The 12 Best Differentiated Instruction Strategies for CTE

Teaching career and technical education (CTE) courses means you are challenged with reaching diverse students every day.

Not all of them respond to lecture, and some of them may not learn anything from reading a textbook.

Even more, you have students who excel sitting next to students who need remediation.

That’s why it’s so important to use differentiated instruction in CTE.

Finding ways to differentiate your lessons is difficult and time consuming, especially since you have regular classroom lessons as well as clinical labs!

But while it may seem to be out of your reach, differentiation is easier than you think.

All you need are the strategies to get started!

These are the 12 best differentiated instruction strategies to help you better meet the needs of all of your students:

  1. Group students based on knowledge
  2. Create pods with student captains
  3. Create tiered lessons
  4. Create handouts for common questions
  5. Include hands-on activities and projects
  6. Provide study guides, worksheets, and notes
  7. Flip your classroom
  8. Leverage your students' strengths
  9. Practice flexible grouping
  10. Offer more choices for learning
  11. Think-pair-share
  12. Try digital curriculum


Here's a graphic of the list that you can save as a future reference:


Now that you know what the twelve strategies are, let's get into the details of each one!

1. Group Students Based on Topic Knowledge


Before starting a new unit, review the skills individual students will need to complete the work you want to cover.

If a student is not familiar with the background information, assign them to Group A. If a student is more comfortable with the content, assign them to Group B.

Once students are in their groups, you can assign work.

Group A will need more background information to prepare for the new unit. You can provide this with a few short videos on the topic.

While Group A watches the videos, you can work with Group B to start the new unit.

Conversely, you can give Group A “live” instruction and allow Group B to move ahead independently.

This lets your students learn at a pace that works best for them.

On the downside, it requires you to take two different approaches in a classroom, which can become tedious if you need to switch back and forth between the two.

2. Create Pods with Student Captains


In some cases, you may want to have more skilled and confident students work with those who are struggling.

In this scenario, you can set up pods of students to help them learn from each other.

Arrange your classroom into pods with students in a circular configuration to encourage interaction. Assign a captain (or two, depending on your class size) to each pod.

Captains should be more confident, knowledgeable, and motivated to assist others in the pod. Fill in the other seats of each pod with students who may need a little extra push to succeed.

It’s important to encourage students to ask for assistance from a captain in their pod whenever they run into trouble. Without getting out of their seats, students can get help from their peers!

A big plus of using this strategy is that you can be a facilitator of the classroom and observe the class instead of directly leading classwork every day. Plus, struggling students can get help immediately rather than waiting for you to get to them, which helps move them effectively work through material.

3. Create Tiered Lessons


CTE is famous for its student diversity in every respect, including academic performance.

That’s why it’s so hard to provide challenges for more advanced students while ensuring success for those at a lower level. By creating “tiers” for each unit, you can keep each student on track with learning the current topic.

With tiers, there are expectations of achievement for different students. Make it clear that a smaller percentage of students will complete the highest tier, which isn’t necessary to pass your class.

With this strategy, students can set realistic goals for themselves in terms of achievement.

If they were at the bottom tier for your last unit, they can shoot for the next tier in the current lesson. Then, they can repeat that process to learn and achieve more.

4. Create Handouts for Common Questions


If you tend to teach the same lessons each marking period, consider creating a list of frequently asked questions as part of your syllabus.

You can print these out for each student or post them on the wall for students to use as a reference.

By providing answers to common questions before they come up, you help students get quick answers without disrupting the class to ask the same questions you’ve heard a dozen times already.

5. Include Hands-On Activities and Projects


While lectures and other teacher-centered learning approaches are great, hands-on activities help reinforce what students learn every class period.

Project-based learning allows students to work at their own pace and encourages them to push themselves to the next level.

Choose activities that build skills you introduced in other lessons.

These activities could be done in class, as group work, or long term projects assigned outside of normal class time.

No matter how you include projects in your curriculum, they’re great for providing a different way of learning and reinforcement.

6. Provide Study Guides, Worksheets, and Printed Notes


It’s proven that writing down information helps students remember it. That’s why worksheets and handouts are some of the most common reinforcement strategies in today’s classrooms.

Some students need that tactile activity of writing ideas and terms to better remember class material.

If your textbook or digital curriculum provides student worksheets, take full advantage of them!

You could also print your PowerPoint presentations with areas for students to fill in blanks and margins where they can take their own notes.

7. Flip Your Classroom


Flipped learning is one of the most effective strategies to promote personalized learning. It requires students to do the bulk of their work at home so they can learn the theory on their own. Then, they enter your classroom ready for guided discussion and hands-on activity.

By doing this, you can engage students in discussions, projects, and hands-on practical skills development instead of standing and lecturing.

Using the flipped classroom approach gives you more time to work directly with your students as well since you don’t have to cover introductory information.

Instead, you can concentrate on answering questions and moving students to the next part of their education. 

8. Leverage Your Students’ Strengths


Each student in your classroom has his or her own strengths and struggles.

Rather than focusing solely on helping them with their struggles, encourage your students to help each other capitalize on their strengths.

If one student is a medical terminology wizard, have them teach other students how they learned the terminology.

If a student excels at hands-on lab work, pair them with students who need to watch an expert before diving into their own work.

Every student has their own strengths and difficulties, and that there’s nothing to worry about.

By accenting their strengths and supplementing their struggles, you empower students to learn, achieve, and succeed more than if you had stuck to a standard lecture-style classroom.  

9. Practice Flexible Grouping


Flexible grouping is the practice of placing students together based on their learning styles, academic interests, or subject knowledge.

Then, you can have these groups work on presentations or other long-term projects that require them to teach the rest of the class.

This is an excellent way to test whether a group of students has a strong grasp of a certain topic. After all, if they can teach a concept to their peers, then they must know it really well!

Some teachers make the mistake of keeping students in the same groups throughout the school year. That doesn’t work for differentiation because it keeps students in the same place for an entire course.

Instead, you should mix up each group based on the unit you’re teaching at the time. That helps your students connect with one another, and it proves that they have a well-rounded understanding of your course.

10. Offer More Choices for Learning


After students complete mandatory work such as reading a chapter and completing a worksheet, give them a few options for reinforcement.

A lot of teachers may do this by creating a list of reinforcement activities and requiring students to pick a few to show off what they’ve learned.

Offering these choices helps students in two big ways:

  1. Students play to their strengths
  2. Students get a sense of ownership


First, a student who likes to write may choose to complete a short essay based on the topic. A student who is more creative may go with an open-ended activity. Likewise, students who are good with their hands might pick a practical-based assessment.

Second, students can get more engaged with an assessment when they know that they’ve picked it themselves. The fact that they picked it reflects their interest in an assessment style, and it also places them in the mindset of success.

After all, if they picked it, they should be better at that assessment style than any other!

11. Think-Pair-Share


The think-pair-share method is a three-pronged approach to help students process information in a short period of time.

First, you introduce the new topic and inspire student thinking with questions or discussion prompts.

Next, have students pair off to discuss their ideas on the topic. They could also compare answers, if you asked a question.

Then, you open up the class for discussion. Ask each pair of students to share their thoughts and allow the discussion to flow before moving onto your lesson.

This differentiated instruction strategy is great for meeting different comfort levels of student participation and personality types. Students get to talk to each other instead of the full class, and one of them will probably be more comfortable with speaking to the class than the other.

With that, you’ve made it easier for students to share their ideas without the anxiety that students feel when asking questions in front of the class.

12. Try Digital Curriculum


A digital curriculum is the perfect way to differentiate classroom instruction. This allows your students to work on a computer while giving you a wide range of options for differentiation strategies.

If students work independently in your classroom, a digital curriculum removes the downtime they experience whenever you have to change gears or jump to the next lesson.

Quick learners will appreciate the flexibility to work ahead, and less confident students will have the opportunity to review and remediate themselves as they’re comfortable.

Because of this, a digital curriculum empowers you to embrace multiple differentiated instruction strategies at the same time. You can print out worksheets for independent classwork or have students fill them out on a computer.

You can also show presentations, record grades, and help students who need it the most — all from one convenient tool.

Get Started with Differentiated Instruction


A digital curriculum lets you embrace multiple differentiated instruction strategies at the same time.

With it, you can introduce your class to dozens of different learning methodologies to help your students succeed.

Want to get started with a digital curriculum?

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