Differentiation Strategies for Hybrid and Virtual Learning During the COVID-19 Era

by | Sep 29, 2020


The novelty of COVID-19 has created countless new challenges for principals and other school leaders. Some of the biggest challenges include engaging students through hybrid and virtual learning. How can your school reach the students most at-risk for falling through the cracks, especially when teachers have limited time (or no time at all) to see students in person?

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation (also called differentiated instruction) is an instructional approach which allows teachers to meet students’ individual needs, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach is so successful that the Carnegie Corporation found that 70% of students can benefit from differentiated instruction.

A differentiation strategy is especially helpful when working with at-risk students who need extra supports, including:

  • Students living in poverty with limited access to supportive resources
  • Students in inclusive and special education separate settings
  • English Language Learners (ELLs) and English as a Second Language (ESL) students

In the traditional classroom setting, teachers have struggled to implement differentiated instructional strategies.  Blended learning models such as hybrid and virtual classrooms provide a different set of challenges because teachers and students are learning how to navigate the new platforms for instructional delivery.  Some of the layered challenges lie in creating a differentiated curriculum and learning activities without increasing and perpetuating an opportunity or excellence gap between able and less-able students within a hybrid or virtual classroom setting. Pivoting from a traditional classroom setting to a blended learning approach does not mean lowering the expectations for weaker students to create easier learning tasks. With this approach, the students with opportunity or excellence gaps will continue to widen instead of narrowing or closing to reach proficient and advanced levels.

Tips for Developing a Differentiated Approach to Teaching and Learning

Colorín Colorado, one of the nation’s leading educational organizations serving ELLs, outlines three key factors which help determine how a student’s needs should influence your approach to implementing differentiation:

  1. Readiness — Does the student have the prior knowledge needed to learn the new concepts in this unit of study? Has the student mastered the necessary concepts and skills needed to be successful in this area?
  2. Interest — What topics interest the student? How can this learning unit be presented in an appealing way to the student? What causes the student to feel motivated to learn?
  3. Learning Profile — How does this student “approach the task of learning,” and what types of activities help the student learn most effectively? What is the student’s learning style?

An effective differentiation strategy takes these three factors into account when planning the curriculum so students can learn through the means most appropriate for their needs.

Three Ways School Leaders Can Support Differentiated Instruction Through Virtual Learning

As we review evidence of the best virtual differentiated instructional strategies, we find that schools leaders should follow these three best practices:

  1. Train teachers to act as facilitators of student-centered learning, rather than dictating each student’s specific learning activities.

A recent literature review by Vargas-Parra, Rodríguez-Orejuela, and Herrera-Mosquera explains that differentiated instruction should put students “in charge of their own learning process, deciding which activities to do according to their learning styles, interests, and levels of readiness.” Teachers should guide the learning process but ultimately allow learners to direct their own learning and nurture their intrinsic motivation to learn.

Additionally, teachers should be prepared to nudge students back in the right direction when they experience technology-related challenges. For example, some students may become distracted by the novelty of new technologies, have trouble navigating new technologies, or even finish work so quickly that they become bored waiting for their classmates to catch up. Evidence suggests that teachers’ reactions to such challenges significantly impact students’ ability to learn in a virtual setting.

School leaders must offer consistent, ongoing professional development to help teachers understand how they can best support students through differentiation in an online setting.

  1. Provide support for teachers so they can prepare all learning materials in advance.

In their research, Vargas-Parra, Rodríguez-Orejuela, and Herrera-Mosquera find that improvised instruction is not effective in a virtual learning environment. Several factors could contribute to this lack of effectiveness:

  • Technology is not always reliable. Some students may experience unexpected technological issues, such as a spotty Wifi connection, which reduces their ability to properly engage in live, unplanned lessons.
  • Students may already feel less comfortable in a virtual setting. Virtual learning is a relatively new concept, and students who have never been in a virtual classroom before may feel uncomfortable in this setting. Well-prepared lessons can help them build confidence in the new learning system.
  • Students already have more trouble staying focused in a virtual classroom. Learning from home allows students to become more easily distracted because teachers cannot engage with them face-to-face. Many educational experts and ed-tech vendors recommend that teachers record lessons through a series of short clips so students can easily take breaks and replay specific videos/audio clips in case they missed something the first time.

If your school has teachers who are new to hybrid or virtual instruction, they will need you to provide professional development that will help them engage students through a virtual learning environment. Your district’s chosen virtual learning platform should offer plenty of training webinars to get teachers started, but you should also check in with teachers to provide individualized support based on their knowledge gaps using new technologies.

Schedule a free call with one of the experts at the Center for Student Achievement Solutions who can offer customized professional development for your school.

  1. Develop a list of approved virtual differentiation resources that teachers can use in their classrooms.

Although teachers are boundlessly creative when it comes to finding outside resources for their lesson plans, it is vital for school leaders to get involved in a virtual learning environment. Virtual learning can open students up to new risks that do not appear in a traditional classroom setting. For example, if students are directed to download a mobile app, the app could gather personal information from students’ devices without their knowledge or consent. School leaders should develop a list of approved virtual learning resources that have been vetted for security and legitimacy.

Edutopia suggests some virtual learning tools you may want to consider:

  • Wizer — This website lets teachers create interactive digital worksheets, which can be customized by adding videos, audio files, and images throughout each worksheet. Teachers can use this tool to add extra reteaching lessons or more challenging enrichment activities throughout a worksheet, which can meet students at their individual learning levels.
  • Edpuzzle — If a teacher wants to show a third party video to their class, Edpuzzle lets them ensure students cannot skip ahead in the video. This app also allows the teacher to pause the video whenever they want to check-in for students’ understanding and have a short discussion.
  • Nearpod — Nearpod is a slideshow presentation tool that lets teachers include quick quizzes, games, and other interactive content throughout their virtual presentations. Teachers can create self-paced presentations so students can work through the content at their own pace.
  • Quizizz — Teachers can use Quizizz to create a “gamified” review of each learning unit. Teachers do not even need to create these review games from scratch because they can search other teachers’ content to use as a starting point.

How to Find Professional Support

Our expert consultants are ready to help if your school would like to improve its strategies for providing an equitable education to all students through traditional approaches, hybrid, or virtual learning models. Schedule a free call with our team to learn how we can build a customized strategy to transform your school and close the equity gap.