Students will still be learning the same content, but accessing it in different ways. Centers are a good way to let students interact with math content in a way that is both fun and engaging. Each center can be a different activity that relates to the objective being learned. Centers can include games, Internet explorations, puzzles and small group time with the teacher. The teacher can require students to attend all centers, or can allow students to pick and choose based on their interests.

    Demonstrating what a student learns is an important way to provide closure to a lesson. Differentiating product is a way for students to demonstrate genuine mastery of a math objective. There are a multitude of ways students can show what they have learned. Students can complete a worksheet, solve a word problem involving the skill they learned, research and present the history of a math concept, create a math game or design a lesson to teach to younger students.

    Things You'll Need

    • Math assignment
    • Teaching resources


    • Use the Internet to research new and interesting ideas for differentiation.


    • Do not try to address all three areas at once the first time you differentiate. Try one area at a time, and then gradually work up to differentiating all three.


About the Author

Allison Rogers has been professionally writing curriculum for university level classes since 2009. She writes for the Web sites eHow and Answerbag, specializing in educational articles. She received her Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction 2006 from Arizona State University.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/ Images