Differentiation in Teaching Mathematics: Tips and Ideas for Math Teachers

One of the goals for every educator is to teach students in a manner consistent with the way they learn best, and at a level which is developmentally appropriate. This however, is difficult to accomplish. Students present in the classroom with a variety of needs, and a variety of skills. This is where differentiation can help. By using differentiation of lessons and methods, teachers can reach students in a manner which is consistent with their individual needs, while helping them to grow, learn and achieve.

How to Get Started in Your Own Classroom

The first step is to find out more about your students. Talk with your students to find out how they like to learn math, and what they may, or may not, already know. There are a variety of assessments available that students can take on learning style. These assessments will let teachers and students know if they learn visually, by hearing, hands-on, or a combination of styles. There are also math assessments available to demonstrate what skills a student has. Once you know how your students learn, and what they already know, you can adjust your instruction accordingly.

Next, you should make sure that you have a variety of materials available for your students to use. Manipulatives can be anything from candy to base ten blocks. Students can even bring in their own maniupulatives to learn math. The more students get to “play” with their math, the better they will learn.

Another good way to differentiate math instruction is to teach small groups. Break students up into the visual learners, the auditory learners, and the hands-on learners and teach them separately. This is a great way to address the students’ needs by matching their learning style. A way to incorporate all three learning styles is by teaching on a whiteboard or overhead projector with manipulatives that can be used with either.

Out of all the differentiation techniques that I have used, I find that re-modeling concepts to students individually after the concept has been taught has proven to be the most effective. Students seem to learn better when they are in a one-on-one situation. Teach the concept to the whole class, and then go around to each student to check for understanding. As students need help, help them individually. This also allows for the teacher to conduct error analysis and find out where students are making mistakes.

Error correction is a great way for students to learn math. It has always been said that we learn from our mistakes, and this holds very true for learning math. When I assign homework to students, I never grade the paper right away. I mark the problems that are incorrect, and give them back to the students to fix. Most of the time, the homework will be completely corrected because the students learn where they made their mistakes. This helps in future learning because the students know how to correct their own mistakes.

Tips Based on Experience

When looking to differentiate instruction, keep in mind that math does not have to be learned by students with a paper and pencil. I like to provide my students with individual whiteboards and markers. When I am teaching a new concept, I have the students do the work on the whiteboards. Students of all ages like to do math this way. Not only is it fun for the students, but also it provides immediate and instant feedback for the teacher. The teacher can than correct the students as needed.

In teaching math to special education students, one important tip to remember is to not inundate them with homework. I always allow students to start their homework during class. This gives me the opportunity to check to make sure that the students are on the right track, and also gives the students the opportunity to ask questions about the homework. It is also good to modify the homework, instead of 50 problems make them do 25. Too much homework provides the students with unneeded stress, and can cause a lot of frustration and anxiety about math.

The last point I would like to mention about teaching math and differentiating instruction is that it is important to make it fun. For some reason, students often have anxiety about math. It seems almost every special education student strongly dislikes math. This is just all the more reason to make learning and doing math fun. Apply it to their lives – make math meaningful. It also never hurts to play math games. Teaching math doesn’t always have to be straight out of a book. Remember teach the students how they need to be taught.

More information about differentiation in the classroom may be found right here on Bright Hub. Or, if you have methods you have successfully used in the classroom, feel free to share them in the comments section below.


  • The tips offered in this article are based on the author's extensive experience as a classroom teacher.