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The Joy of Learning:
Assessment for Differentiated Instruction
King Murfreesboro, TN
Carolyn Chapman St. Helena, SC
International Professional Developers
K-12 differentiated instruction (DI) can be a joyful way to teach
students because it is tuned to the ways in which each individual
student functions best. In a previous issue of IAE Newsletter, Hudson
(July, 2016) focused on the complexity of evaluating instruction
focused basically on objective (such as math) and subjective (such as
the arts) elements of instruction. This article focuses more on
adapting to the capabilities of individual students when considering
teaching, and assessing such issues as cognitive capability
and personal/family/ethnic backgrounds.
DI probably functions better in single-class elementary classrooms than
in multi-class secondary settings, but imaginative teachers across the
K-12 spectrum can effectively use elements of it.
DI's Instructional Base
We have observed that the teachers who are the most successful
in DI exhibit contagious enthusiasm for their entire class. They
eagerly seek to help all of their students reach their full
capabilities. Their on-going assessments identify each individual
student's unique needs. They understand variations in content
information and present them through intriguing strategies.
They thus determine a student’s knowledge and willingness to go beyond,
and use it to guide instructional strategies. This pattern suggests an
eventual development of a repertoire of appropriate instructional
strategies that can work effectively with individual students as they
work in various settings. DI teachers think in terms of the TAPS acronym to assist in this: T working in a total group, A working alone, P working with a partner, S working within a small group.
Our work throughout life involves competence at each of these four
levels. DI teachers thus carefully observe students as they engage in
doing assignments. They intervene, as needed, with a review,
clarification, or analysis of the task. The student then returns to the
group, works independently, or is assigned to a more appropriate group.
Planning for individuals, partners, and small groups who finish
assignments at different times can become a challenge. Tomlinson
and Imbeau (2010) refer to varied task completion periods as
“ragged time.” Thus, design meaningful follow-up tasks related to the
lesson for students who complete their work early. These include
station work, journal writing, choice boards, and academic contracts.
These anchor activities keep everyone engaged and provide a productive
environment for classmates who need more time. Before a work period
begins, students thus know what to do when their task is finished. They
understand available options, guidelines, and how to access materials,
so they do not interrupt the work session.
In his book, How the Brain Learns,
David Sousa (2011) emphasizes that the brain attends to novelty or
anything new or different in the environment. Steve Barkley (2013)
suggests “Wowing” students and adding pizzazz to activities.
Interspersing unique, unexpected experiences in lessons entices
students to enhance their memory.
Preliminary DI Assessments
Although the concept of learning styles is now
somewhat questionable (Bruff, 1/28/2011), teachers can learn much
of student variance from continuing casual conversations,
observations, surveys, and journal entries. Teachers can identify
student in/out of classroom behaviors that affect learning,
those that help them to stay aware of a student's evolving changes in
their continually changing life.
Assessing During and After Learning
Various informal assessment tools identify personality traits
and work preferences (such as working alone, in pairs, within groups).
Teachers share results with each person who assists a student. For
example, if a student seems to learn best through one or another
sensory modality, focus on that as much as possible.
On-going assessment is vital for planning. Use an informal assessments
approach that reveals needed useful information. Analyze the results to
monitor the student’s placement in productive, comfortable learning
situations (working alone, in pairs, in groups, etc.).
Administer neededpre-assessments to
gather data related to the student’s background knowledge and level of
readiness for the identified skill or standard. Do this a few days
before the scheduled lesson. This provides ample time to analyze the
data and plan appropriate activities, select activities, and gather
Assessment during learning occurs
through observations, class discussions and questions, and tests.
Intervene when needs are evident. Review, reteach, or modify if the
assignment is too difficult. If an assignment is too easy, expand or
extend it in a manner that helps to increase the depth of a student's
Assessment after learning provides data that is analyzed for mastery of the standard or skill. Use the results to guide upcoming instruction.
According to Farrell, Marsh, and Bertrand (2015), some practitioners
and policymakers believe students who engage with assessment data
“exert extra effort” and “gain a better understanding of their
strengths, their weaknesses, and how to improve.” The following analogy
emphasizes to students the value of self-assessment for staying on
track to improvement: Racecar drivers constantly monitor their vehicles and pull into the pit to make adjustments.
A student’s brain functions best in the student's psychologically-safe
environment, and testing should provide this environment. Remove or
replace elements that create anxiety and generate negative feelings.
Encourage students to think of testing as an opportunity to show what
they know now, so that you can help them to move forward. Consider this
aphorism when preparing assessments: Accentuate the positive! Eliminate the negative!
Planning Adjustable Assessments
Assessing K-12 competence related to a skill or standard
usually reveals a classroom range from low to high. Low-level
competence needs additional instructional help. Middle-level competence
can generally function with the new information or tasks. High-level
competence can function with tasks that create a broader understanding
of the tasks. Do your best to tune assessments to these group ranges
before moving towards assessments tuned to individual students.
It's obviously easier for an elementary teacher with a single class of
about 25 to do this than for a secondary teacher with several classes
of 25 across the school day. Still, with the concept of DI central in
their brain, imaginative secondary teachers will begin to implement its
For example, students working with challenging personalized tasks often
wonder why they have to work with difficult problems while others have
easy problems. Good point. A teacher might use an electronic game as a
learning example that requires mastery at one level before the player
can move on to the next level.
All assessments are opportunities for learners to showcase
their knowledge and improve while developing positive attitudes toward
testing. On-going assessment results guide selection of differentiated
instructional strategies. Plan tasks for each student’s knowledge base
and comfort level.
The joy of learning is reflected in the students’ words, actions, and
body language when they are engaged in tasks on their success levels.
Observable reactions include jumping with excitement, smiling,
sparkling eyes, and eagerness to begin. When instruction is
personalized these responses are more prevalent. The associated
feelings prepare students emotionally for lifelong learning.
Barkley, S. (2013). Wow! Adding pizzazz to teaching and learning. 3rd ed. Allentown, PA: Performance Learning Systems.
Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009) Differentiated instructional strategies for writing in the content areas. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009). Differentiated instructional strategies for reading in the content areas. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Chapman, C., & King, R. (2012). Planning and organizing standards-based differentiated instruction. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009). Test success in the brain compatible classroom. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Rita King is an
international trainer, consultant, author, and keynote speaker. She
directed the teacher-training program in the laboratory school at
Middle Tennessee State University while serving as the school’s
principal. Rita is the co-author of six books, four CDs, and training
manuals on differentiated instruction.
Email: email@example.com. Carolyn Chapman is an
international professional developer and conference keynote speaker.
She was a teacher before becoming a consultant in teacher training in
Georgia. Carolyn is the author of many educational publications
including seven books, four CDs, and training manuals on differentiated
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