February 12, 2015 by

Formative Assessment Is the Cornerstone of Differentiated Instruction

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By Andrew Miller

Teachers often want to know where to start with differentiated instruction as it can seem overwhelming and daunting. Questions like the ones below go through the minds of all teachers, especially those new to the teaching profession.

  • How can I manage small-group instruction?
  • How can I organize learning for students at different levels?WholeChild 2-12
  • How can I make time for one-on-one instruction?
  • How can I meet the needs of all students?

I think these questions come from a lack of preparation in terms of assessment practices. When I first started teaching, I know I was not given enough tools and practices to both assess well and use assessments effectively. Assessment, as it turns out, is really the cornerstone for differentiated instruction. That being said, it totally makes sense that I was unable to differentiate effectively when I first started teaching. However, as I gained the necessary skills and practices to effectively assess my students—through self-directed learning and formal professional development—I started to realize that I could in fact differentiate. I believe that if teachers leverage formative assessment best practices more, differentiation will come naturally.

Setting Purpose and Feeding Up

In their book The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey explain that the first part of formative assessment is for teachers to know what they’re setting out to do with their students. Teachers should ask themselves this question every day: “What are we learning today?” (with the keyword being today). If teachers have specific and manageable goals for learning with their students, they know what they need to check for understanding on. The first step to differentiation is to have a clear daily purpose for learning.

Checking for Understanding

Teachers need to remember that there are many ways to check for understating. Questions, prompts, and cues can allow them to truly see if students understand what they have set out to learn. Teachers can use questions to see if there are errors in student understanding. In addition, teachers can use writing tools, performance tools, quizzes, technology tools, and more to check and see where students are in their path of learning. They can use formal assessment tools that require time for feedback, or they can use quick assessments tools like student-response systems and exit tickets. Teachers need to check for understanding to successfully plan for differentiated instruction.

Feeding Forward

In their book, Fisher and Frey also explain that formative assessment allows teachers to “feed forward”—that is, to use assessment data to plan the right types of instructional activities to use in the future. By checking for understanding and using error-analysis tools to look for global and individual errors, teachers can work smarter to plan the right type of instruction. They can create learning activities to challenge students further and plan learning to support for students who are struggling. In addition, teachers can effectively plan individual, small-group, and whole-class instruction because they know where their students are and what they need. This is the key to differentiation.

Student Engagement

When teachers use formative assessment to drive differentiation, student engagement inevitably increases. Think about it. If teachers improperly feed forward and plan whole-group instruction when only half the class needs it, they are actually setting themselves up for failure in terms of student engagement. On the flip side, if teachers use formative assessment effectively, they can differentiate to provide “just-in-time” instruction that students truly need and find relevant. Timely and relevant instruction produces higher student engagement.

Teachers looking for new ways to improve their differentiated instruction practices should start with formative assessments. Formative assessments allow teachers to know their students better and, therefore, to make the best decisions to challenge them appropriately and engage them in the learning.

FIT Teaching (Framework for Intentional and Targeted Teaching™) strategies are based on the work of Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. The strategies ensure high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom every day. Learn more about FIT Teaching, how it can be used for successful teacher evaluations (PDF), and the essential components of formative assessment within the framework.

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Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. He is also an ASCD faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia.