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Differentiated Instruction Strategies: Tiered Assignments

Janelle Cox

Many teachers use differentiated instruction strategies as a way to reach all learners and accommodate each student’s learning style. One very helpful tactic to employ differentiated instruction is called tiered assignments—a technique often used within flexible groups.

Much like flexible grouping—or differentiated instruction as a whole, really—tiered assignments do not lock students into ability boxes. Instead, particular student clusters are assigned specific tasks within each group according to their readiness and comprehension—without making them feel completely compartmentalized away from peers at different achievement levels.

There are six main ways to structure tiered assignments: Challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, or resources. It is your job—based upon the specific learning tasks you’re focused on—to determine the best approach. Here we will take a brief look at these techniques.

Challenge Level

Tiering can be based on challenge level where student groups will tackle different assignments altogether. Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide to help them develop tasks of structure, or questions at various levels. For example:

  1. Group 1: Students who need content reinforcement or practice will complete one activity that helps build understanding.
  2. Group 2: Students who have a firm understanding will complete another activity that extends what they already know.

Complexity

When you tier assignments by complexity, you are addressing the needs of students who are at different levels using the same assignment. The trick here is to vary the focus of the assignment based upon whether each group is ready for more advanced work or simply trying to wrap their head around the concept for the first time. You can direct your students to create a poster on a specific issue—recycling and environmental care, for instance—but one group will focus on a singular perspective, while the other will consider several points of view and present an argument for or against each angle.

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Outcome

Tiering assignments by differentiated outcome is vaguely similar to complexity—all of your students will use the same materials, but depending on their readiness levels, will actually have a different outcome. It may sound strange at first, but this strategy is quite beneficial to help advanced students work on more progressive applications of their learning.

Process

This differentiated instruction strategy is exactly what it sounds like—student groups will use different processes to achieve similar outcomes based upon readiness.

Product

Tiered assignments can also be differentiated based on product. Teachers can use the Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to form groups that will hone particular skills. For example, one group would be bodily/kinesthetic and their task is to create and act out a skit. Another group would be visual/spatial and their task would be to illustrate.

Resources

Tiering resources means that you are matching project materials to student groups based on readiness or instructional need. One flexible group may use a magazine while another may use a traditional textbook. As a tip, you should assign resources based on knowledge and readiness, but also consider the group’s reading level and comprehension.

How to Make Tiering Invisible to Students

From time to time, students may question why they are working on different assignments, using varied materials, or coming to dissimilar outcomes altogether. This could be a blow to your classroom morale if you’re not tactful in making your tiers invisible.

Make it a point to tell students that each group is using different materials or completing different activities so they can share what they learned with the class. Be neutral when grouping students—use numbers or colors for group names, and be equally enthusiastic while explaining assignments to each cluster.

Also, it’s important to make each tiered assignment equally interesting, engaging, and fair in terms of student expectations. The more flexible groups and materials you use, the more students will accept that this is the norm.

Tiering assignments is a fair way to differentiate learning. It allows teachers to meet the needs of all students while using varying levels of tasks. It’s a concept that can be infused into homework assignments, small groups, or even learning centers. If done properly, it can be a very effective method to differentiate learning because it challenges all students.

How do you differentiate tiered assignments in your classroom? Share with us in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators