Differentiation for High Level Students


For me, differentiation for high level students if probably the most challenging aspect of teaching.  I find that it is easier for me to provide more support for a struggling student.   Last week I wrote a post about some of the things that I do to differentiate my instruction for struggling students.

It is often hard to keep up with your top tier students.  Sometimes they blow through everything you have for the day in 10 minutes while at other times they struggle with motivation.

Here are a couple of things that you SHOULD NOT do with this group of students:

  • Don’t pair them with your lowest students.  They have their own needs and they shouldn’t be acting as a tutor all day.  This isn’t particularly challenging for them and while many students enjoy being helpful, this doesn’t meet their academic needs.
  • Don’t expect that they will be self motivated.  Ability and motivation are two very different things.
  • Don’t expect them to the conform to your guidelines.  The structure that you have in your classroom that provide support to the vast majority of the students in your class may feel cumbersome and pointless to these kids.  For example, I require color in my notebook on the right side and in my vocabulary diagrams.  For  the majority of students, this helps them to distinguish between different parts of their diagram and having a set rule is easier for most kids than having ambiguous directions.  I have one student who creates beautiful, clear diagrams using pencil and HATES having to color anything.  While other students grade each others notebooks, I grade his and have removed this rule for him because it is too restrictive.

Here are a couple of things that I have done with my highest level students:

  • Differentiate your reading groups.
    • I try to include some more intensive reading assignment 1-2 times per month.  I group students by reading level and provide articles from Newsela.  For my top tier group I give them something to read that is above grade level.  Sometimes I am able to do this by using the MAXIMUM reading level on Newsela.  At other times I have to look for outside sources.  Sometimes I allow this group to look for outside sources themselves or ask them to research practical applications of the content.
    • Example: This week we are reading an article about landslides and mudslides.  Most groups will read, annotate and then answer document based questions using textual evidence.  My top tier students will be given the article at the maximum level.  All early finishers will be asked to create and present information on how to prevent mudslides like the one that recently occurred in Santa Barbara.
  • Teach content for the next grade level.  I keep old textbooks and notebooks for higher level classes in my classroom so that I can use them for this purpose.  Students can check in with me when they get stuck, but they are usually pretty good at working independently.  This has been one of the BEST things about moving down to middle school from high school because I have a ton of higher level material, but you can ask your principal or department chair for other texts and notebooks.
  • Add a couple of extension problems.  For me, this works best for math based physical science topics (chemistry and physics).
  • Allow them to do their own research on a topic of interest and work on it when they finish their regular class work early.
  • Allow them to cover topics in their spare time that you won’t get to.
  • Build a robust science library and let students select books that interest them to read in their spare time.

The strategies above work really well when you have a student who is self-motivated.  They aren’t great when you are dealing with an underachiever.

Here are a few extra things you can do with a student who struggles with motivation:

  • Extra Credit.  Let me start by saying that I HATE EXTRA CREDIT.  Somewhere there is someone spreading lies that a student can do nothing all semester and then do a bunch of word searches for extra credit at the end and still pass the class.  This is not what I am talking about.  This should be work offered for early finishers that goes above and beyond the coursework.  Something about the words “Extra Credit” makes their little ears perk up and find motivation that wasn’t there before.  I don’t get it, but I use it to my advantage.
  • Negotiate.  I don’t like to negotiate, but in this case, it might be your best strategy.  Here are some of the things that I have agreed to:
    • 15 minutes of Chromebook time on Fridays.
    • Reading/Drawing for the last 5 minutes of class.   One student was an avid reader and she could read any time she finishes early as long as it was a science text.
    • Trading one activity type for another.  I had a student that hated vocab.  He chose to work on his extension project during this time.
  • Institute a 95% rule. When I taught high school chemistry, some of my students were bright enough to figure out that they mathematically couldn’t loose their A at the end of the semester so they stopped trying.  I made a rule that any student who had a 95% or above at the end of the semester didn’t have to take the final.  It worked beautifully.

Many of these strategies work well with student who have not be identified as gifted or top tier.  When appropriate, I make these options available to all of the class so that students can self select the challenge that is right for them.  Sometimes they will surprise you.

How do you differentiate for your highest tier students in your science (or other) classroom?  Comment below and let me know what your best strategies are.  

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3 thoughts on “Differentiation for High Level Students”

  1. I love this! You’re absolutely right about pairing them with struggling students. My younger daughter was paired with less capable students so often in first and second grade that when I asked, “How was your day?” the answer was almost always, “I helped so-and-so and so-and-so, etc.”. One day, when I’d had enough, I said, “Who helped YOU?” That’s when we knew we needed to move her to a different school.

    1. I have seen some admin encourage this and I think it is an older idea that has run its course. I try to make sure I have something more rigorous for the kiddos that really need it.

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