Information Age Education
   Issue Number 190
July, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

The Joy of Learning:
Assessment for Differentiated Instruction

      Rita King
      Murfreesboro, TN
Carolyn Chapman
St. Helena, SC
International Professional Developers

K-12 differentiated instruction (DI) can be a joyful way to teach students because it is tuned to the ways in which each individual student functions best. In a previous issue of IAE Newsletter, Hudson (July, 2016) focused on the complexity of evaluating instruction focused basically on objective (such as math) and subjective (such as the arts) elements of instruction. This article focuses more on adapting to the capabilities of individual students when considering teaching, and assessing such issues as cognitive capability and personal/family/ethnic backgrounds.

DI probably functions better in single-class elementary classrooms than in multi-class secondary settings, but imaginative teachers across the K-12 spectrum can effectively use elements of it.

DI's Instructional Base

We have observed that the teachers who are the most successful in DI exhibit contagious enthusiasm for their entire class. They eagerly seek to help all of their students reach their full capabilities. Their on-going assessments identify each individual student's unique needs. They understand variations in content information and present them through intriguing strategies.

They thus determine a student’s knowledge and willingness to go beyond, and use it to guide instructional strategies. This pattern suggests an eventual development of a repertoire of appropriate instructional strategies that can work effectively with individual students as they work in various settings. DI teachers think in terms of the TAPS acronym to assist in this: T working in a total group, A working alone, P working with a partner, S working within a small group. Our work throughout life involves competence at each of these four levels. DI teachers thus carefully observe students as they engage in doing assignments. They intervene, as needed, with a review, clarification, or analysis of the task. The student then returns to the group, works independently, or is assigned to a more appropriate group.

Planning for individuals, partners, and small groups who finish assignments at different times can become a challenge. Tomlinson and Imbeau (2010) refer to varied task completion periods as “ragged time.” Thus, design meaningful follow-up tasks related to the lesson for students who complete their work early. These include station work, journal writing, choice boards, and academic contracts. These anchor activities keep everyone engaged and provide a productive environment for classmates who need more time. Before a work period begins, students thus know what to do when their task is finished. They understand available options, guidelines, and how to access materials, so they do not interrupt the work session.

In his book, How the Brain Learns, David Sousa (2011) emphasizes that the brain attends to novelty or anything new or different in the environment. Steve Barkley (2013) suggests “Wowing” students and adding pizzazz to activities. Interspersing unique, unexpected experiences in lessons entices students to enhance their memory.

Preliminary DI Assessments

Although the concept of learning styles is now somewhat questionable (Bruff, 1/28/2011), teachers can learn much of student variance from continuing casual conversations, observations, surveys, and journal entries. Teachers can identify student in/out of classroom behaviors that affect learning, those that help them to stay aware of a student's evolving changes in their continually changing life.

Assessing During and After Learning

Various informal assessment tools identify personality traits and work preferences (such as working alone, in pairs, within groups). Teachers share results with each person who assists a student. For example, if a student seems to learn best through one or another sensory modality, focus on that as much as possible.

On-going assessment is vital for planning. Use an informal assessments approach that reveals needed useful information. Analyze the results to monitor the student’s placement in productive, comfortable learning situations (working alone, in pairs, in groups, etc.).

Administer needed pre-assessments to gather data related to the student’s background knowledge and level of readiness for the identified skill or standard. Do this a few days before the scheduled lesson. This provides ample time to analyze the data and plan appropriate activities, select activities, and gather materials.

Assessment during learning occurs through observations, class discussions and questions, and tests. Intervene when needs are evident. Review, reteach, or modify if the assignment is too difficult. If an assignment is too easy, expand or extend it in a manner that helps to increase the depth of a student's understanding.

Assessment after learning provides data that is analyzed for mastery of the standard or skill. Use the results to guide upcoming instruction.

According to Farrell, Marsh, and Bertrand (2015), some practitioners and policymakers believe students who engage with assessment data “exert extra effort” and “gain a better understanding of their strengths, their weaknesses, and how to improve.” The following analogy emphasizes to students the value of self-assessment for staying on track to improvement: Racecar drivers constantly monitor their vehicles and pull into the pit to make adjustments.

A student’s brain functions best in the student's psychologically-safe environment, and testing should provide this environment. Remove or replace elements that create anxiety and generate negative feelings. Encourage students to think of testing as an opportunity to show what they know now, so that you can help them to move forward. Consider this aphorism when preparing assessments: Accentuate the positive! Eliminate the negative!

Planning Adjustable Assessments

Assessing K-12 competence related to a skill or standard usually reveals a classroom range from low to high. Low-level competence needs additional instructional help. Middle-level competence can generally function with the new information or tasks. High-level competence can function with tasks that create a broader understanding of the tasks. Do your best to tune assessments to these group ranges before moving towards assessments tuned to individual students.

It's obviously easier for an elementary teacher with a single class of about 25 to do this than for a secondary teacher with several classes of 25 across the school day. Still, with the concept of DI central in their brain, imaginative secondary teachers will begin to implement its elements.

For example, students working with challenging personalized tasks often wonder why they have to work with difficult problems while others have easy problems. Good point. A teacher might use an electronic game as a learning example that requires mastery at one level before the player can move on to the next level.


All assessments are opportunities for learners to showcase their knowledge and improve while developing positive attitudes toward testing. On-going assessment results guide selection of differentiated instructional strategies. Plan tasks for each student’s knowledge base and comfort level.

The joy of learning is reflected in the students’ words, actions, and body language when they are engaged in tasks on their success levels. Observable reactions include jumping with excitement, smiling, sparkling eyes, and eagerness to begin. When instruction is personalized these responses are more prevalent. The associated feelings prepare students emotionally for lifelong learning.


Barkley, S. (2013). Wow! Adding pizzazz to teaching and learning. 3rd ed. Allentown, PA: Performance Learning Systems.

Bruff, D. (1/28/2011). Learning styles: Fact and fiction—a conference report. Retrieved 7/7/2016 from

Farrell, C., Marsh, J., & Bertrand, M. (November, 2015). Doing data right: Are we motivating students with data? Educational Leadership. Retrieved 7/7/2016 from

Gregory, G., & Chapman, C. (2012). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hudson, J. (July, 2016). A high school music teacher unravels a school assessment conundrum. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 7/15/2016 from

Sousa, D. (2011). How the brain learns. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tomlinson, C., & Imbeau, M. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexander, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Books Related to Assessment and Differentiation
by Carolyn Chapman and Rita King

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2012). Differentiated assessment strategies: One tool doesn’t fit all. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2008). Differentiated instructional management. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009) Differentiated instructional strategies for writing in the content areas. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009). Differentiated instructional strategies for reading in the content areas. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2012). Planning and organizing standards-based differentiated instruction. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Chapman, C., & King, R. (2009). Test success in the brain compatible classroom. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Rita King is an international trainer, consultant, author, and keynote speaker. She directed the teacher-training program in the laboratory school at Middle Tennessee State University while serving as the school’s principal. Rita is the co-author of six books, four CDs, and training manuals on differentiated instruction.


Carolyn Chapman is an international professional developer and conference keynote speaker. She was a teacher before becoming a consultant in teacher training in Georgia. Carolyn is the author of many educational publications including seven books, four CDs, and training manuals on differentiated instruction.


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