SIP 3.9 Differentiated Assignments

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Three students building a robotWith only a few weeks until the end of the semester, students are now (hopefully!) starting work on their final papers or projects. Have you ever shuddered with negative anticipation just thinking about receiving another set of what seems like the same work you saw last semester and the semesters before? It’s not that the students’ work is poor, but rather the monotony of reading the same assignment year after year can really wear you down.

Take a SIP of Differentiated Assignments

Try letting students design their own final product. This is an example of a “differentiated assignment”—students can produce different final products to demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept. In a traditional classroom, all students must complete the same final assignment, be it a research paper, an exam, or what have you. With differentiated assignments, the parameters of design and assessment are flexible enough to be tailored to each individual student’s interests and skill sets. The idea is to let students bring their “A game” to your content, and to show you that they have learned by making the content meaningful to them.

At first, this idea can seem unwieldy or even impossible—how can every student in the class do something different? But by inviting students to imagine how they might demonstrate that they have achieved the course outcomes, you are almost guaranteed a higher level of intellectual engagement and enthusiasm around the completion of final products.

While the more traditional path has led professors to final papers or exams, consider allowing your students to make movies, write and perform songs, invent video games, create a website, or any other innovative method to demonstrate the same learning outcomes associated with research papers and tests.

Here are some benefits of differentiated final projects:

  • When coursework is meaningful to students, they often go above and beyond the parameters of an assignment and produce higher quality work. For example, answering exam question might take a student two hours of studying time and an hour of class time, but inventing their own project will require time to imagine the project, consider the course outcomes, make a plan for executing the project, etc. This will likely involve consultation with the professor, and may provide the opportunity for conversation around other aspects of the course as well.
  • You might not have time to get to know every single student in your class. Inviting students to design final projects encourages them to share their interests and talents with you and the entire class—you get to know the students so much better!
  • Choice is empowering. When students choose how they demonstrate their understanding of the course material, they feel more confident and capable and the affective filter that might negatively impact their work product is reduced.
  • It can be more interesting and fun for professors to receive a wide variety of final work products as opposed to reading a giant stack of papers or grading a mountain of final exams.
  • Differentiated assignments are a good application of the Universal Design for Learning principal of “multiple means of action and expression” (see: ).

Take the following points into consideration:

  • Differentiated final projects work better when the student learning outcomes associated with the assignment correspond to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy ( ).
  • If possible, build the differentiated project into the syllabus—that way students can start thinking of how they would demonstrate their knowledge and abilities with regard to course material from the first day of class. If you want to experiment now, though, just announce to students that you are substituting or adding a differentiated assignment option and make it worth the same amount of points or grade percentage. If it’s too late to do this semester, don’t worry—give it a shot in the fall!

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Differentiated Final Products

Check out the MDL website at: (scroll down, under “Standards”). The Modern Languages Department has an excellent example of differentiated work products available here—this department allows students from multiple language programs to create a final work product that is used to fulfill one portion of the Senior Experience requirement. Additionally, check out portfolio learning—while focused on assessment, many websites will give insight into student choice as a valuable learning tool. Finally, don’t forget to check out The Well ( ) where you can find other examples of differentiated final assignments.

If you have finished this SIP and are left with the question, “How can I grade these different projects in a timely fashion and maintain consistent standards of fairness, stay tuned for the 3/31 SIP on Universal Grading Criteria so that you can learn how to better assess differentiated assignments!

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