Using Activity Lists to Differentiate Instruction

One of the key components in effective differentiated instruction is providing students with the opportunity to make the decisions that guide their learning. 

When teachers differentiate based upon their students’ various skill levels or interests, the impact on student learning can be remarkable. However, when teachers empower their students to make those learning decisions for themselves, the results can be transformative. 

One practical way to give students this type of learning experience is through the use of activity lists. 

How Activity Lists Work

The actual concept of an activity list (sometimes referred to as a choice board or a menu) is fairly straightforward: students are given a list of activities, and they are tasked with selecting items to complete to practice skills and learn content.

At their best, these lists have options that target varying degrees of student interest, learning styles, and skill levels so that students (through practice) make the best choices to improve their own understanding.

The teacher’s role becomes to both facilitate effective student choices and scaffold student learning as they engage with their choices. Personally, I love the freedom this type of differentiated approach provides me as a teacher; rather than staying locked in as the leader of a whole-group experience, I have the freedom to circulate around the room and support students as they engage with the materials they chose for themselves.

Making an Activity List

When making an activity list, some key considerations should include:

  • What are the essential concepts all of my students need to understand?
  • Are there options that will engage all of the different levels of students in my class?
  • Is there a mix of both creative and analytical assignments?
  • Are there options for fast-finishers to pursue deeper understandings?
  • Are students being offered opportunities to practice key skills in multiple ways?
  • Do students have opportunities to consume new information using different types of media (text, video, podcasts, etc.)?

To create activity lists that accomplish these goals requires careful planning and consideration. For example, a week-long activity list in my middle school social studies course may contain four different topics each with three or four different activity options. Each option approaches the key content from different angles and with different types of student performance.

Naturally, some choices on a list are more popular than others. There are weeks where I create a particular activity that only one or two of my students even attempt. This isn’t a bad thing; that’s differentiation! Had that less-popular choice not been available, the students who chose it would likely have been less engaged working on one of the alternative options.

The Transformative Power of a Student-Choice Driven Classroom

If creating activity lists and all the accompanying materials and experiences featured on them sounds overwhelming, I’ll be honest, it can be. After all, some of the things you spend time and energy to create may only be experienced by only a handful of your students. To truly embrace differentiation, you must fight through these feelings.

In my classroom preparation, I typically spend anywhere from two to five times as much time preparing the materials and opportunities that comprise my students’ activity lists as I do providing direct, whole-group instruction. The front-loaded effort frees me up to work with my students as they make their learning choices and engage with the skills and content in the ways that are relevant to them.

For me, I feel that facilitating this type of student-driven learning has produced much deeper understandings than any one-size-fits-all instructional tactic ever has. As a result, activity lists have become an indispensable component of my teaching practice.

Simply put, by allowing students to have true and varied academic choice, engagement and understanding improve.

Where to Start

If you are looking for a way to freshen up your classroom differentiation approach, try an activity list. Start small with a single class period or a single lesson and see how your students respond. There is no value in diving into the deep end, getting frustrated, and losing precious class time.

As with anything, both you and your students will gain comfort through experience. As this comfort grows and you begin to see the positive impacts, try expanding the activity list approach to a few days or a week.

In the end, maybe activity lists don’t become a cornerstone of your classroom workflow, but at the very least, just having the tool in your teacher’s toolbox may come in handy the next time you need a way to differentiate material for your students.

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting focused websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings.

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