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1. Differentiated Instruction: What is it?

Differentiated instruction or differentiated learning is a technique used in some classrooms that caters to the individual needs of each student. Teachers use a variety of different activities and methods to teach their classroom. Differentiated instruction gives studen
ts options on how to take in information, and ideas. It also can help them show the teacher what they have learned in other ways than just taking a test.
  • Teachers are cautious about using differentiated instruction because they think there is too much work involved, it is chaotic or disorderly, or it takes too much time to plan.
  • In fact, differentiated learning is proactive, qualitative, rooted in assessment, a blend of individual and group instruction and finally, student centered.
  • The question is how do you assess when you use differentiated learning? It’s actually quite simple. Watch how each student learns and assess appropriately.

Reference: 10

2. Theory

There are three key elements in differentiation: readiness, interest and learning profile.

Differentiating for Student Readiness
  • Zone of proximal development - This shows that learning takes place when the task is too hard for the student to do on their own but they can do it with the help of a teacher.
  • This is where assessment for differentiated learning comes in. If a certain assessment is too hard, the students will probably become frustrated and give up. On the other hand, if it's too easy, they will not learn anything. Finding this balance is the key.

Differentiating for Student Interest
  • If a student is interested in the topic, they will be willing to do the work and learning will take place.external image Picture-1.png
  • Theory of flow: “a state of total absorption that comes from being lost in an activity that is so satisfying that the participant loses track of time, weariness, and everything else but the activity itself.”
  • Once flow has been found, most students will want to feel it again and therefore will seek new challenges
    which results in higher learning.
  • Can give children options for projects. If certain students like to act, allow them to do so and if other students enjoy writing, allow them to do so as well. This will result in more interest and engagement in your students.

Differentiating for Student Learning Profiles
  • Dunn suggests environmental, emotional, sociological and physical learning-styles. These categories suggest that m any different
    factors, such as quiet or loud, low light or bright light, time of day and relationships with peers to name a few, can influence attitudes and achievement.
  • Howard Gardner suggests eight intelligences, which are verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.
  • Robert Sternberg suggests only three: analytical, creative and practical. Both believe that intelligence is fluid and society affects someone's capacity to solve problems.
  • Some other theorists believe that gender and society affect one’s learning differences.
    • These include males preferring math and females preferring language arts. These are huge generalizations but can still be used to determine a student’s ability to learn.

Reference: 11

3. The Biology Behind Differentiation

Differentiating for Student Readiness
  • New stimuli are evaluated by the midbrain, which then sends the information to the frontal lobe.
  • If the stimuli is perceived as "dangerous" (ex. so far out of the student's knowledge bank they don't know what to do) a minor flight response is released, which can manifest itself in stress.
  • Stress produces cortisol, and this directs the brain's attention to the source of stress (i.e. assessment) instead of the task at hand.
  • When students are successful, the hippocampus (area of the brain that releases dopamine) is activated and it encodes the memories.
  • By maintaining activities the students can be successful at, dopamine will be released which helps with external image Books.jpg
    focus, motivation, and memory.

Differentiating for Student Interest
  • Currently there has not been a neural network identified for interest.
  • However, motivation, which is a measure of interest, has been mapped. When a student has higher motivation their attention and persistence is greater.
  • In a study, it was discovered that the putamen area of the brain responds with a greater degree to greater degrees of the motivation.

Differentiating for Student Learning Profiles
  • There is some indication of this being a valid area for differentiation because when looking electroencephalograms (EEGs) of boys and girls it shows that there is more activity in girls during language processing.
  • When processing mathematical information the areas of the brain that were accessed in males were different from those in females.
  • Furthermore, there is some difference between the activity between members of the same gender when tackling the same task. This could be an indicator of different cognitive styles.

A problem with current assessment strategies, like tests or quizzes, are that they promote convergent thinking in students. Convergent thinking has the student take all the knowledge they have acquired and makes them fit it into a particular question. However, when open-ended questions with a variety of answers are used, it promotes more brain activity in students. This is because questions with a variety of answers also works higher-level processing.

Reference: 2

4. Issues With Differentiation

Differentiation is seen as a great advancement by many educators but not everyone agrees with the enthusiasm. Differentiated learning requires constant assessment and evaluation to understand where students are at, what is working and which students need different tools. A lot of issues have been raised over organizing classes and providing measured assessment for differentiated classrooms.

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4.1 Classrooms

People assume that creating lessons that use a variety of teaching methods should cover every student’s areas of struggle. Unfortunately, one major issue when trying to implement differentiated instruction is the student’s behavior. This circumstance can hinder a teacher’s ability to assess a students’ progress during a series of lessons designed around student’s participation. At the same time it is expected that these students meet the same expectations as the rest of the class.

4.2 Teacher Concerns

  • For some teachers differentiated instruction is not all the great things that it is made out to be. The 'flaws' teachers have claimed are:
Not being able to address everyone’s learning needs while also meeting the standards set for the class.
  • Differentiated teaching is not fair to students as standardized tests and post education are not differentiated.
  • Differentiated instruction and assessment take too much time
  • In large classrooms it’s difficult
  • In small classrooms it’s difficult
  • Not enough resources
  • Parents are not onboard
  • Lack of funding
  • It’s hard to grade differentiated instruction
  • Budget problems

4.3 Differentiated Grading

Grading can be a difficult and stressful time for teachers and often teachers and students alike wish that there was no need for grades. One problem is that people often mistake grades as the only means of assessment. Teachers have been afraid that differentiated learning makes assessment more difficult. A few concerns teachers have with differentiated grading are:
  • Meeting grading requirements
  • Parents and teachers at other levels will misinterpret the grades that have been ‘adjusted’ to include marks for hard work and lesser goals.
  • Harder to defend the grades given on report cards

4.4 Parents and Administration

If you walk into a classroom and all the students are walking around and talking you might not believe that there is effective teaching going on. With differentiated learning a teacher may have several activates going on at once in the classroom. With less strict test assessments and more participation based activities parents and administrators may become anxious about the students education. It is important to keep parents and administration involved and on board with what is happening in the classroom for many reasons. The most important of which is that students will be taking their work and grades home. Parents and students have to understand why they are doing what they are doing and how it has led to a certain mark.

References 4 & 5

5. The Teacher's Role

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The role of teachers in the classroom has changed from being keepers and dispensers of knowledge to more of organizers of learning. Classrooms today are more diverse and it is the teachers responsibility to recognize and accommodate the various learning needs of each individual student by creating different pathways for learning.

Teachers who differentiate instruction put their focus on being a good coach or mentor they allow the students to be responsible for their own learning. This allows teachers to grow in their differentiated teaching abilities to:
  • assess student readiness through a variety of means,
  • “read” and interpret student clues about interests and learning preferences
  • create a variety of ways students can gather information and ideas
  • develop varied ways students can explore and own ideas and
  • present varied channels through which students can express and expand understandings.

In order to have a healthy functioning differentiated classroom teachers must identify the students learning styles. This can be done through observation, talking one-on-one with students, previous teachers and parents in order to gather information about individual students interests, experience and prior knowledge.

6. Overview of Learning Styles

Each student has preferred and different learning styles and techniques. Learning styles group the common ways people learn. Learning styles are not set in stone, but rather are flexible; each style has its own set of abilities and these abilities can be developed within different styles as well as further development of all ready used abilities. In the traditional classroom, teachers mainly used linguistic and logical teaching methods, which limit both teaching and learning techniques. The use of multiple learning styles and multiple intelligence's allows for students to learn in a way that better suits their specific learning needs.

Seven Learning Styles
  1. Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.external image multipl-intelligences.png
  2. Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  3. Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech andwriting.
  4. Physical (kinaesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  5. Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  6. Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  7. Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Having this knowledge of students will help the in the teachers development of unit plans, learning outcomes/objectives, choosing content material based on curricular guideline, determining the knowledge, skills and attitudes students need, and creating assessment tools to determine the knowledge gained by the students.

What's YOUR Learning Style? A questionnaire that finds out your learning style:
Which Learning Style Are You?

The role of the teacher in a differentiated classroom is to build on each students strengths by giving them options as to how they learn, but it is important that teachers make all content both challenging and interesting and that the learning objectives for their specific subjects are met. Using various teaching techniques help students become more engaged learners by allowing them to have a choice in how they learn.

References: 7 & 8

7. Assessment Strategies

7.1 Student Chosen Activitiesexternal image student.jpg

  • By using this strategy students can choose what fits their learning profile, interest, and readiness when it comes to form.
  • The projects can be written, visual, or oral.
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, by Carol A.Tomlinson and Jay McTighe, lays out a tic-tac-toe chart that can be given to the students. The book also suggests that for a major project the students choose one activity from each category in order to help round them out as learners.
  • Another way to make the student's feel in charge of their learning is by adding a "free" space to the options. The students can then propose an alternate project to the ones listed.

  • The main problem with this assessment strategy is many people wonder how it can be fairly and equally assessed when the students are doing different projects.
  • Tomlinson and McTighe state that the main assessment components are related to the CONTENT of the activity, instead of the form. There are then equal numbered and weighted categories that related to the project of the student's choice, be it articulation for oral, or organization for visual.
  • It is important to ensure the effort required is worth the education outcome and that this strategy cannot be used for every unit.

7.2 Self-Assessment

  • Through this strategy the student can reflect and determine if the learning style they have been favouring (ex. written) is really working for them or if they should try something different.
  • If the teacher prompts the student's writing with questions it can be a valuable tool for the teacher to discover what the student is learning and what they are missing or struggling with.
  • This can be done through the students writing a self-reflection journal or through interviews with the teacher.

A problem people have with self-assessment is that it is more subjective than other forms of assessment (ex. multiple-choice exam).

7.3 Performance Tasks

  • In these activities, the students are required to not only remember the knowledge they have learned, but also to apply it to real-world circumstances.
  • For students that are more ready and have more knowledge in their ZPD, these activities are challenging and require higher-order thinking.
  • For students who are not yet ready for that level of work these activities provide concrete and straightforward elements to prevent frustration.

A problem with this type of activity is that measuring understanding is subjective and points not examined by the project may be the ones certain student's excel at.

7.4 Different Times to Assess

Diagnostic Assessments
These types of assessments allow the teacher to know what previous knowledge the students have and if there are any weak areas in that previous knowledge. This helps for differentiating student readiness. Diagnostic assessments information is not used for grades.
Examples of Diagnostic Assessments are:
  • Short-answer responses
  • Skills surveys
  • Interest Inventories
  • Learning Preferences Checklist
  • Journal Entries
  • Writing/Reading Samples
Formative Assessments
These assessments occur as learning is happening so that the teacher can keep on top of which students are understanding an

d which are feeling confused. It is important that these assessments have detailed, specific feedback so that the student knows what areas they need to improve on. Formative assessments are not often used for grading purposes.
Examples of Formative Assessments are:
  • Exit Cards
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Student Reflections
  • Student Indicators (thumbs up or down)
  • Journal Entries
Summative Assessments
Assessments that are summative are used at the very end to determine what a student has learned. It will indicate to the teacher whether or not a student achieved the learning objectives. After a summative assessment takes place there is no more going back to improve. The teacher can use this to determine which teaching strategies worked and which ones didn't. Summative assessments are graded.
Examples of Summative Assessments are:
  • Test
  • Journal Entries
  • Portfolios (student products)
  • Essays
  • Final Project

This is a video of Rick Wormeli, author of "Fair Isn't Always Equal" speaking about formative and summative assessment. To learn more about Wormeli's views or to download a copy of his teacher handbook for differentiating your classroom see the references section.

References: 1, 2, 3, & 4

8. Example

This is an example of assessment strategies in practice at Forest Lake Elementary School, Columbia, South Carolina where differentiated instruction is always present.

9. Assessing Diverse Students

Our purpose is not to focus on specific classifications, but to provide general information and techniques that will allow for adequate assessment in the diverse classroom. In general, one of the most important assessment strategies to be used for a diverse classroom is: progress monitoring.

9.1 Progress Monitoring

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It is frequent examination of data by the teacher, so then he/she could evaluate and adjust instruction if needed. Here are the following steps in progress monitoring:

1) In the beginning of the year, assess all students in the critical areas for their grade level.
2) Identify students who need extra help by using assessments and help them to create goals for learning.
3) Monitor the progress of small groups more frequently (weekly or monthly) in the specified skill that is being worked on.
4) To assess this progress, compare learning goals with actual student progress.

9.2 Individualized Education Program (IEP)

When the teacher recognizes that a student requires individual attention when doing progress monitoring, he/she may need to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). When the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) determines disability and special education services, the IEP is developed. Teachers are required by law to develop an IEP for each student with special needs. In regards to assessment, examples of information that has to be included in an IEP are:
  • How to assess progress toward yearly goals and short-term objectives.
  • Required individual modification (such as extended test times, a reader, audio recording, etc).

Alberta Education: Special Education Resources

9.3 Strategies of Assessment of Students With Learning Disabilities

One of the concerns in regards to assessing students with learning disabilities is making sure that the measurement of information obtained is valid and reliable. This is something that has to be kept in mind when doing assessments not only with diverse individuals, but students in general. Here are several strategies for assessment of students with learning disabilities:

a) Contextual Assessment: This refers to the student’s environmental condition in school and in other settings.
b) Researching school records to determine history.
c) Interviews of significant others in their lives: allows for excellent communication as well as accurate and relevant information. However, there are discrepancies between what people say and what is observed in the classroom.
d) Observations: precise measurements of academic and social problems; can be planned and systematic so appropriate samples can be obtained.

9.4 Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

There are many assessment strategies for culturally or linguistically diverse students.
There are many assessment strategies for culturally or linguistically diverse students.

It is important to take into consideration assessment for culturally diverse students as we live in a very diversified country. People who are from different cultures will have individualized learning experiences that may differ from other classmates. Here, we provide some issues to consider when assessing students in a culturally diverse classroom.

9.5 Implementing a Culturally Responsive Assessment (CRA)

1) Contemplate what kind of testing environment there is. How does it relate to students’ prior experiences?
2) Keep in mind the students’ level of language proficiency.
3) Determine students’ prior opportunities to learn a skill.
4) Implement accommodations if needed (ex: dictionary use, extended time).
5) Do not use one assessment, rather use many authentic assessments (ex: checklists, performance tasks, group assessment).
6) Balance assessment with regular instruction.
7) Be sure to provide specific and frequent feedback.
8) In the assessment process, involve both students and families.

References: 6 & 9


1. This first website contains videos, articles, and a teacher guide to implementing differentiated instruction and assessing it in classroom. It centres around the work of Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn't Always Equal. In particular download the .pdf teacher guide for Assessment in a Differentiated Instruction Classroom under the heading Study Guides.
Stenhouse Publishers. 2011. 480 Congress Street, Portland, ME <http://www.stenhouse.com/html/implementing-fair-isnt-always-equal.htm>

2. This book is full of information about the biology supporting differentiated instruction and how to make differentiated instruction a positive contribution to the classroom.
Sousa, David A. and Carol Ann Tomlinson. Differentiation and the Brain. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, 2011.

3. This book breaks down integrating differentiated instruction in classrooms and how to assess the students.
McTighe, Jay and Carol Ann Tomlinson. Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design. ASCD: Alexandria, 2006.

4. The assessment text for this class has a number of excellent tools for assessing in differentiated environments.
Burke, Kay. How to Assess Authentic Learning. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2009.

5. This book goes through how to use Differentiated Learning in the classroom effectively. As well, it has a lot of examples of plans you can use and tells you why they are good for certain learning styles and assessments.
Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau. Leading and managing A Differentiated Classroom. Solution Tree Press, 2010

6.Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J.M., Lloyd, J.W., Martinez, E.A., & Weiss, M.P. Learning Disabilities: Foundations, Characteristics, and Effective Teaching. Pearson Education Inc: Upper Saddle River, 2005.

7. Differentiated Instruction

8. Learning Styles Online

9. Bos, Candace S., Schumm, Jeanne S., and Vaughn, Sharon R. Teaching Students Who Are Exceptional, Diverse, and At Risk in the General Education Classroom. Pearson Education Inc: Upper Saddle River, 2011.

10. Allan, Susan D., Tomlinson, Carol Ann. Leadership for Differentiating Schools and Classrooms. ASCD: Alexandria, VA, 2000.

11. Tomlinson, Carol Ann. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms 2nd Edition. ASCD: Alexandria, VA, 2001.