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Career and Technical Education (CTE) | Differentiated Instruction

9 Best Differentiated Instruction Strategies for CTE

March 12th, 2020 | 10 min. read

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Teaching career and technical education (CTE) courses means you are challenged with reaching diverse students every day.

Not all of them respond to lectures, and some of them may not learn anything from reading a textbook. Some may even be English Language Learners (ELL), struggling to keep up in class. 

Even more, you have students who excel sitting next to students who need remediation.

That’s why it’s so important to use differentiated instruction in CTE.

But finding ways to differentiate your lessons is difficult and time-consuming, especially since you have regular classroom lessons as well as clinical labs!

As a CTE curriculum developer, we hear from thousands of teachers like you every year, and they all have the same problem.

But while it may seem to be out of your reach, differentiation is easier than you think.

To help you get started, we’ve put together a list of the nine best differentiated instruction strategies for CTE classes:

  1. Group students based on topic knowledge
  2. Create pods with student captains
  3. Create tiered lessons
  4. Create handouts for common questions
  5. Include hands-on activities and projects
  6. Provide study guides, worksheets, and notes
  7. Flip your classroom
  8. Use the Think-Pair-Share method
  9. Try digital curriculum

On this page, we’ll dive into what each strategy is and when they work best.

1. Group Students Based on Topic Knowledge


In many CTE classrooms, some students work ahead while others get left behind. This is one of the most common reasons teachers look for ways to differentiate their lessons.

To help head off this problem from the start, consider using flexible grouping in your classes.

Flexible grouping is the practice of placing students together based on their learning styles, academic interests, or subject knowledge.

Then, you can have these groups work on presentations or other long-term projects that require them to teach the rest of the class.

This is an excellent way to test whether a group of students has a strong grasp of a certain topic. After all, if they can teach a concept to their peers, then they must know it really well!

Some teachers make the mistake of keeping students in the same groups throughout the school year. 

However, that’s not the best way to differentiate because it keeps students in the same place for an entire course.

Instead, you should mix up each group based on the unit you’re teaching at the time. That helps your students connect with one another, and it proves that they have a well-rounded understanding of your course.

How can you apply flexible grouping as a differentiation strategy in your classroom?

Before starting a new unit, review the skills individual students will need to complete the work you want to cover.

If a student is not familiar with the background information, assign them to Group A. If a student is more comfortable with the content, assign them to Group B.

Once students are in their groups, you can assign work.

Group A will need more background information to prepare for the new unit. You can provide this with a few short videos on the topic.

While Group A watches the videos, you can work with Group B to start the new unit.

Conversely, you can give Group A “live” instruction and allow Group B to move ahead independently.

This lets your students learn at a pace that works best for them.

On the downside, it requires you to take two different approaches in a classroom, which can become tedious if you need to switch back and forth between the two.

2. Create Pods with Student Captains


Another way to overcome the challenge of some students having more knowledge than others is by creating “pods” in your classroom.

This allows more skilled and confident students to work with those who are struggling -- especially if your students seem to learn better when interacting with their peers.

How can you implement pods in your CTE classroom?

Organize your classroom into pods with student desks arranged in a circular configuration to encourage interaction. Assign a captain (or two, depending on your class size) to each pod.

Captains should be more confident, knowledgeable, and motivated to assist others in the pod. Fill in the other seats of each pod with students who may need a little extra push to succeed.


It’s important to encourage students to ask for assistance from a captain in their pod whenever they run into trouble. Without getting out of their seats, students can get help from their peers!

A big plus of using this strategy is that you can be a facilitator of the classroom and observe the class instead of directly leading classwork every day. 

Plus, struggling students can get help immediately rather than waiting for you to get to them, which helps move them effectively through material.

3. Create Tiered Lessons


CTE is famous for its student diversity in every respect, including academic performance.

That’s why it’s so hard to provide challenges for more advanced students while ensuring success for those at a lower level. 

By creating “tiers” for each unit, you can keep each student on track with learning the current topic.

With tiers, there are expectations of achievement for different students. Make it clear that a smaller percentage of students will complete the highest tier, which isn’t necessary to pass your class.

How can you add tiered lessons to your units?

Here’s an example that Frank DiMaria, a computer teacher in South Carolina shared with us:

“To ensure that I challenge those students who bring the highest software skills to my class, while also ensuring success for those who don’t, I tier my units.

For example, I teach a unit in which my students learn the basics of owning a small business. In this unit they must:

  1. Design a Commercial Website
  2. Create a Merchandise Order using Excel
  3. Create a Detailed Yearly Sales Report in Excel

My expectation is that students with average computer skills will be able to complete the Website and the Merchandise Order with guidance from me. However, I expect only those students with the highest-level skills in Microsoft Excel to complete the Sales Report.”

Overall, this strategy allows students to set realistic goals for themselves in terms of achievement.

If they were at the bottom tier for your last unit, they can shoot for the next tier in the current lesson. Then, they can repeat that process to learn and achieve more as appropriate!

4. Create Handouts for Common Questions


Do you tend to teach the same lessons each marking period or semester?

If so, consider compiling a list of frequently asked questions as part of your syllabus or unit materials.

By providing answers to common questions before they come up, you help your students get quick answers without disrupting the rest of the class.

This can also make a big difference for students who may be nervous to ask a question in front of their peers.

Depending on how long your list is, you can print it out for each student or post it on the classroom wall as a reference.

5. Include Hands-On Activities and Projects


While lectures and other teacher-centered learning approaches are great for introducing overarching concepts, a big part of differentiation involves using different methods.

One of the most important items to include in CTE courses are hands-on activities and projects.

Project-based learning allows students to work at their own pace and encourages them to push themselves to the next level.

How can you include project-based learning in your classes?

Start small with a lesson that seems to take a lot of effort for your students to understand.

Then create (or find) an activity that builds on those concepts to help reinforce what students are learning.

These activities could be done in class, as group work, or long-term projects assigned outside of normal class time.

No matter how you include projects in your curriculum, they’re great for providing a different way of learning and reinforcement.

6. Provide Study Guides, Worksheets, and Printed Notes


It’s proven that writing down information helps students remember it. That’s why worksheets and handouts are some of the most common reinforcement strategies in today’s classrooms.

Some students need that tactile activity of writing ideas and terms to better remember class material.

Where can you start with creating these materials?

If your textbook or curriculum provides student worksheets or guided notes, take full advantage of them!

If you have presentations created for lecturing, you could print your presentations with areas for students to fill in blanks and margins where they can take their own notes.

7. Flip Your Classroom


Flipped learning is one of the most effective differentiation strategies to promote personalized learning. 

It requires students to do the bulk of their work at home so they can learn the theory on their own. Then, they enter your classroom ready for guided discussion and hands-on activity.

How can you incorporate flipped learning as part of your teaching methods?

We’ve found teachers have the most success when following these flipped learning best practices:

  1. Knowing When to Flip (and When Not To)
  2. Starting with Small Changes
  3. Helping Your Students Adjust
  4. Giving Students Options for Accessing Your Content
  5. Using More Than Lecture Videos
  6. Finding Ways to Check Work Done at Home

By following these steps, you can engage students in discussions, projects, and skills development instead of standing and lecturing.

In addition, the flipped classroom approach gives you more time to work directly with your students since you don’t have to cover introductory information.

Instead, you can concentrate on answering questions and moving students to the next part of their education.

8. Use the Think-Pair-Share Method


The think-pair-share method is a three-pronged approach to help students process information in a short period of time.

This differentiated instruction strategy is great for meeting different comfort levels of student participation and personality types. 

It allows students to talk to each other instead of the full class, and one of them will probably be more comfortable with speaking to the class than the other.

How does the think-pair-share method work?

First, you introduce the new topic and inspire student thinking with questions or discussion prompts.

Next, have students pair off to discuss their ideas on the topic. They could also compare answers, if you asked a question.

Then, you open up the class for discussion. Ask each pair of students to share their thoughts and allow the discussion to flow before moving onto your lesson.

With that, you’ve made it easier for students to share their ideas without the anxiety students feel when asking questions in front of the class!

9. Try Digital Curriculum


A digital curriculum is the perfect way to differentiate classroom instruction. A digital curriculum empowers you to embrace multiple differentiated instruction strategies at the same time.

If students work independently in your classroom, a digital curriculum removes the downtime they experience whenever you have to change gears or jump to the next lesson.

Quick learners will appreciate the flexibility to work ahead, and less confident students will have the opportunity to review and remediate themselves as they’re comfortable.

You can print out worksheets for independent classwork or have students fill them out on a computer.

You can also show presentations, record grades, and help students who need it the most — all from one convenient tool.

Thousands of CTE teachers use the AES curriculum system to plan classes, differentiate their teaching, assess student progress, and get their free time back.

“AES allows my students to study and practice at a pace that is comfortable, and therefore beneficial to them. That allows me to spend more time assisting students who need more one on one instruction so they don't get lost in the shuffle of moving forward as a class.

Additionally, the variety of learning activities appeals go to a broader range of students but still brings it back to a quickly graded assessment that identifies student strengths and weaknesses, enabling me to adjust and focus my instructions for each learner.”

Ryan Lavine
Cleveland High School, TX

Using eLearning to Differentiate Your Classroom

For teachers like you, adapting your classroom to the needs of diverse learners can be quite the hassle, but it is so worth it. In this article, you’ve seen some of the strategies you can use to ensure each of your students is learning to the best of their ability, and none of them are left behind. 

But these strategies are only the beginning if you want to bring your classroom further into the modern day. At AES, we talk to thousands of teachers each year who are focused on differentiating their instruction, and one of the methods they most readily support is the use of eLearning. 

CTE teachers find eLearning to be useful in solving all sorts of problems, ranging from student engagement to keeping up with changing standards and more. 

If you want a comprehensive answer to the many challenges you face as a CTE teacher, download this free guide to see whether eLearning is the right fit for your classroom:

Download Your Guide on the Benefits of eLearning for CTE