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The difficult part of exercise is getting started and sticking to it. Fitness classes are like school classrooms. There are people at different skill levels of strength and conditioning. The instructor's job is to provide an experience that challenges all participants based on where they are in fitness. Like good classroom teachers, effective fitness instructors incorporate different levels of movements into each activity so that the participants can gauge where they are and what they need to do during the session.

In classrooms, effective learning happens when teachers provide the conditions that learners find relatable. The challenge is that these conditions will vary for each learner. A common question is, "How do I meet the needs of my students when each has a different level of current understanding and tends to learn at a different pace?" The easy answer is to inform planning with various kinds of assessments, but that doesn't make the path clear for what to do.

Differentiated instruction looks at instructional planning based on content, process, and products. These areas are familiar to teachers and their assessment practices. A typical lesson delivers content to students, and then has them create products to practice and demonstrate their learning. Many of these lessons are missing perhaps the most important element in the learning equation: process.

Processing Understanding

Whether content is delivered to the whole class, to small groups, or independently, learners need opportunities to digest the concepts and skills. For example, listening to a 30-minute lecture, watching a 15-minute video, or reading three pages without a pause risks the high likelihood that the participants will only get a surface understanding. When these examples are broken by 3-4 pauses for students to reflect and explore the parts, there's greater opportunity for deeper understanding. Participants figure out what they comprehend and what remains foggy, and can communicate that to the teacher for just-in-time support before moving on to the next content part.

Processing opportunities do not take time from instruction. They do stabilize the supports for the instructional framework. Time taken during a lesson, often 1-4 minutes, ensures long-term understanding by all students. Those moments can provide learners with the critical teaching opportunities that they need -- the epiphanies.

Here are strategies that support processing experiences. Some take a short time to accomplish. Others may take longer, but they are embedded with content delivery or while completing work products.

Quick Reflections of Understanding

Good learning experiences have a flow. When a teacher follows a carefully-crafted flow of instruction, providing each learning experience like thoughtfully-laid blocks for building a bridge, pausing for too long can break the concentration; but going on for too long means that some students become lost. When time is of the essence, take 1-5 minutes for students to check in with themselves or others on what they understand and what questions remain. Consider using these reflection strategies:

  • Silent Reflection
    Have students quietly reflect on a prompt about the key points of the learning experience. Give them 15-60 seconds. Reflection is a muscle that must be exercised if learners are to become proficient. Without reflection, responses can be surface-level and fragmented.

  • Journaling
    The physical act of writing can help learners explore their understanding. Take 2-5 minutes for participants to process and record their thinking. Mix things up with quick writes and free writes.

  • Partner Conversations
    Talking to a partner helps the learners who prefer to think aloud. They can express their ideas and hear those of others. Paired with one of the previous individual strategies, partner conversations help internal thinkers clarify their ideas before participating in a dialog. Pre-assign elbow partners or clock buddies to quickly manage the pairings. Get them out of their chairs for a quick energy boost while they talk in groups.

Quick Surveys

Use surveys for quick response on fact-based information or perceptions. Sometimes a short check-in response from students is all that's needed for revising support while moving forward.

For tech approaches consider:

(For more on this subject, see my spreadsheet on Differentiation with Social Media Tools and my post 50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media.)

Non-tech approaches include:

  • Hand Signals
    Thumb up signals understanding, thumb pointed to the side means understanding with some questions, and thumb down says, "I don't understand."

  • Colored Cups
    Students placing a colored cup on their desk -- green, yellow, or red -- communicates the same ideas as the hand signals.

Provide Diverse Perspective Assessments

Have students explore skills and concepts from different perspectives based on interests and/or learning preferences. These activities take more time, yet are ways to embed processing experiences in content or product experiences. They provide multiple tasks that are accomplished through different perspectives of learning preferences. These strategies support thinking about content through different lenses:

Empower Students With Their Learning

An important key to these strategies is that they give learners practice with checking for their own understanding. Processing learning is a muscular system that must be engaged frequently. Students need practice reflecting on their learning 2-3 times per lesson on a daily basis. This ensures that learners strengthen their connections to the concepts and skills for long-term gains.

How do you help students process their understanding? Please share in the comments below.

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Checking for Understanding
Sponsored by Scholastic, this series offers tips to use formative assessment through feedback, student reflection, and sharing processing strategies.

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Sarah's picture

The ideas you presented in the article were great suggestions as to how to provide differentiated instruction for students. There are some strategies mentioned that I currently use that I have found to be very helpful. For example, I use a lot of hand signals during my lessons for students to indicate to me what their understanding is at that time. I am able to see which students understand the material and which don't, instead of a getting a collective yes or no when asking if it makes sense. I also try to provide ample amount of wait time after questions in order to give students time to reflect on the question and form a well thought out answer. Pairing with partners is something that my class has worked on a lot throughout the year, and as they have progressed they have begun to share a lot greater insights with one another. I think using technology for check ins is also a great use of resources, as it is something students are interested in and it is quick and easy. Thank you for sharing your strategies. There are some that I look forward to trying out in my classroom!

Rabia's picture
manager in school

Sarah, your strategies of "wait time" and "pairing with partners" seem useful. I apply pairing activities in classroom which really help learners learn through collaboration.

Lauri's picture

In order to accurately assess students, educators must first determine the goal of the assessment. Doing so allows educators to determine which options will accurately measure the student's ability. A single means of assessment may prevent accurate measurement of all students' understanding. In order to avoid this, multiple options should be provided such as an essay, presentation, or video. Teachers will be able to evaluate each student's understanding regardless of format with the use of well-designed rubrics tied directly to learning outcomes.

Is it equitable for every student in a teacher's classroom to be evaluated using the same assessment? According to Federal law, the answer is... no. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is receiving national attention. This past December, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). For the first time, federal education law includes a definition and endorsement of UDL. UDL provides a framework for curriculum design, instructional processes, and assessment that gives all students equal opportunities to learn and to demonstrate what they have learned. UDL recognizes that each individual learns differently, and for prime learning to occur, a variety of methods and materials to implement, support and measure learning are required. The National Down Syndrome society states the ESSA encourages states to design assessments using UDL principles.

Every teacher's goal is for students to be able to demonstrate their skills independently. By applying UDL principles in the creation of assessments, students can independently demonstrate knowledge. Students require less testing accommodations when UDL principles are embedded in the design process of classroom assessments. Assessments should be flexible and allow for options that will measure the intended construct equitably for all students. Ultimately UDL provides educators with an accurate picture of students' independent performance in their classroom.

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