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  • Writer's pictureLisa

Differentiate Interactive Science Lessons Easily With Student Centered Learning

Any science classroom devoted to providing a quality learning experience offers some degree of differentiation to its students. In the student-centered science classroom, where active learning serves as the beating heart in the body of a lesson, differentiation can’t be avoided. In this post, I’ll share why it needs to be planned for in the preparation of every lesson and how to make that planning nearly effortless.

A Different Type Of Professional Development For Differentiation

learn how to differentiate interactive science lessons

I’m not going to define differentiation, in general, for you. You’ve heard that song and dance, undoubtedly, a million times over! I know I have. Every year – multiple times a year – my school hosts a required or optional professional development session on this topic. In my early days as a new science teacher, the session always ended with me more confused than I was before I joined the meeting. As a veteran science teacher, these trainings are a snooze-fest! This morning, as I began my third day of pre-service work, nearly 10% of the presentation devoted to differentiation included, get this .... the history of differentiation! There was no actionable advice regarding how to transform our lesson to meet the needs of every student in the room.

What I have learned from these professional development trainings over the years was that CONTENT (what the students needed to learn), PROCESS (how the students would learn it), and PRODUCT (what activities the students do, what assignments students should complete, what questions students should answer) could and should be differentiated.


I never learned this in any of my teaching certification classes or my science education degree program, either … not in a practical, employ-this-everyday kind of way.

My Struggle With Differentiation Before Making The Switch To Student Centered Learning

With regard to differentiating PROCESS, I knew about learning styles and that I could supplement my chemistry lesson content to support visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. But, as a science teacher whose content is heavily focused on understanding microscopic and sub-microscopic phenomena that we cannot see, I incorporated visuals into my lessons regularly for the whole group – and I talked to them all, too!

So. Much. Talking.

If anything, I personally lacked the ability to create and employ kinesthetic options in my virtual chemistry classroom comprised of at-risk students who often didn’t have the most basic supplies at home in their cupboards and couldn’t afford to go purchase them.

This begged the question: “If I couldn’t change or didn’t know how to alter the learning PROCESS, how could I really differentiate the learning PRODUCT in a meaningful way?!”.

When I was a student, I LOVED when a teacher gave an array of work product options from which to choose. You know … you might give students the option to write a paper, produce a presentation, or design a brochure or newspaper article. In my 11th grade literature class, I remember choosing to write a mini-newspaper from the perspective of a reporter living in Shakespeare times rather than write a run-of-the-mill essay response. I even soaked my printer paper in black tea before loading it into the printer to produce a really aged, authentic look! It was totally awesome!

As a teacher myself, when I gave these types of options to differentiate chemistry learning products, students seemed to always take the path of least resistance. They’d prepare a short PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation with some relevant pictures and a whole lot of text! They basically just wrote essays and formatted them as presentations because, I presume, then they wouldn’t be held to any sort of length expectation. And, since most students opted for this product among the options, there really was no differentiation evident.

Use Interactive Science Lessons To Differentiate How Students Learn, Not What They Learn or What They Produce

It wasn’t until I read the text, “Visible Learning: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning” that I learned how to differentiate my interactive chemistry lessons.

To completely understand how to differentiate active learning experiences, it’s first necessary to become familiar with or review the foundational tenants of active learning and the effectiveness of instructional strategies used to achieve them.

In other articles, I’ve discussed what I and the authors of Visible Learning believe to be the essence of learning:

1. It’s a process, not a collection of singular events.

2. It should be visible to everyone, students and teachers, when learning is taking place.

3. It’s exceedingly important to produce students who are informed, active members of society.

students complete an interactive learning activity for science

All this considered, their ability to execute activities, remain aware during class time, and develop the capability of using our feedback to direct their next steps in the learning process is critical.

I’ve also summarized Hattie’s research findings on the effect size, the practical effectiveness, of various instructional strategies. My student-centered approach, the Lab in Every Lesson approach to student-centered learning, has been developed to lean most heavily on those instructional strategies or aspects of instruction with the very highest effect sizes:

· teacher expectations and clarity (0.75)

· feedback (0.70)

· student expectations of self (1.44)

· leveraging prior knowledge (0.65)

· integrating prior knowledge (0.93)

Notably, we can use prior knowledge to understand the effectiveness of differentiating PROCESS instead of PRODUCT.

When we choose instructional strategies that complement active learning and have high effect sizes like synthesizing information from texts (0.63), implementing vocabulary programs (0.65), identifying similarities and differences (1.32), summarizing (0.79) and self-questioning (0.55) …. really, anything but lecture and note-taking … we understand how small changes in the way we execute these strategies or in what capacity we ask students to execute related activities could easily accommodate learners at various readiness and comprehension levels.

An Easy Method Of Differentiating Student-Centered Science Lessons

The authors of Visible Learning present a graphic to compare what they refer to as “difficulty” – that is, the amount of effort or work a student must put forth – and “complexity” – the level of thinking, number of steps, or abstractness of a task.

how to differentiate science learning activities

This graphic is just two simple arrows that create a separation among four quadrants which each represent a unique level of differentiation. (You know the symbol that appears when you try to move a text box? That's what we're talking about, here!) The visual is more than instructive, and I highly recommend every educator who’s never seen it to review it. I’m unwilling to share it here to avoid copyright infringement.

In this scheme, learning activities categorized by low difficulty / low complexity are referred to as demonstrating or prompting “fluency”. While learning activities categorized by low difficulty/high complexity are referred to as demonstrating or prompting “strategic thinking”. It’s said that learning activities characterized by high complexity/low complexity are referred to as demonstrating or prompting “stamina”. Finally, those learning activities offering high difficulty/high complexity tasks are aptly described as prompting “struggle”.

In my commentary and storytelling as it pertains to the use of this outline for differentiation, it’s important for me to remind readers that I teach chemistry to at-risk students, sometimes referred to as “reluctant learners” with largely poor math skills. I need to avoid creating “struggle” activities for students to complete during class time. According to the characterization of these tasks, they will be time intensive because they’ll require a lot of action on the students’ part. They will also require a great deal of thought (let’s use the word “analysis” because we’re talking about teaching science and to analyze is to execute part of the scientific method).

Would an honors student benefit from a “struggle” activity, though? ABSOLUTELY.

Examples Of Differentiated Science Learning Activities

I, personally, also try to avoid creating “fluency” activities, but I might lean on this low difficulty / low complexity configuration of a student-centered learning activity if the concept I’m teaching is very fundamental. For example, my Electrostatic Attraction lesson requires students only to open a single web app and drag one negatively-charged particle close to another negatively-charged particle to report observations. Then, they drag one negatively-charged particle next to a positively-charged particle. In this activity, the observation and analysis is extremely simple: Like charges repel, opposite charges attract. But, this concept is foundational to understanding the remainder of the first semester of chemistry! It provides the explanation for ionic bonding and the logic related to polarity which results in all forms of intermolecular forces and, ultimately, the phenomena of like-dissolves-like. It’s worth it for me to spend an entire period on that simple activity, because I want my students to master that simple concept. I want them to get it clearly, because it'll provide valuable prior knowledge for so many future concepts and tasks. The authors of Visible Learning note that our instructional goal should ultimately be to move all content and all students into that fluency category where everything is easy to understand and easy to execute.

For most of my students and most lessons, though, I’m careful to plan for “strategic thinking” and “stamina”. Which of these I choose for a given lesson simply depends on the chemistry content I’m teaching on a particular day. For example, my Chemical Reactions & Equations lesson is representative of “strategic thinking”, in my opinion. The technology app students use is labeled with a chemical equation and a simulation of the chemical process the equation describes is depicted right next to it. Students merely drag a dot on the screen to observe the chemical reaction between substances and, simultaneously, the portion of the chemical equation describing what’s being viewed. This is obviously low difficulty, but I consider it high complexity. Students are asked to connect their observations of the chemical reaction process to their observations of the chemical equation notation. They must distinguish among chemical reactants’ and chemical products’ states of matter based on their parenthetical notation.

Still, that might sound rather mundane and low-level for a college-prep chemistry course. So, what’s the key to making this a “strategic thinking” activity?

know when to differentiate science learning activities

Students must complete this student centered learning activity before they’ve been taught how to recognize or identify states of matter from the notation in a chemical equation. This is just one of the concepts they actively uncover through their own observation … all by just moving a dot.

My “Mass, Volume, Density” lesson, however, requires students to do much more than simply sliding a button around a screen. In the technology app I use to deliver this lesson, students can actually choose glassware, dispense liquid water into it, and measure both its mass and its volume to calculate its density. There’s a lot going on for them in this activity, though the concepts of mass, volume, and even the calculation of density (with the equation provided to them following a brief discussion on the microscopic meaning of density) is relatively straightforward.

It’s the doing, the difficulty, of this conventional, lab-type activity that creates the challenge and facilitates the learning in this ‘differentiated-for-stamina’ student-centered learning activity.

Don't Give Up! Differentiate!

The first time I encountered the need to lean on the differentiation suggestions in the Visible Learning text, I was probably only two weeks into the first academic year I made the switch to student-centered learning in my chemistry classroom.

I had created a Basic Terms in Chemistry lesson with what I felt was low difficulty and low complexity, a fluency lesson activity. As I prepared to deliver it, I felt it teetered on review content from earlier courses in the grade-level continuum of science curriculum. The technology app required students only to select one or more buttons labeled with the terms, “atoms”, “molecules”, and/or “mixture”. When they did, they saw different images appear or disappear from a simulation of microscopic particles of chemicals comprising the air we breathe: oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, etc.

In my very first attempt, the instructions I provided were minimal. I presented the technology and described how to use it. The question I had posed as a companion to the student-centered learning task created much more complexity than I had anticipated. I asked them to use the simulation to define the terms “atom”, “molecule”, and “mixture” using their observation evidence.