Teachers who regularly use formative assessment know its value for capturing an accurate, on-the-fly picture of how and what students are learning. And once teachers understand whether their lessons have landed as intended, they can begin to differentiate instruction in an attempt to engage all learners.
Over the years, educators from across the country have shared with Edutopia a wealth of creative strategies for formative assessment and differentiation. To build on that base, we hosted a Twitter chat on these topics—participants considered several questions over the course of a few hundred comments, giving us a sense of why they think differentiation is important and how to achieve it in the classroom.
The Value of Differentiation
We got the ball rolling with a straightforward question: “Why is differentiation important?” (Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)
Arizona educator Oran Tkatchov suggested that differentiation is the “closest thing we have to a silver bullet in education”—strong words considering the regular stream of new educational initiatives that overpromise and underdeliver. His rationale? “Each kid is unique, so why would we think a factory model approach to learning would work? We need to differentiate to meet the different needs.”
Tkatchov’s fellow chat participants agreed that differentiation enables them to redesign the one-size-fits-all paradigm, creating new pathways for student success. “Students arrive at the learning at different times with different levels of mastery,” noted David Buck, a professor at Howard Community College in Maryland.
A commitment to supporting diverse learners can lead to a more equitable classroom—as Mrs. Ackerman, a Kansas fifth-grade teacher, said, “‘All means all’ is our district motto. Every child needs access to the curriculum, wherever they are at.”
In addition to reaching more students, differentiation can lead to deeper learning for individual students. North Carolina assistant principal Justin Marckel wrote that providing different access points to learning “stretches a student’s depth of knowledge on a concept or skill.” Liz Fiore, a teacher in Smithtown, New York, agreed: Differentiation “provides layers of learning.”
Robert Ward, an English language arts teacher in Los Angeles, pointed to another benefit, noting that differentiation “proves to kids that their teacher is on their side—emotionally and academically.”
Evidence of Student Learning
If teachers want to differentiate instruction, they need to use formative assessments to learn about students’ interests and to check for understanding.
For many teachers, personal relationships are the key to understanding what motivates students. Eastern Carolina University professor Todd Finley advocates for one-on-one conferences: “I think that’s where the most fulfilling instructional moments come from. It only takes a minute to learn tons about an individual student just by being curious about who they are.”
Michigan educator Mike Petty gives his students “short, open-ended reflections after learning activities” as a way to gauge students’ understanding: “Reflection questions are formative assessment for me, but if done right, they are self-assessment for the student.” Petty’s point about student self-assessment was echoed by Buck: “Using reflection activities is a great way for students to express where they are on the learning path. Metacognition is such an essential part of assessment. Students own their learning.”
Student Voice and Choice
Formative assessments enable educators to differentiate instruction by boosting student voice and choice, which encourages students to own their learning, in our chat participants’ view. Courtney DeLeon, a physics teacher in Texas, wrote that careful preparation helps her reach a diverse group of students: “You don’t change the bar of rigor, but how they reach it is always negotiable. I have multiple items prepared, so if it’s not working I can offer a different way—or better yet my students ask if they can choose a different way.”
Several participants echoed this idea. Concordia Language Villages group director Mark Chen said, “With learning objectives in mind, I design two or three assessments and students pick one.” And Johnna Coleman, a teacher in training in Wisconsin, noted that “giving students choices can be as simple as allowing them alternate seating, and as complex as giving them different options of ways to assess their knowledge instead of a standard test.”
Teachers also shared discipline-specific strategies for promoting student choice. Kaitlyn Watson, a middle school English language arts teacher in North Carolina, has students build their own vocabulary lists from the context of their reading instead of generating whole-class lists for them, and then “they break down context clues and work toward their own applications of the words.”
Nebraska science teacher Shawn Gray uses a tiered practice: “I allow students to choose working on a few challenging examples right away or working through a scaffolded approach.” And music teacher Zherin Literte helps her students challenge themselves by allowing them to choose a song to work on—“they can also select instruments (real or software) as well as the arrangement difficulty level.”
Monitoring Student Progress
While it can feel overwhelming to engage students with different needs and interests, create multiple pathways to learning, and monitor students’ progress, technology can ease the burden.
Valerie Tilton, a high school instructional coach in Florida, shared her favorite apps to assess students, including Socrative, ThingLink, Google for Education, Nearpod, and Quizlet: “So many fantastic tech tools at our disposal—who said assessment has to be boring or nerve-wracking?” Melissa Asztalos, a seventh-grade science teacher in New York, agreed: “All my formative assessments are digital. Immediate results = immediate feedback and response. I can speed up or slow down my pacing according to the feedback. Reteaching can happen while it is fresh.”
Monitoring students’ progress as they work independently is also easier these days. Vermont educator Alex Shevrin has her students use shared docs as they write research papers. Their back-and-forth discussions in the files enable her to see exactly where students are with their writing—“it was formative conversation in the comments all semester long!”
Still, technology is not a panacea. University of Northern Colorado professor Matthew Farber cautioned that “technology can collect and aggregate some data. But open-ended assessments like reflections still should be the priority.”