Math Wheels for Note-taking?

Math Differentiation: 5 Practical Approaches for Middle School

Use these math differentiation tips and tricks to help all of your middle school students thrive in your math classes this year.

Do you remember what it was like in middle school? I certainly do. I recall sitting in math class, surrounded by my classmates. All of us felt like we were stuck in the same boat, regardless of our math abilities. We were handed the same assignments, given the same time constraints, and expected to keep up at the same pace. But the truth was, we weren’t all sailing smoothly on that mathematical journey due to the missing key: math differentiation strategies.

That’s the thing about math education – it’s not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Students walk into the classroom with vastly different backgrounds, skills, and learning preferences. So, how do we bridge this gap and ensure that each student has the chance to shine? That’s where differentiated instruction comes into play.

In this blog post, we’ll chat about differentiated instruction, what it means, and how it can make a world of difference in your middle school math classroom. We’ll dive into practical examples that will empower you to meet your students’ diverse needs, helping them survive and thrive in their mathematical adventures.

What is Differentiated Instruction in Math Education?

So, what exactly is this “differentiated instruction” we keep talking about in math education? Imagine your classroom is a garden, and your students are all different types of plants, each with its own unique needs to thrive.

Math differentiation is a way to make sure all of your students are able to learn in the way that meets them where they are and builds on skills they are learning.

Differentiated instruction is the teacher’s way of being a skilled gardener. It’s all about recognizing and appreciating that each student in your class is like a different plant. They won’t all flourish the same way. Some might need more sunlight (or in our case, more challenging math problems), while others might need a bit more nurturing (extra help or guidance).

In a nutshell, it’s about tailoring your teaching methods to suit the specific abilities, interests, and readiness levels of every student in your diverse classroom. That way, you’re not giving everyone the same watering schedule, so to speak. You’re cultivating your growth plan for each plant, making sure they get just the right amount of attention and care.

The magic of differentiated instruction is that it transforms your classroom into a place where every student gets the kind of instruction they need to grow and flourish in math. It’s giving them their own unique path to mathematical success!

Examples of Math Differentiation Approaches:

Now that we know what differentiated instruction is all about, let’s roll up our sleeves and explore some practical examples of how it works in the world of middle school math. These examples are like the tools in your teaching toolbox, ready to help you meet the diverse needs of your students.

1. Tiered Assignments

Alright, so let’s imagine this: You’re in the middle of a math unit about solving equations. You know, the unit where some kids jump right in understanding that the variable represents a missing number, and others are confused about why letters are in the math problem. As a teacher, you want to make sure every student gets just the right challenge, not too easy, not too tough. That’s where tiered assignments come into play. They’re the secret to keeping every student engaged and learning.

Instead of assigning everyone the problems from the textbook, you mix things up a bit. You create different assignment tiers, like different levels in a video game.

Let’s start with the basics. Everyone gets the foundational information on solving equations. The basic steps that are followed in all equations. That’s the common ground. You offer something extra for those kids who are itching for more, who’ve got that sparkle in their eye when you say “solve for x”. They dive into the pool’s deep end with equations that take multiple steps. It’s giving them a math adventure that’s just their speed.

Meanwhile, other students can master the basics at their own pace, building confidence with variables and the order of operations. These students may enter the water one step at a time or take a hesitant jump into the shallow end.

Why Tiered Assignments?

Tiered assignments make sure no one feels left behind and everyone has a chance to shine. They help you cater to all the different learning styles and paces in your classroom, making sure everyone feels like a math rockstar!

A great way to put this into action is with task cards. The assignment you give the class is the same – solve the task cards. But. . . you strategically pull different task cards for different students or groups of students.

You see, something that sounds time consuming and difficult doesn’t have to be. It can be easy to meet students at different levels.

2. Flexible Grouping

We have all heard of flexible seating in our time as educators, but what have you heard of flexible grouping? My next math differentiation strategy is implementing flexible grouping. Flexible grouping is a strategy that allows you to group students together for lessons or activities based on a common thread. For small group instruction, grouping might be based on their current level of understanding or level of mastery. For activities, groups might be made by connecting students by interest or the type of project they want to complete.

With flexible grouping, there is an intentional and strategic thought into who goes in each group. No numbering off or choosing your own group here. But. . . flexible grouping means that for the next topic or the next activity, the groups will change. Thus, the flexibility in flexible grouping. Using this differentiation strategy you don’t just assign groups at the beginning of the year and keep them all year long. The groups will be constantly changing based on the needs of the students.

How are Groups Formed?

The answer to this question comes through informal assessments. Start the unit off with a pretest. Use exit tickets throughout instruction. Keep your finger on the pulse of student understanding and ability. This is the information you use to decide how to group your students.

For example, based on the results of a unit pretest, you can create different groups that focus on specific skills. Those who mastered the pretest can jump into more advanced concepts at an accelerated pace. Meanwhile, if some students need a bit of a review, they can take their time and work through the basics. It’s all about meeting them where they are, not where you think they should be.

As a student’s level of understanding develops, they are moved into a group that will meet those needs. Sometimes the group as a whole grows and the group remains consistent. Other times students come and go based on where they are.

Flexible grouping works hand in hand with these other differentiation strategies. Based on the group you can offer tiered assignments as was mentioned above. You will also be able to use the strategies below with your groups too.

3. Scaffolded Support with Math Differentiation

Next, let’s talk about the math differentiation strategy that focuses on scaffolded support. Have you ever taught someone how to ride a bike? You don’t just toss them on a two-wheeler, wave, and say, “Good luck!” No, you start with training wheels, right? Well, that’s what scaffolded support is all about.

When we’re working with middle school math, we understand that some students might need a little extra help to grasp certain concepts. That’s where the scaffolding comes in. It’s building a sturdy structure to help them reach their math goals step by step.

Let’s say you’re teaching long division. For some students, it’s as easy as pie (they’re more annoyed by all the steps!). But for others, it can feel like trying to solve a puzzle in the dark. With scaffolded support, you start by breaking down the process into manageable chunks.

You might provide step-by-step notes or graphic organizers to help students who are struggling. Think of it as giving them a roadmap with clear directions to follow. As they gain confidence and skill, you gradually remove some of the support, just like you would the training wheels.

While some students need that scaffolding, others don’t. The math concept just clicks with them and they are ready to move forward independently at a brisk pace. Combining scaffolded instruction with flexible groups allows you to save time by offering different levels of support to a group as opposed to individually.

The beauty of scaffolded support is that it ensures no one gets left behind. It’s having a safety net in place, so even if a student stumbles a bit, they know there’s support to catch them.

4. Regular Formative Assessments

This next strategy is super important in the world of math differentiation: formative assessments. Think of these as your math teaching GPS – they help you figure out where your students are on the mathematical map. They guide you on the best route forward and even help you implement some of the other differentiation strategies.

So, what are formative assessments? They’re like pit stops you make during a road trip to check your progress and refuel. In the classroom, they come in various forms, like short quizzes or exit tickets.

Formative assessments help you get a glimpse into a student’s level of understanding. When you administer these quick quizzes or exit tickets, you’re not just checking to see who gets an A and who gets a C. Nope, it’s way more than that. You’re able to see when students have a solid grasp of a concept or when they are struggling. You can also pinpoint areas of misunderstanding.

You then use this information to guide your instruction. Those who are soaring ahead can be challenged with more complex tasks. For those who might be struggling or taking a detour, you’ve got a chance to offer additional help. Formative assessments help you fine-tune your teaching, making sure you reach each student.

And. . . formative assessments don’t have to be super long! You can learn a lot about a student’s understanding from just a question or two. Come check out my Comparing and Ordering Fractions Quick Check or my exit tickets for ready-made formative assessments!

So, next time you hand out those short quizzes or exit tickets, remember you’re not just checking boxes. You’re uncovering valuable insights that guide your students to reach their destination successfully!

5. Using Varied Learning Resources for Math Differentiation

The key to unlocking math success isn’t just in the numbers. It’s also in the approach. So, let’s chat about offering a smorgasbord of learning resources.

Think of your classroom as a treasure chest. Inside, you’ve got textbooks, online learning, math games, task cards, worksheets, and hands-on manipulatives. A variety of options and activities to bring math to life for your students.

Why is this variety so important? Well, because every student is unique, just like a fingerprint. They each have their own learning preferences and the magic happens when they are given the tools that fit their learning styles.

Some students are textbook aficionados. They love the feel of paper, the smell of freshly printed pages, and the satisfaction of solving problems from a good ol’ book. It’s their math comfort zone.

Then you’ve got the tech-savvy learners. They’re all about online tutorials, interactive lessons, and virtual math games. For them, the digital world is their math playground, and they thrive in it. I have a whole website with digital math games and activities that cover a range of math topics that are perfect for the middle school math classroom!

Let’s not forget our hands-on, tactile learners! These are the students who need to see, touch, and manipulate physical objects to really grasp math concepts. Give them a set of colorful manipulatives, such as dice, number tiles for equations, or visual fraction pieces, and they’re in their element.

Options and Choice

Now, here’s the beauty: You’re not forcing any of these resources on your students. Nope, you’re letting them choose. Students naturally gravitate towards activities or tools that help them. In the end, they’ll learn their math skills but also have a better idea of how they learn and what helps them.

If the thought of all that choice feels like too much, don’t fret. As you plan your lessons and activities be very intentional about weaving in a variety of different types of activities. That way during the unit you will make sure to hit all the different learning styles multiple times.

Embrace the Math Differentiation Adventure

Differentiation is one of the most beneficial teaching strategies we can use in the classroom. And. . . I hope that you can see how we can easily combine two or more of these strategies into our day-to-day classroom activities.

Remember, it’s not about fitting every student into the same mathematical box. It’s about recognizing their individuality and giving them the tools they need to shine. Math classrooms shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. They should be dynamic, exciting, and full of possibilities.

If you are new to differentiation, I would suggest picking one or two of these strategies to focus on. As you plan your lessons and activities be very intentional about weaving in your chosen strategies. Before you know it, you will be doing it automatically. That’s when you can add another strategy.

Before too long you will be differentiating for your math students like a pro.

Save for Later!

Remember to save this post to your favorite math Pinterest board so you jump back quickly for these and more ideas on math differentiation.


Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!



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