How to Differentiate During Online Learning

One of the biggest challenges faced during online learning is meeting the needs of all your students. Since many schools are starting with online learning or a hybrid model in the fall, I thought I would address the best ways to differentiate during online learning. Here are some tips to make sure you are meeting all of your learners where they are while still challenging students that have already met the standards and scaffolding instruction for students that need additional support.

Trying to differentiate during online learning can feel like a huge challenge. This post provides lots of ideas to help make distance learning easier when it comes to differentiation in the classroom!

Differentiating During Online Learning

1.) Choice Boards

I LOVE using choice boards in the classroom but especially to differentiate during online learning. With a choice board, you give students multiple options to showcase learning of a specific standard or objective. For example, if you want your students to demonstrate their understanding of plot structure, you could give the following choices:

  • Read a short children’s book and identify the characters, settings, events, conflict, and resolution.
  • Fill out a plot chart with the elements of the plot from your favorite movie.
  • Write a short story making sure to include each of the six plot elements.
  • Draw a comic strip that contains each element of the plot.
  • Film a short skit and identify each of the following plot elements in your story skit.

Choice boards work to differentiate by giving choice to the process of the product. In addition, students can choose the assignment that is most appropriate for their level.

2.) Graphic Organizers

One way to scaffold instruction for students that struggle is using graphic organizers. In fact, graphic organizers are good practice for all learners but especially helpful for students that need additional support. 

For example, when teaching students how to write a paragraph, I provide a paragraph sandwich graphic organizer to help learners put together the parts of a paragraph. While many students do not continue to use the graphic organizer once they practice paragraph writing a few times, some students still need additional support. This type of organizer is simple to share to differentiate during online learning as well. You can also differentiate the organizers based on students’ needs.

Graphic organizers are also excellent for other content areas! Here are some examples of graphic organizers you can use to help differentiate during online learning.


Share a timeline with your students to help them organize events from social studies. In addition, chronological timelines can help with students navigating sequential, chronological nonfiction passages.

Problem Solving

In Math, set your students up with a graphic organizer to help them solve story problems. Give them space for non-essential information, essential information, rephrasing the question (What are they being asked to do?), and a place to work out and check the solution. 


With students that need additional vocabulary support, I had my students fill out graphic organizers that ask for a predicted definition, actual definition, picture or symbol, and example used in a sentence. This is so beneficial for all learners but especially students that struggle with content-specific vocabulary. Use this in any content area or while reading an independent or class novel.

Click here to download these two organizers FREE! (Must have a Google account!)

3.) Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning is an awesome way to differentiate during online learning. You can give students content and topic-specific projects like creating a geometry map project, design your house, or Eco-Explorer Zoo.

This is a perfect way to differentiate and challenge your gifted students. As the parent of a gifted student, I know I struggled to find things that would challenge my child. Teachers are often faced with the huge task of scaffolding and differentiating for struggling learners. Unfortunately, that often means our gifted students either find themselves working on finding opportunities on their own, or just doing what is asked of them without being challenged. This is even more true during distance learning.

4.) Passion Projects

You could leave things more open-ended and have learners explore their own passion projects. Let your students explore a topic of their choice independently. They’ll start with a research question that can’t be answered with a simple Google search. Then, they’ll explore the topic with online resources or print materials if they have access. They may also choose to conduct interviews with experts. Once finished, they’ll present their findings in some sort of final project. This may be a video, Google slide presentation, or a physical project.

For example, a student may choose to explore: “How can I make an original doghouse design for my dog?” They’ll research the “how-to,” write up plans, and finally build the doghouse! Imagine the projects your kiddos will come up with when you allow them to explore their own passions.

Here are some example passion projects students have completed in the past:

  1. How do I paint using different watercolor techniques?
  2. How can I make masks for health care providers?
  3. How can I start my own website?
  4. What do we know about different types of cancer?
  5. What are the steps to adopting and taking care of a pet?

Allow your students to share their research and projects online. One of my favorite ways to share projects is on Flipgrid. Your students can post videos about their progress as they complete their projects. Passion projects can be long term and something for early finishers or gifted students to work on when they complete their other work. These project-based learning assignments do not necessarily have to be graded. You may choose to grade checkpoints for accountability purposes, but when students are exploring their own passions, the learning is often rewarding enough!

5.) Online Tools

There are many online tools that let students explore and learn at their own pace! Technology tools and websites are great ways to differentiate during online learning.

Khan Academy is not only videos. This site allows students to take assessments so the lessons are targeted to their learning goals. If your students take the MAP assessment, you can even have them review Math lessons in Khan Academy based on their MAP scores.

GimKit is an online quiz platform where students can create their own quizzes or take ones teachers assign. What makes it different from other online quizzes is that the students earn rewards and prizes. This is true gamification of learning. GimKit is an excellent tool to differentiate during online because students that have mastered the concepts can create quizzes to share with the class. Also, you can share multiple quizzes for different levels that you create.

6.) Smaller Groups

Consider meeting with your students in smaller online meeting groups. Just as you would meet in small groups during class time, consider having multiple meeting times during the day with a small handful of your students. This allows you to have more “individualized” time (or mini-group conferences) with your students and learn more about what they are struggling with. Knowing your students will be key to helping them. If you wanted to (I’m NOT saying you have to!), you could even schedule one-on-one sessions with students for tutoring, conferencing, assessing, etc.

7.) Vary the content

Just as you would vary the content in the classroom, you can easily do the same with your students online. Tier your lessons and activities than either assign different students different lessons/activities via google classroom or email them to the different students. Since students are at home with online learning they are even less likely to notice that they are doing different work than their peers.

8.) Scaffold often

Provide students who you know are struggling with extra resources that will assist them, or scaffold for them when working on the on-level work. These resources could be videos that thoroughly explains the concept, extra practice, whether in the form of gamification or printable worksheets, etc.

Differentiation during online learning will help you meet the needs of all of your students, regardless of whether or not you are teaching remotely full or part-time this school year. Using online tools and allowing students choice in product and process can help you reach all your kiddos. The reality is, that while school may have moved online, differentiation is much like it is in the classroom. To some degree, the online platform has allowed it to be easier because students can access more resources and move at their pace.

Grab Your FREEBIE!

Want more virtual differentiation tips that go beyond this post, including differentiation tips for students with special needs? Check out this FREE 4-page downloadable pdf! Click here or on the image below to grab it! I just ask that you tell your friends to come here and grab it too.

Click on the image to download this 4-page pdf of extra tips FREE!


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