Differentiation and Assessment


Having different learners in a classroom challenges teachers to think differently about how they facilitate the learning process - from curriculum, to instruction, to assessment. Teachers can differentiate process, content and/or product. Our focus is on differentiating the products of learning - assessments. Assessments are a way for students to show what they have learned. By differentiating assessment, teachers open up doors for students to demonstrate their developing knowledge and skills in ways in which they may be more "fluent" or which may challenge them further. This is true for both higher-level and lower-level learners. Teachers are able to plan the most appropriate activities and assessments to meet individual student needs. By focusing on adapting assessments to match learner needs and strengths, teachers can provide opportunities for students to be successful. Such a change is significant for students who may otherwise not be able to demonstrate mastery with "traditional" assessments. To better understand the practice of differentiating assessment, we will break down the ideas of "differentiation" and "assessment", looking carefully at each, then consider the concept of differentiated assesment, and provide some concrete examples.

Differentiation is "a process through which teachers enhance learning by matching student characteristics to instruction and assessment" (Access Center). Teachers should differentiate using methods that are based on the student's needs, which may include readiness (a student's academic standing/progress), learning style/profile (how the student best learns), and student interest (in what is the student most interested in relation to the concept). Differentiation can be assigned to students, chosen by students, or designed by students. Keep in mind that differentiation does not necessarily mean individualization! It would be incredibly impractical to attempt to write 20-30 individualized lesson plans. Instead, differentiated practices look for patterns, and create lessons that target groups within the classroom (e.g., students who are ahead, behind, stuck, need more practice, etc.).

Assessment is an opportunity for students to demonstrate thinking before/during/after instruction. Assessment can be assessment for learning (formative assessment: informal and formal) and assessment of learning (summative assessment: teacher test and performance assessment). It is also important to note that assessments can be assessed in different ways. Teachers can assess, students can self assess (ipsative assessment), and students can peer assess. Keep in mind that assessment involves the product, or how the student shows they have learned the material.

Assessment is "often equated and confused with evaluation, but the two concepts are different. Assessment is used to determine what a student knows or can do, while evaluation is used to determine the worth or value of a course or program. Assessment data effects student advancement, placement, and grades, as well as decisions about instructional strategies and curriculum. Evaluations often utilize assessment data along with other resources to make decisions about revising, adopting, or rejecting a course or program" (edtech.vt.edu).

Differentiated Assessment
Differentiated assessment combines the best of differentiation and assessment practices, using assessments designed for specific groups of learners. Assessments can vary by purpose, 'assessor' (ie teacher, student or peer), cognitive level, and modality. The following is a list of examples of differentiated assessments. Several examples will be explained in depth and the rest will be quickly highlighted.

  • Unit Collage
    • The Unit Collage template is an open ended assessment that allows students to demonstrate their understanding through written language and visual representation. This is important because some students learn most effectively when presented with visual representations. Visual learners should therefore be tasked with creating visual and nonlinguistic representations of information. Marzono, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) found nonlinguistic representations as "the most underused instructional strategy of all those reviewed" in a book they co-authored. For visual students, evidence has been found showing students who create visual representations of a concept are then better able to comprehend and recall that concept. There are a number of activities that help students create nonlinguistic representations, including graphic representations, physical models, developing mental pictures, drawing pictures/pictographs, and learning kinesthetically). These representations allow students to expand on the knowledge they have gained and by allowing them to draw they are able to more fully understand concepts. Such demonstrations of understanding are also quickly shared and can bridge language barriers where language expression or reception may be difficult.
    • To see the template and an example/additional information of a unit collage, please visit the links below...
    • Assessment file: http://www2.scholastic.com/content/collateral_resources/pdf/s/SP_UnitCollage.pdf
    • Article on "Unit Collage" assessment: http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3751408

  • Individual projects
    • Individual projects can take the form of learning contracts and study buddies with self-assessments and rubrics to be completed along the way. These projects can be completed individually, in flexible groups (see below), or in interest groups. Individual projects allow for high levels of differentiation because you can work with a specific student (or students) to devise practical goals that are aligned with the curriculum. These goals can appropriately challenge the students within their zone of proximal development. Projects may also be longer-term enrichment activities with a high level of accountability or shorter-term projects for students who need something smaller-scale in focus. The tasks associated with individual projects can touch on the varying levels of cognitive learning (Bloom) And remember, when formulating these kinds of projects be sure to include: A state purpose, strategies and resource, and the actual assessment (what will be produced?).

  • Role Playing
    • Role playing allows students to take on a procedural task and demonstrate their understanding through behavior. These types of methods are used in CPR classes. One can imagine having a CPR class where the assessment was purely pen and paper, an assessment that would be challenging and potentially misleading since being able to name where to do chest compressions is different from actually finding the place where one would perform such an operation. In the same way, a student who can demonstrate understanding through doing in a concrete way, rather than explaining in an abstract way, has another opportunity to share their knowledge. This is great for students who are not pencil-and-paper learners, and we all have a few of these folks in the classroom!

  • Other Differentiated Assessments
    • Adjusting Questions
      • When in a large group discussion situation, teachers direct the higher level questions to the appropriate students and ask more suitable questions for those students with greater needs. This allows each student to answer important questions that require them to think based on their specific readiness level. In terms of the actual assessment/product, you might simply assign different groups of students different end-of-lesson questions based on their level.
    • Compacting
      • Some students may demonstrate that they do not need instruction when presented with a concept. This can be assessed by assessing a student's knowledge, skills, and attitudes and providing different activities since they have already mastered this component of the curriculum.
    • Flexible Grouping
      • This idea comes from the notion that students should not be put in the same leveled group across the curriculum. Like teachers are apt to do, we should group some students based on similar readiness. However, we should also use mixed readiness groups, interest-based groups of both similar and varied interests, similar and mixed learning profile groups, random groups, student choice groups, and whole class groups. We should be flexible in our grouping so we do not pigeon hole students. The teacher should change groups consistently enough so that they do not feel identified with any one particular group of peers, one part of the classroom, etc.
    • Learning Contracts
      • This takes the form of a written agreement made between the teacher and student that results independent student work. The contract outlines daily and weekly work goals and develop management skills. The teacher is also able to keep track of each student's progress. Assignments will vary depending on student needs.
    • Learning Styles
      • This involves giving students tasks based on their preferred learning style. This may help in intrinsically motivating a student, given that they will be assigned work that they will likely be engaged in while completing. For example, a math lesson could be adapted to involve a kinesthetic assessment.
    • Tiered Assignments
      • This involves teaching a series of tasks with varying levels of complexity based on student needs.

Contributed by Zach Burrus and Dave Messer, ACE 15