Differentiated Instruction in Science

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll explain what differentiated instruction is in science. We'll look at explicit strategies to differentiate content for a classroom of regular education students and students with mild to moderate disabilities.

What Is Differentiated Instruction?

Picture a classroom of thirty students. Jamaria has a specific learning disability and needs a graphic organizer for organization. Timar is a gifted student, reading three grade levels above his 10th grade curriculum. Tompson is three grade levels behind and works with a reading specialist once a week.

No student is a carbon copy of another. How are you to accommodate all of these individuals? The answer is differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is a teaching technique that helps all students learn in the way that suits them best.

Every teacher knows no two students are alike in their classroom

There are a few key principles to differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is all about meeting students where they are to help them succeed. It involves taking stock of your students' strengths and weaknesses through pre-assessments, self-directed reflection, and careful analysis of student work, along with following individualized education plans, if needed. Once you understand where your students are starting from, you can begin to meet them with assignments that challenge them appropriately. This will look different for all of your students as they all start at different places. You'll also need to do formative assessments along the way, checking in with students after each lesson through exit tickets, quizzes, homework, and larger projects.

Today, we're going to look at some ways you can use differentiated instruction in science. We'll look at differentiating science texts, experiments, and assessments.

Examples in Science Texts

Science texts can be pretty daunting to students. They are often dry, packed with dense information and vocabulary words. For a student behind grade level, reading a science text may seem impossible. There are several ways to tackle this problem using differentiated instruction. First, if you're doing read-alouds or partner reading, try heterogenous grouping, where students with different skill levels are grouped together. The stronger students can help the ones who are less skilled. You can also use homogenous grouping, where lower skilled students are grouped together, so you can spend more of your time with these students.

Purposefully designed reading groups can help differentiate instruction
reading groups

You can also include scaffolding for your lower-skilled students. Scaffolding is a way to provide structure to a daunting task to make it more manageable. For example, in a science reading, the scaffolded version could have vocabulary words bolded, sentence starters, space for annotation, and/or definitions highlighted. Higher-skilled students would only receive the reading and be expected to annotate on their own.

There's also the option of modifying, or changing the reading level, for a student with a more severe language or reading disability. In this case, the topic is the same, but the vocabulary and sentence structure is easier to read. Several education websites provide the same article at different grade levels for differentiation.

Examples in Experiments

Experiments are the cornerstone of a science class. Yet, a multi-day experiment with new techniques, tools, data analysis, and graphing can be daunting to students behind grade level. Differentiation can make the experience fun and more rewarding for these students.

Science experiments can be differentiated to provide an optimal learning experience for all students

For higher-skilled students, consider leaving more of the experiment open-ended. For example, if your class was studying osmosis, instead of instructing the students on which solutions to use for the experiment, you could let them choose themselves. They could also choose their own data collection methods and decide which graphs were needed for analysis.

For lower-skilled students, the hypothesis and report may have sentence starters or a word bank. The protocol might be spelled out specifically, with explicit instructions on data collection and analysis.

Although it's usually helpful to decide at what level students should be, you can also have them self assess. Does this lab feel hard to me? Do I need extra support? Am I feeling ambitious? Allowing students to self-differentiate their learning improves metacognition and reflection.

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