Differentiation First Steps: Know your Students!

Differentiated Instruction is a teacher’s response to the learning needs of his/her students.

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Question: How can teachers respond to the needs of their students if they don’t know anything about them?

Answer: They can’t.


What it means to KNOW your Students

Knowing your students is more than just learning their name. It’s about knowing their strengths and weaknesses, interests, least/most favourite subjects, past academic successes and failures, family situations and hopes for the future.


How to KNOW your Students

You won’t get all this information from sitting down for 3 minutes to talk to each student. Finding the time to sit with each student for 3 minutes is practically impossible! Obviously, no one expects you to even try. Truly knowing your students will not happen overnight, but there are plenty of steps you can take towards knowing plenty about your students, as soon as possible.

Step 1: Data

Access as much data about your students as you can. In Queensland, Australia, we have a State Database that has a profile for every student. When a student enrols in a school, that school (and all its teachers) can then access this profile. Each student profile has everything from parent contact details and medical conditions to report cards, behaviour records and standardized testing results. There is an application in our database so that we can also see graphs and tables that help us to analyse the data more easily. Most schools, I imagine, would have access to information like this and hopefully they have ways of helping you analyse it too. If the data is not available in this form, you can enter it into Microsoft Excel and create tables and graphs yourself. It takes more time, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Step 2: Diagnostic Testing

Tell your students why you are doing the testing – to get to know them. I usually say something to my class like: “Today you are going to answer a few questions so I can work out what you know which, will help me plan lessons that won’t be too boring for you. If I see that you are all good at long division then I won’t worry about making you all do a week of long division activities, we will move on to something else.” This usually makes sense to my students and they know they have to do their best so I have the best information I can have. If creating more tests is making you cringe, ask your colleagues in the same school to help you out. Alternatively, Google the basic skills your students need to start your subject and see what comes up. One or two simple questions that require each skill is plenty. Remember it’s informal and just giving you a general idea of what your students can do.

Step 3: Games

We all know the curriculum is crowded and we are always feeling pressed for time, however if it’s important, it’s worth taking the time to do. Playing games can bring out a different side of students’ personalities and can often release some of that tension that is often present in the early days of the school year. Games could be curriculum based – it will give you more insight into their knowledge and skills – or it could be just a game. Take the opportunity to have some fun with your students, it will also have a positive impact on the relationships you are building in the classroom.

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 Step 4: Student Surveys

This could be a simple homework task or starter activity. You can learn so much from a quick ‘getting to know you’ survey. Not only do you learn about what TV shows your students are watching or if they love cats, you can check out their spelling and handwriting.

Step 5: Talk to Past Teachers

This is the last step because it should be a last resort. Don’t go questioning teachers about their past students unless you have done all four steps and you need more information. This is a last resort because if you rely on the opinion of other teachers, you will walk in to the classroom with a preconceived idea of the student and you might have formed the wrong one.


If you are at a complete loss with a student and you don’t know what to do next, then conversations with several colleagues can be very helpful. It depends on the situation, so only take this step if you feel it is absolutely necessary.


There you go, 5 steps towards KNOWING your Students as individuals and working out their specific learning needs. Remember: Differentiation is responding to student needs and you have to KNOW those needs before you can respond to them.

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One thought on “Differentiation First Steps: Know your Students!

  1. Pingback: Differentiation: Small Changes = Big Results | Mel the Literacy Coach

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