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7 Ways to Differentiate Lessons for Gifted Students

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Students raising hands in a gifted classroom.


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  • Teaching Strategies

All students are unique and special in their own way. Each learns in a different way and needs their education to be individualized. 

But differentiating lessons for gifted students can require even more thought and extra planning. 

Gifted learners tend to go through their learning activities rapidly and require modifications to their education for them to be fully engaged in the classroom. 

If you’re struggling to know exactly how to differentiate lessons for gifted students, this is just the article for you. We’ll highlight instructional strategies to use that will meet your student’s need for enrichment in the classroom, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

What does “Gifted” mean?

The National Association for Gifted Children defines gifted as “students with gifts and talents performed or capable being performed at higher levels compared to others the same age, experience, and environment.

If your school has a gifted program, they likely also have their own definition and benchmarks that qualify a student as gifted. It is important to note that there is not a unified definition from all the states concerning what gifted means. 

Gifted students are seen across all racial, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. 

And there is no one behavior or skill set that defines a gifted learner. Some are gifted in athletics or leadership while others are gifted in the sciences or social skills.

Why is differentiated instruction needed for talented students?

Gifted students are often bored in a typical classroom. This can result in them just zoning out of the lesson or misbehaving. In situations where gifted students are left unchallenged for long periods of time, the students may never learn how to learn in a classroom. 

These students need unique opportunities to analyze, evaluate, create and reflect in challenging ways. Differentiating the lesson according to their strengths can help make this happen. 

Building differentiated lessons is about the philosophy and practice rather than a strict step-by-step process. You can tweak this practice to match your students’ readiness, interest, learning styles and academic needs.

In general, differentiating lessons is a helpful strategy for all student learning. Education scholar Carol Tomlinson emphasizes, “Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students.”

However, this article will specifically focus on why it’s necessary for gifted students. When a student is contemplating skipping a grade but isn’t quite ready to make the leap or is only gifted in a particular subject, differentiated lessons are a great solution. 

8 Differentiation strategies for gifted learners

There are a lot of ways to use differentiation with a lesson. Different approaches will likely work better for a particular topic or student. Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Create tiered assignments

Tiered assignments allow learners to complete the same assignment at different levels of difficulty.

How you implement this strategy will vary based on your classroom. For example, you may design an assignment for the middle tier of students and then add additional challenges for gifted students. 

Another option is designing a more difficult assignment and then adding scaffolding, such as a graphic organizer or supplied reading material, to those at or below grade level. 

With this strategy, it is important to routinely assess your students to understand where they are at. This way you will always know who needs advanced content and who needs more help.

Did you know?

If you're teaching math to students in 1st-8th grade, you can use Prodigy's Assignment tool to easily set tiered exercises. With your free teacher account, simply select the skill you want to set as an Assignment and have your students play Prodigy Math.

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2. Shorten the explanations

Gifted students typically understand a concept the first time it is explained, whereas their peers may need the content to be taught a few different ways.

Try giving a short pre-assessment or a pop quiz once you have taught the concept one time to see if the gifted students can move on to the next topic. 

Doing this will hopefully prevent boredom and, in turn, misbehavior from gifted students.

3. Use flexible apps

When bringing technology into your classroom and blending the learning experience, choose apps and games with flexibility. Look for options where gifted students can work on more complex concepts while other students work closer to grade level. 

There are plenty of apps, like Prodigy Math, that engage students and evaluate their skills to determine if they are learning math problems at the right level. Prodigy Math then uses adaptive algorithms to continue to challenge the student. 

Apps like this can also help strain teachers less when planning differentiating lessons since they don’t have to design the tiers themselves.

4. Offer open-ended and self-directed assignments

Open-ended tasks are great for differentiated lessons because they leave plenty of room for students’ skills and ideas to shine. They are especially good at stimulating higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving. 

Self-directed assignments give gifted learners responsibility for their own development and let them decide how far they want to take their own learning. Assignments with open-ended questions encourage students to offer creative responses, work in small groups and build other ways to further explore. But make sure you deliver open-ended sessions with an end goal rather than leaving the students alone.

5. Introduce project-based learning

Project-based learning is effective since it mimics the real world. In a project-based assignment, learners conduct research, ask complex questions and improve management skills. Oftentimes, projects end with a presentation, which is great for practicing public speaking. 

Projects can be completed in small groups or by each student individually. This learning method is especially beneficial for gifted learners due to its depth, student choice, real-world learning and collaboration opportunities.

Project-based learning tends to go over the best when the assignments relate to a student’s interests.  For example, a high school student interested in social studies could be tasked with designing advocacy around an issue of their choice.

6. Try a compact curriculum

A compact curriculum is similar to shortening explanations, but it will actually throw out whole lessons that the gifted student already understands. Instead, the gifted student will be given lessons on content they’ve never been exposed to. 

Most often in this method, students will be given a pre-test that allows them to show mastery over various problems. Then, the curriculum is adjusted. 

It’s important to remember that curriculum development for gifted students is a dynamic process.

7. Pair gifted students up

Another strategy is being more intentional in how you pair students up in collaborative projects. Putting gifted students together in cluster groups boosts their achievement since they are able to work at a faster pace. 

You may even find that in specific subjects, students that are gifted in that area can be paired up for their own differentiated lesson while you teach the rest of the class. These pairs can work on advanced content and learn from each other.

8. Always keep learning

Teaching requires constant innovation and growth with a new classroom of kiddos each year. You will always be tweaking what you are doing based on new things that you learn. 

In the last two years, the pandemic has required flexibility and accelerated digital learning in ways we had never seen before. 

The challenges that came with this got teachers talking and opened up a dialogue about what learning strategies work. It created a community where more experienced teachers could impart their knowledge to others. 

Here's more strategies and ideas to help you differentiate learning

Looking to learn more about differentiation? Check out our list of 20 differentiated instruction strategies for more inspiration on how to level educational content in your classroom, with examples included!

Gifted education pitfalls to avoid

As with any strategy, there are ways to do it well and ways to do it that are not so great. Try to avoid these three common mistakes when differentiating lessons for gifted students.

1. Using gifted students as teaching assistants

While gifted students may seem like a great help in the classroom, they should not be tasked with mentoring or tutoring other students. They need to be challenged in their own education and reteaching a concept that they already know doesn’t do that. 

A different way to go about this is having flexible grouping projects that let students work together for a short period of time. These projects allow gifted students to practice interacting with their peers and allow other students to learn from gifted students, but it’s temporary. 

This method allows gifted students to learn and avoids attaching a ‘teacher’ role to their interactions.

2. Working independently without oversight

A differentiated lesson for gifted learners should lead to more collaboration and content enrichment without the learner working constantly on their own. Assigning open-ended tasks without oversight or accountability can actually have the opposite effect of what you’re going for with gifted learners.

Ensure that lessons allow for student choice while still conforming to school district standards. And check in often with your gifted students.

3. Assuming mastery in all subject areas

Don’t assume that just because a learner is gifted in one area means that this means they are gifted in every area. For example, a student may be reading at a high school level but is not a strong writer. Or they may excel at math problems but struggle to understand graphs in science. 

Evaluate each subject area individually before assigning advanced lessons to gifted students.

Creating a learning environment for everyone

Differentiated lessons can be a great tool for gifted students in your classroom. But there are best practices to keep in mind when you’re constructing lessons. Differentiating lessons helps challenge gifted students and keep them engaged in your classroom.  

If starting the process of planning differentiated lessons feels overwhelming to you, using Prodigy can be a great first step.  

Whether you’re teaching in a math or English classroom, Prodigy is a fantastic free teaching resource that customizes each student’s experience with adaptive content.

Prodigy helps make it easier for you to differentiate instruction across your classroom, with no grading required! Teachers simply select what curriculum-aligned skills they'd like to test on their students or let Prodigy's adaptive algorithm assign content to help a student grow, including those in gifted or talented strands.

It's also free for teachers and schools! See how it works below:

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