Differentiating Instruction through Project-Based Learning

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part blog series on differentiation.  

By Kelsey Bednar


Differentiation is an instructional strategy used at all levels of K-12 education to meet the needs of students with diverse abilities. Though widely used, questions still exist for teachers about how they can differentiate efficiently and effectively in their classrooms.  Incorporating Project Based Learning (PBL) through performance tasks  is an effective strategy that teachers can use that create opportunities to differentiate the learning experience.


Here are examples of how incorporating PBL through performance tasks can support differentiation:


Differentiating Content

Differentiating content is a way of helping every student learn and grapple with important standards at the appropriate level of rigor. While all students may work with similar concepts and themes throughout a unit of study, in a differentiated classroom the depth to which students explore a concept and the level of rigor associated with their application of that concept may differ.


Performance tasks make it simple to differentiate content through the scenario and product development. Many performance tasks use McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design G.R.A.S. template, which provides a goal, role, audience and situation for the students to engage with as they undertake the work in a task. Each of these parts can be “tweaked” to make tasks more or less rigorous.


Additionally, the culminating products or performance that students provide to demonstrate their learning can be adjusted. For example, in a task related to designing a new artificial island, students may be asked to calculate and explain its area. However, the requirements could be adjusted so that students needing more rigor are asked to explore area of an irregularly shaped island or the way that area and perimeter are related in this context.


Differentiating Products   

Performance tasks help teachers easily differentiate the way students demonstrate and apply their learning because they provide a variety of product options. These options often tie to VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic) styles. Being able to offer products connected to different VARK styles is important because it allows for multiple entry points into product creation tied to student strengths and preferences in learning style.


Though all students must show evidence of learning, differentiation in this area means that it does not have to be delivered in the same medium. Differentiating by product involves giving students options and potential choice for the culminating work they create to demonstrate understanding and application of important learning outcomes.


For example, a performance task may give students the following options for how they will demonstrate and apply learning about a topic: create and deliver an oral presentation, create and display a visual representation, write an essay or technical report, or build a model. Product differentiation can also serve to pique student interests in addition to helping ensure supportive learning. Depending upon the grade level of students, teachers can offer student choice when it comes to selecting product(s) they will create, engendering more student ownership of learning and how they prefer to demonstrate it.


While there are many methods teachers can use to differentiate in the classroom, performance tasks offer teachers several options for meeting the needs of different learners.  Rather than creating performance tasks from scratch, teachers can save time by using online resources like Defined STEM which has hundreds of performance tasks that they can easily customize to meet the needs of the different students in their classroom.


In part two of this series, I review how performance tasks support differentiation in the learning process and learning environment.




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