Differentiated instruction and assessment recognizes that the individual needs, strengths and weaknesses of students must drive learning (Wormeli, 2007). Changing the outcomes of traditional lesson plans to account for differentiated learning is a fundamental part of ensuring student success. Each student's readiness, interest and learning profile is at the core of this approach. Students are diverse; therefore, instructional and assessment practices should be as well, to improve student outcomes in all content areas.
Many teachers design lessons that have a set of specific learning objectives and standardized assessments for students. However, today's learning models ask teachers to adopt multiple objectives and use different levels of assessment for more individualized learning (Dobbertin, 2012). Differentiation of process, then, refers to the way in which a student accesses material (i.e., one student may explore a learning center, while another may conduct an online search for information). Differentiation of assessment refers to the way in which a student shows what he or she has learned (i.e., one student may create a story-web, while a more advanced student may retell a story from a different character's point-of-view). The overarching point is that differentiation favors a variety of instructional strategies to accommodate a variety of students. It is not a cookie cutter methodology or approach to teaching and learning.
Differentiated instruction and assessment implies a choice of learning activity and also demonstration of knowledge (Prescott, 2012). It takes into account the students' strengths and weaknesses. Student groupings help foster collaborative learning environments and should be based on the needs and abilities of members, which can change over time (Parker, 2004). This moves teachers far beyond busy work or static groupings that remain the same throughout the academic year. Students are afforded a chance to work at their own level, and the work in turn becomes more qualitative (Painter, 2009).
Decisions about differentiation should be based on evidence of student's needs and abilities. The pass or fail approach should not be used; rather assessments are better measurements of student's strengths and weaknesses (Tomlinson, 1999). In addition, experts point out that the same differentiation plan should not be used for every lesson. Sometimes changes should be applied to the student's independent practice, the instruction of the lesson itself, or the text of the lesson (Heacox, 2002). Plans should be as dynamic as the needs of the students in the class.
Teachers can use a variety of entry points to ensure that each student's abilities, strengths, and needs are taken into consideration. Entry points are invitations to students to think about important problems in varied ways (Forsten & Hollas, 2003). Learners are able to explore a topic through a number of different avenues. A narrative entry point can involve telling a story about the concept in question. Logical-quantitative entry points encourage students to approach a concept using deductive reasoning, logic, cause-and-effect relationships, or numbers and data (Painter, 2009). Foundational entry points explore the broader or philosophical concepts raised by a subject. This may include questions about life, death, or our place in society or the world (Wormeli, 2007). Aesthetic entry points prompt students to respond to formal or sensory qualities of a subject -- such as its color, form, pattern, or overall expression -- by focusing on sensory or surface features. (Dobbertin, 2012). Finally, experimental entry points offer a hands-on approach to dealing with materials and personal experiences. Students are asked to actually do something tangible. For example, students may produce a play about the history of a neighborhood or choreograph a dance to accompany music. The personal explanations and simulations required help deepen the student's understanding (Parker, 2004).
Similarly, exit points are critical. An exit point is defined as any point during instruction when students' work indicates a need for differentiation (Forsten & Hollas, 2003). Exit points are best used when some students have not yet mastered skills or content while others are ready to move on, or when some students would benefit from more advanced tasks and others from more basic activities (Wormeli, 2007). Teachers can group students according to common instructional needs. Teachers can look for cues that some students need more time, practice or instruction, or that certain students are ready to move on to pursue activities that extend learning. The goal is to ascertain which students have achieved (or are approaching) a foundational level with the content being covered, and which have advanced beyond those foundations (Tomlinson, 1999). Teachers can also examine students' learning preferences or strengths. How do individual students prefer to show what they have learned? Which prefer verbal learning? Which prefer written expression? By examining diversity in learning preferences, instructors can determine how best to coordinate exit points for select students.
Flexible groupings are ideal at exit points. For example, students can be grouped according to general learning abilities rather than particular talents or limitations and stay together for most of the year covering a particular subject or area (Parker, 2004). Another method may involve grouping students based on scores on standardized tests of aptitude, intelligence or ability. Similarly, students could be grouped according to grades or performance in a particular subject area -- for example gifted, accelerated, or advanced placement classes (Painter, 2009). Cooperative groupings can also be explored. These allow students to work collaboratively and can be organized either by the teacher or by the students' own choice (Parker, 2004). Finally, more dynamic flexible instructional groupings that change regularly can be used to match student needs to the task at hand (Prescott, 2012). The key to these techniques is flexibility, which enables teachers to adjust instruction. Teachers who design activities in this way can create a classroom in which no child falls behind or is kept back when they are ready to progress (Heacox, 2002).
Students need varying opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge based on the teaching they've received. This is where differentiated assessment can be useful. Teachers can assess students' ability to complete tasks, work with and listen to others, participate and engage in class sessions, demonstrate respect for self and others, or discuss, explain, and support opinions about a topic (Heacox, 2002). Students have mastered content when they demonstrate a thorough understanding as evidenced by doing something substantive with what they've learned beyond merely echoing it. Anyone can repeat information; it's the masterful student who can break content into its component pieces, explain it clearly to others (and alternative perspectives regarding it), and use their new knowledge purposefully in new situations (Dobbertin, 2012). Assessment, therefore, becomes a teaching tool to extend knowledge rather than just measure it.
Pre-assessments can be used to indicate students' readiness for content or to guide overall instructional decisions (Tomlinson, 1999). Lessons plans should be designed after pre-assessment work has been completed. At the end of instruction, formal, summative assessments are often given to document growth and mastery. They match learning objectives and experiences, and reflect whether essential and enduring knowledge was gained. However, formative assessments have been found by many to be much more helpful. They provide useful checkpoints when carried out frequently, and offer ongoing and clear feedback to students, informing instruction and reflecting subsets of the essential and enduring knowledge throughout the course of instruction (Wormeli, 2007). This type of assessment allows differentiating teachers to spend their energy wisely -- assessing formatively and providing timely feedback to students and practice. Informal and formative assessment emphasizes regular questioning, observations and personal communication to account for every component of the lesson objective (Heacox, 2002). Successful assessment is most authentic and useful to students when it mirrors how they will ultimately apply their learning in real-world applications (Forsten & Hollas, 2003).
Demonstrations can be useful assessment tools at any grade level (Wormeli, 2007). They allow students to transform ideas into something concrete and observable through visuals, art, drama, movement, and/or music. They may include opportunities to exhibit and explain procedures and strategies such as a science experiment or a solution to a non-routine math problem. Similarly, self-evaluation through the creation of a student portfolio can allow a student to learn to recognize his or her own progress by taking the time to reflect. Students are able to review their own performance, explain the reasons for choosing the processes they used, and identify next steps (Prescott, 2012). Another assessment strategy is the structured or unstructured interview. Students have an opportunity to report reactions and responses to a single question or a series of questions. This typically provides an opportunity for the teacher to determine the student's depth of understanding rather than whether the student can provide the "correct" answer (Parker, 2004). Student produced works can serve as assessment tools as well. Students can express their understanding through writing, videos, bulletin boards, or debates; and display understanding, application, originality, organizational skills, growth in social and academic skills and attitudes, and success in meeting lesson criteria (Dobbertin, 2012).
Virtually all assessment methods can provide useful information about students' learning if teachers utilize solid collection and analysis methods. The information…