Differentiating Instruction through Project-Based Learning – Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part blog series on differentiation in the classroom.  Click here for part one


Differentiation is an instructional strategy employed by many classroom teachers around the world. It is based on the following idea: let us provide learning experiences that meet all students where they are so that we create more opportunities for success. While this may seem straightforward, in practice, differentiation is often one of the most challenging aspects of instruction.

In part one of this blog series, I discussed how the incorporation of project-based learning (PBL) through performance tasks can help teachers differentiate students’ learning experiences efficiently and effectively.  Performance tasks provide opportunities for differentiating the content students engage with and the products they create to demonstrate evidence of their learning.

Let’s now consider how teaching with performance tasks allows for differentiation of the learning process and environment.

Differentiating the Process
Differentiating the student learning process refers to the instructional sequencing and scaffolding of the learning process. According to an article on performance tasks by Dr. David Reese, the process that students will work through as they engage in a performance task begins with the inquiry, moves to solution building and ends with product construction.  At each stage of this process, there are opportunities for differentiation.

For example, inquiry can be scaffolded depending upon the grade level, ability and prior experiences of the student(s). Teachers can differentiate the inquiry process by helping students to develop research questions or not. Teachers can choose to provide different students with all, some or none of the research resources needed to build solutions which address the problem or challenge. Additionally, teachers can provide students with checklists or graphic organizers which may help them manage their work during the inquiry stage.

As students move through solution building and product construction, the process students utilize can be differentiated using formative questions that challenge students to reflect on their work and their process. Purposefully selecting and asking formative questions can support students who may need to rethink or revise their process and can prompt deeper thinking about the work for students at all levels. These questions also serve the dual purpose of providing teachers with important information about each student’s understanding and needs related to key content and skills connected to the work of the task. Providing differing levels of support is critical to ensure that the learning process is appropriately challenging for all students.

Differentiating the Learning Environment
Differentiating the learning environment involves creating a setting around students to promote success. The learning environment may refer to the actual setting such as classroom, school, home, or online, while in other cases it may refer to grouping and use of available tools/resources.

Performance tasks make it easy to differentiate the learning environment. Performance tasks are written in a way that students can work in a style that will best suit them. Students can work individually, in small groups, or as part of a whole class completing a task together. If students are broken into groups, teachers can use their knowledge of students to decide the optimal number of students per group and whether they will be homogeneous or heterogeneous groupings. Teachers can also make this determination based upon pre-identified criteria.   

Also, performance tasks can generally be implemented in both high tech and low tech settings, allowing for another opportunity to differentiate the environment. For example, product options like diagrams, presentations, models or articles could be created by hand, or they could be created with the use of a technology tool/application. This environmental adjustment may provide necessary levels of support or challenge that a student needs to complete the work of a task.

Content, products, process and learning environment can all be differentiated through the use of performance tasks. Teachers can create their own performance tasks or they can use resources such as Defined STEM to select pre-created tasks that can be fully edited to differentiate in any area. The use of performance tasks, combined with an understanding of the students, can help teachers create optimal, differentiated learning experiences for all students.


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