During a recent parent-teacher conference for my fourth-grader, the teacher said she had been differentiating instruction for my child. I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by differentiation. I assumed she was doing this for every student in the class and not just my child. I wondered how and what she was differentiating and what types of assessments she was using to help her differentiate.
This led me to think: Did she really mean differentiation? Maybe she meant personalization or individualization? Did the teacher know the difference between these strategies? Were her definitions and conceptions of these strategies the same as mine?
Personalization, differentiation and individualization all sound good. Every teacher wants to personalize, differentiate or individualize learning and instruction for their students. Many say they do at least one or the other. However, currently there’s not much consensus among educators about the definitions of these terms. Some educators use these terms synonymously. Some assume personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization (USED, 2010; Basye, 2014). Others see them as three distinct strategies (Bray & McClaskey, 2013), where the focus is either student or teacher-centered.
I find the definitions and distinctions by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey to mesh more closely with my views in education because they view each strategy as distinct, and they discuss the role assessment plays in each strategy. Being an educational assessment specialist, I find it useful to look at these educational strategies through the prism of assessment. Why? Because assessments play a crucial role in all teaching and learning strategies as it helps measure what the student knows and does not know. And with the infusion and integration of technology into the classroom, teachers can be more effective and efficient with their assessment practice.
So, what’s the difference between these three teaching strategies and why are the roles they play so important in assessment of students? Let’s take a look.
Personalization: Student-centered approach to learning
Personalization is the educational strategy in which learning is student-centered. An educator sets appropriate goals that align with the student’s talents and interests and frequently monitors progress towards achieving those goals. The learning objectives are different for each student, and a student has a voice and actively participates in designing her own learning model. The student takes ownership and assumes responsibility for her own learning. When students have a learning environment where they are promoted and encouraged to take this student-centered approach to learning, the learning becomes more meaningful and effective.
With personalization, it is important to assess frequently and to vary the type of assessment. Assessment should be viewed as part of the learning process, so students come to associate assessment as learning. Formative assessment activities, such as giving short, ungraded quizzes at the beginning of class or giving “exit tickets” at the end of class, focus on providing constructive and reflective feedback to the student. They are therefore crucial in the personalization of learning. Affective assessments, those that help students learn about and understand their own talents, interests and habits, should be given frequently. These assessments help students assess or reassess and set or modify their goals and objectives as appropriate. Assessments can also be adaptive, tailoring to the ability and interest of each student.
In a high-school government class, I observed students given a short chapter quiz at the beginning of class. The teacher quickly scored — he has able to do this because they were using an online assessment software — and reviewed the results of each question with the entire class. The teacher and students engaged in meaningful and constructive discussions about each question, ensuring that the students knew and understood the concept being asked in each question. Students then submitted exit tickets about the main points they learned and concepts they still struggled with before leaving the class. The teacher then showed me an affective assessment he gives to students at the beginning of each quarter where he asks them to rate their habits of scholarship. This assessment allows students to reflect on and self-assess their academic interests, skills and habits. This combination of the formative quizzes, exit tickets and self-assessment represents a great example of how assessments can help personalize learning for the students.
Differentiation: Educator-centered approach
In contrast to the student-centered approach of personalization, differentiation is a teacher-focused educational strategy. The key to differentiation is the adjustment of learning needs made by the teacher for different groups of learners. Students in the same group have the same learning objectives. However, the learning objectives differ across groups; therefore, the teacher makes the differentiation for each group of students and creates or adapts the learning for the different groups of students.
To adapt the instruction based on the needs of the students, the teacher must know and understand the students’ competencies, needs and strengths. Similarly, students also must know their own needs and strengths; thus, assessment for learning is the key to differentiation. Assessments at this level should be aligned to classroom-level learning targets, not the jargon-heavy state or national standards. When teachers re-write state standards into classroom-level language and assess for students’ understanding of those targets, they are better equipped to make the appropriate instructional strategies for the students’ learning.
Individualization: Educator-centered approach
Similar to differentiation, individualization also is a teacher-centered approach. With individualization, the teacher adapts to the learning needs of the individual learner. The same learning objectives exist for all learners. However, specific objectives also are provided or accommodated to individual learners. Typically, individualization is provided to students with special needs, but that is not always the case.
For example, in an inclusive classroom consisting of students with and without disabilities, summative assessments should play an important role in an individualized learning framework. This enables teachers to get a measure of all students’ learning. Students with and without disabilities are all expected to learn and meet the same state proficiency or achievement standards. Therefore it is important for the teacher to have good summative assessments like end-of-unit, end-of-chapter or end-of-term assessments to know whether all students have mastered the same common learning objectives. These teacher-created summative assessments can be good benchmarks and predictors of future student performance on statewide summative assessments at the end of the year.
Three types of educational strategies. Three approaches. Each with the same underlying goal: making learning better for each student to increase academic achievement, but each quite different than the other. Though all types of assessments can be used with each of these three educational strategies to have a balanced assessment approach, I posit that some assessment approaches are more suited for certain educational strategies.
I never fully figured out the strategy used by my child’s teacher. I didn’t ask her the right questions or press for an answer at the conference. After going over my child’s homework and portfolio of assessments and after talking with my child at home, it appears the teacher may have indeed implemented a differentiation strategy. She placed students into different groups (e.g., those doing fourth-grade math and those doing fifth-grade math) based on results from pre-assessments aligned to learning targets. She also provided different homework and other assignments appropriate for each group.
Would it have made a difference to me if the teacher were personalizing or individualizing the learning rather than differentiating the learning for my child? Clearly, I believe so. The choice of educational strategy can dictate the assessment strategy. And as an assessment specialist, I prefer assessment for learning.
Adisack Nhouyvanisvong is an educator and entrepreneur. He teaches graduate courses on assessment practice and theory at the University of Minnesota. He also is the co-founder of Naiku, Inc., a firm that specializes in supporting districts with their transition to next generation online student assessment. Nhouyvanisvong earned his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University.
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