The 3 Best Zero-Overwhelm Strategies for Differentiating Math Instruction


Zero-Overwhelm Math Differentiation

The research has long showed that teachers must differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of all learners. Even when we understand that this just means making small adjustments to accommodate various needs within our classroom, getting started can be the most difficult part. This post will provide you with the three best zero-overwhelm strategies for differentiating math instruction in the secondary classroom. Within these broad categories, you'll read three different approaches for differentiation: interest, readiness and learning profile. It is important to note that when we are discussing readiness, or leveled learning, that this is not fixed. Often from unit to unit, or even within a unit, students' comfort level with the math concepts will vary, and therefore, different accommodations may be warranted.

Offer Two Choices

Hands down, offering students choices is the best place to start. This zero-overwhelm strategy could be used to pique student interest or accommodate different academic levels.

First, choose the topic or skill students will be practicing.

Next, find two different activities or worksheets that practice that topic or skill. 

To increase student engagement, you could look for two different themes or styles for students to choose from. Perhaps one worksheet has science applications of linear equation word problems, for instance, while another has social media examples.

To accommodate variation in where individual students are in the learning process, offer two levels of the same topic. For example, some students can continue to work on solving two-step equations, while others move on to examples involving the Distributive Property and combining like terms.

To make adjustments for learning preferences, allow students to either select a worksheet for practice or a set of task cards. Students who benefit from working through one problem at a time will experience greater success when offered a task card set. Other students may prefer to see all the problems in one place to facilitate pattern recognition.

To ensure this remains a zero-overwhelm experience for you, the educator, do not try to recreate the wheel. Your curriculum may offer some of these options in textbook or worksheet form, there are tons of free resources online with a quick Google Search, or head to Teachers Pay Teachers for some quick, inexpensive downloads.

Individual Level Leads to Confidence

Assign an Open-Ended, Flexible Project

By assigning a project with flexible processes and outcomes, students can self-differentiate or you can push students towards a particular direction.

To promote interest and excitement, allow students to choose a data set when constructing and analyzing a scatter plot and its trend line.

To adjust for varying levels, steer students toward three-dimensional figures with less complex formulas when designing packaging - like the Play Dough Project.

To accommodate differing personalities and learning styles, simply allow students to decide if they want to work individually or with a partner; at a desk or in the hallway; on paper or with manipulatives.

Do not try to introduce more choices than you are comfortable with. The key is to start small. Choose one way to differentiate at a time. Over time, these strategies will become innate and you'll be able to practice more and more individualized instruction and choices.

Strategically Call on Students

One of my favorite ways to informally assess student understanding, engage students, and differentiate by ability is to have students come up to the front whiteboard in groups to solve problems. This works especially well when practicing a specific math skill that can be demonstrated in a short period of time in a couple of steps.

Here's how it works:

1)  Ask all students to take out paper and pencil (or mini-whiteboards).

2)  Call 4-5 students up to the front whiteboard, each with their own section of the board and an Expo marker.

3)  Read a math problem aloud. All students - regardless of whether they are at their seat or at the front board - copy down the original equation, inequality or expression.

4)  All students work through the same problem, showing all steps. As they do so, I offer help as needed first to the students at the front board, then to those students working independently at their desks.

Here is the key to making this successful. When calling students up to the front board, do two things. First, tell students that the problems will become more challenging each round (and do this). This will, first, get students to volunteer quickly and, second, allow students to self-differentiate by deciding when they want to volunteer. Second, be strategic in calling students to the front board. Use this as a confidence building opportunity for students who are struggling throughout the topic. You might also consider mixing ability a little bit so that students who struggle have a model at the front board with them, and this also helps to avoid inappropriate labeling among students.

Zero-Overwhelm Math Differentiation

Which strategy is your favorite? Which will you try? Be sure to report back in the comments section!

Interested in weekly inspiration directly in your inbox? Subscribe here!


* indicates required
I teach:

Free to Discover will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Want to learn more about differentiating math instruction? Check out these popular posts:
Differentiation Article

Math Skill Gaps Article

Free to Discover

No comments:

Post a Comment