Student learning needs

Catering for students’ learning needs is something we all aim to do. But it can be challenging. Is it just about differentiation? What is the best way to differentiate? How do we put it into practice? Let’s explore some ideas, strategies and tips.


When you hear the word differentiation, what do you think of? Ability groupings? Open-ended tasks? Educational consultant Jennifer Bowden from the Mathematical Association of Victoria believes differentiation involves teachers considering “a whole range of different pedagogies … and making choices about pedagogical approaches based on the students that they teach”. In a nutshell it comes down to knowing your students and how they learn, so you can cater for their needs.

Find out what students know

Assessment is key to discovering what your students know – and don’t know! You can assess students to find out what knowledge they have, the concepts they understand and the skills they can apply to tasks.

Data from this assessment can then be used as a starting point to plan what you will teach.

Find out how students learn

You can go further than just understanding what your students know. Delve deeper and think about; what are your students’ learning behaviours? What are their attitudes towards learning maths? How do they learn best?

It’s important to note that this Is not about learning styles. It’s about knowing how a student:

  • thinks and feels about maths
  • becomes engaged in a topic, or problem
  • responds to certain scaffolds
  • makes connections between concepts
  • applies what they have learnt.

When you understand your students on this level you have a greater insight into knowing how to best build their knowledge and skills.

Putting it into practice

Once you know your students well you are better prepared to meet their learning needs, but there are still many aspects to think about. Let’s unpack this further. 

Planning for instruction

Maths expert Jennifer Bowden promotes the use of the instructional model known as launch, explore, summarise.

  • Launch – begin with a question or a task for students to complete or explore.
  • Explore – during this stage the teacher supports students at their different levels. Students can work on the same task, but it can be differentiated to extend or give extra support where needed by scaffolding. You can plan for the learning to be done independently, or in small groups.
  • Summarise – upon competition of the lesson or task the students come together to share what they have learnt.

In an excellent podcast on the Maths Hub, Jennifer explains this model in greater detail.

Open-ended tasks

These rich tasks provide differentiation by output. Essentially all students are working on the same, or similar task, and students reach various outcomes, according to their individual knowledge and skill application.

Grouping students

There are times when you can best meet students’ needs through grouping them in certain ways. When doing so, consider the purpose of the groupings, and ensure the groups are flexible.

  • You should be clear about the specific purpose of your groupings. What needs are you addressing by grouping students together? Are you extending them? Providing consolidation? Are you supporting them to ‘catch up’ on learning they have missed? Or providing intervention?
  • Student groupings should be flexible and change according to their purpose. Sometimes groups are ability based, so students can complete different tasks, at different levels. Sometimes groups have mixed abilities so that students can use their various skills and levels of knowledge to problem solve and use their reasoning skills.

Student agency

Giving students a voice by encouraging them to discuss their learning can help you to understand their individual needs. Ask students about their learning; what they know and want to know, if they are feeling challenged and what helps them to learn. This feedback can help you plan and deliver lessons that cater for all student needs.

If you’d like to learn more about catering for students’ learning needs, you can:

  • sign-up to The Maths in schools: Explicit teaching in Maths learning modules. This self-paced, professional learning course offers five modules that are designed around the seven components of explicit teaching. The modules are aligned to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) professional standards, and they include lessons and activities you can use to teach maths concepts from the Australian Curriculum.
  • listen to the Maths hub podcast, Episode 2: Student learning needs. This engaging and informative podcast is hosted by Allan Dougan, the CEO of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT). Allan chats to Jennifer Bowden about how to cater for individual student needs. The podcast provides practical ideas you can apply in your classroom.