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For all the ink that has been spilled regarding the issue of differentiated instruction, little has been said about differentiated assessment. There is no doubt that students come to school with a variety of backgrounds and learning needs, and Carol Ann Tomlinson (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006) and others (e.g., Stefanakis & Meier, 2010; Fogarty & Pete, 2010) have documented the importance of the issue and the potential success of the results.
The devil, as always, is in the details, and as Schmoker (2010) recently noted, some teachers find the demands of creating different lessons for the learning needs of each student overwhelming. Here are some practical ideas for busy teachers who want to meet the different needs of students while managing the demands on their already busy schedules.
Keys to Motivation and Engagement
If we were to synthesize evidence on student motivation and engagement, there are three overlapping concepts that are essential: choice, power, and competence. Any one of these is insufficient to maintain engagement.
Empowered students who exercise choice, doing what they want to do, may be temporarily engaged. But if they never become competent, they will become frustrated and distracted. Conversely, competent students who master a skill but never have the opportunity to enjoy a degree of choice or exercise power over the content and nature of their assessments, will dully go through the motions but never achieve a high level of engagement.
However, when students combine these three powerful elements of engagement, then we have the opportunity to achieve what Jeff Howard (Raney, 1997) has called the "Nintendo Effect": the trance-like level of engagement that students achieve for sustained periods of time when they play video games. Students would not be engaged by merely watching videos; rather it's the improvement in competence and the exercise of power, making choices every minute, that keeps them engaged. These are principles that can be applied in every classroom.
Differentiated instruction means nothing when every student is told to finish the same 15 problems with instructions such as, "Complete the odd-numbered problems, numbers 1 through 30." A better approach is the homework menu.
Consider a 7th grade math class in which some students continue to struggle with number operations while others are bored by what they consider the low-level demands of the class. The lesson: one-variable equations, such as "In the equation 3x = 10, what is the value of x?"
An assignment menu would have three columns, each with 15 problems:
Students can choose to complete any 15 problems of their choice.
Some will start in the first column and remain there; they need to practice number operations. Other students will start in the first column, quickly find those problems too easy, and proceed to the second column to finish their 15 problems. Other students may start in the second column and think, "OK, I did this 5 times. Why do I have to do it 15 times?"
These are the very students, by the way, who are going to fail a class despite having passed the final exam. They know the material but did not finish their homework assignments. Rather than engage in a power struggle with the teacher, these students need a next step, and that's where column three comes in. Some of them will proceed to column three and relish the challenge, while others will find column three too difficult and finish their 15 problems in other columns. A few students will do only column three problems.
The Teacher's Perspective
Put yourself in the teacher's position. You are collecting homework as students enter the classroom (a technique that will save teachers at least 10 minutes every day). As you scan the work, you will know instantly who chooses the first, second, or third column and who did no homework at all. You now do not need a theoretical disquisition about differentiated instruction, but you can begin the class as if you are looking through a prism and seeing the entire spectrum of student achievement.
Some students, having at last mastered the skills necessary to begin the assignment, can begin to learn single-variable equations. Others, having failed to do the homework, need to have 10 minutes to finish the task. Others, having moved well beyond the planned task for the day, can begin not with a stultifying repetition of what they already know but with a series of challenging tasks that will engage them and reward their work.
Differentiated instruction, in brief, begins with differentiated homework and assessment.
Menus in Daily Practice
If the homework menu makes sense, then why not expand the concept to an assessment menu. One concept I've used is a menu that allows students to accumulate points in a variety of different ways.
Let's say that 900 points will result in an A, and 800 points will result in a B. Some students might earn a B with the completion of four 200-point assignments. But other students will find such a large project too intimidating. Rather than the all-or-nothing approach that is typical of large projects, the menu system gives these students several other alternatives. They can earn 200 points by completing four 50-point projects or ten 20-point projects.
Some students have the project-management skills (and attentive parents) to complete the 200-point project. Other students need to learn how to assemble a complex project, and for them the challenge of creating smaller projects that lead to the same 200 points is a great opportunity to both demonstrate proficiency in math and also learn to manage complex projects.
From the point of view of a very busy teacher, the implications are clear. Rather than expecting every student to complete a 200-point project, some students will receive feedback every day (perhaps on 20 different 10-point projects), while other students can work independently at other intermediate levels. All of them, however, have the opportunity to earn the same 200 points.
Our ethical obligation as teachers is to ensure that all students have approximately the same obligations but not the identical assignments. We need to ensure that the student who chooses four 50-point assignments or ten 20-point assignments has done at least as much, if not more, than the student who completed the 200-point assignment. In sum, the central challenge of differentiated instruction and assessment is not uniformity of work, but similarity of proficiency.
Differentiated assessment is certainly not a mechanism for lowering expectations for students. Rather, it is a strategy to encourage every student to meet the same rigorous standards in different ways. In addition, differentiated assessment will save teachers, students, and parents from spending time on tasks that are boring, inappropriate, or excessively challenging.
Fogarty, R., & Pete, B. M. (2010). Supporting differentiated instruction: A professional learning communities approach. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Raney, M. (1997, Summer). Technos interview: Jeff Howard. Technos, 6(2), 1–11. Retrieved from www.efficacy.org/Portals/7/Article_Downloads/Writings_by_dr_jeff_howard/JeffHoward
Schmoker, M. (2010, September). When pedagogic fads trump priorities. Education Week, 30(5), 22–23.
Stefanakis, E. H., & Meier, D. (2010). Differentiated assessment: How to assess the learning potential of every student (grades 6–12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Douglas B. Reeves is founder of the Leadership and Learning Center in Salem, Mass., and author of ASCD books on educational leadership.
Editor's Note: For an example of an assignment menu, please see Chapter 7 in Reeves's book The Elements of Grading (Solution Tree, 2010). For other time-saving strategies, see Chapter 8 of his book Finding Your Leadership Focus (Teachers College Press, 2011).
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 20. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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