Many teachers recognize that students are motivated when working on assignments they find sufficiently challenging — ones that are neither too far beyond their grasp nor overly simple. Now, neuroscience backs what these teachers witness daily in their classrooms, as recent findings show that the brain has an internal rewards system and one of the things it praises itself for is the act of understanding something new.

This means there’s an intrinsic motivation for students when they comprehend previously unknown subject matter. For this to occur frequently in our classrooms, we need students working at the right level.

Yet most classrooms are filled with individuals possessing distinct aptitudes and abilities in any given subject. So how does a teacher set up lessons that keep everyone in class working at his or her edge — and reaping kudos from the brain?

An increasingly popular solution is differentiated instruction, which seeks to optimize student development and success. In classrooms where it has become a common practice, teachers and students swear by it. Yet like any other teaching skill, it takes training and practice to do well.

Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan, authors of "Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms,"define differentiation in education as "a teacher's reacting responsively to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike."

Clearly, students differ in a variety of ways from cultural background and knowledge of the world to their motivation, aptitude in certain areas and study habits. Accordingly, differentiation can be based on student interests or preferred learning styles in addition to academic level or readiness.

How does a teacher set up a differentiated learning experience? Observing and assessing the students to see what needs and interests they have is an important first step.

Throughout the process, ongoing monitoring is key as students change and progress therefore groupings should not remain static. What follows is careful planning of lessons that take into account objectives for individual students or group levels and curriculum attainment targets.

To assist students in reaching optimal understanding to meet such objectives, teachers can differentiate the curriculum elements — content, process and product. Content not only includes what students are to learn but how the student gains access to the desired knowledge, understanding, and skills, explain the authors cited above.

For example, texts, computer programs and videos can be used as a way of conveying key concepts to different learners. Teachers can change the process or how the learner comes to understand key concepts by adjusting the amount of support or difficulty of tasks given to groups of learners based on their needs and level. Finally, what students produce to demonstrate their learning can also be varied based on interest, ability or other criteria.

The options for how to organizing differentiate instruction are wide open and can be tailored based on objectives and desired outcome.

In some cases, teachers may opt for a centers-based set up with groups moving around the classroom completing activities designated for their particular teams. Simply giving students the option of working on an assignment with a partner or alone is an example of differentiation based on preferred learning style.

In a differentiated reading activity for English language learners at the secondary level, teacher Fiona Martin first assessed students at three reading comprehension levels. The class worked for three consecutive class periods with the same text in two teams, each with its corresponding whiteboard with instructions for each activity and student leader.

The team made up of advanced- and group-level students tackled activities that involved in-depth and critical analysis of the text while the teacher had the opportunity to aid members of the team that were below group level in basic tasks like pronunciation, vocabulary and comprehension.

Questions and doubts that came up were fielded by the each team’s leader who was authorized to go ask the teacher only when unable to resolve the problem and it impeded the students in advancing with the activity. This tool allowed the teacher to focus on the specific needs of the group she was currently assisting with minimal interruptions.

Feedback from all these students was extremely positive. "Students from the high level agreed that they felt like they could really get on with their work and continue to develop their skills," reported Martin.

Meanwhile, individuals who usually struggled with comprehension were given the tools and time to understand what they read without feeling judged or pushed by their peers. One particular student from this group said he really enjoyed the opportunity to answer the questions and work at his level with his friends. Martin adds, "He really had the chance to shine in this activity, which was great for his self-esteem and confidence."