The easiest, simplest way I’ve found to differentiate instruction

Many of us educators are keeping a little secret about differentiating instruction. We believe it’s a good idea in theory, we try to do it when we can…but we really don’t have any workable system for differentiating. No one really knows how it’s supposed to be done, and the only ideas we’ve had so far are nearly impossible for one teacher to implement for 30+ kids.

Several recent articles have examined the logistical problems of differentiation in depth. Differentiation exists in most forms as a buzzword school systems employ to make it sound like one teacher can create optimal, personalized learning conditions happen for every student, even though it’s not actually happening on any sustainable level. I particularly like the statement made by James Delisle:

It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.

Don’t get me wrong–I believe differentiation is an essential step in assessing individual class performance accurately. It helps you recognize who’s falling behind in the class and helps you create the next steps in addressing the issue on an individual and group level. However, most methods of differentiation are overly complex and incredibly time-consuming.

I used this form a few times a week to assess the work students did independently. It makes it super easy to correct any misconceptions right away, plan the rest of the unit  based on how well the class understands the current skill, and assign differentiated follow-up tasks for every student.

I wanted an easy system for tracking and documenting individual student progress along with the class progress as a whole.  I didn’t want to give kids grades on concepts I’d just introduced, but I needed to see how well they they understood so far, document their learning, and plan appropriate next steps.

So, I developed the Quick Skill Assessment Form.

I used it a few times a week to assess the work students did independently, usually for written assignments in math, but also in other subject areas as needed.

I’ll explain the system in detail so you can create it yourself, or save time/energy and purchase my ready-to-use form (which is now editable!)

The Quick Skill Assessment form is an informal method of assessment that makes it easy to:

  • Give students immediate feedback
  • Correct any misconceptions right away
  • Reduce the number of papers that need to be graded
  • Get a clear insight on how effective your lessons have been
  • Plan the rest of your unit lessons based on how well the class understands the current skill
  • Determine differentiated follow-up tasks for every student
  • Keep detailed records of student progress with very little time and effort

The form can be used with any assignment, but it’s especially useful for:

  • New skills you just introduced that day so you can set the pace for the rest of the unit
  • Mid-unit assessments for ongoing skill instruction
  • Concepts you teach only briefly (therefore no need for a formal assessment)
  • Common Core or key skills that require you to document progress and interventions
  • Any skills or concepts you’d like to evaluate without testing or without giving a formal grade

Check out the completed form example below. The writings in blue are made right after checking each student’s work, while the comments in red ink are written in the proceeding days as follow-up.

Example completed quick skill assessment form: I used this form a few times a week to assess the work students did independently. It makes it super easy to correct any misconceptions right away, plan the rest of the unit  based on how well the class understands the current skill, and assign differentiated follow-up tasks for every student.

To use this system, just print out the form. As students finish an assignment, have them bring it over for you to check. Record a score in your grade book only if needed. Then write the student’s name in the appropriate column in the form to document their learning and plan your next steps.

The form has four primary columns explained in detail below. Below each column is a space where you will indicate the follow-up activity, with exception to the Mastered column which is followed by a space for an enrichment activity.

Mastered
In this example, 7 kids showed mastery of the concept, getting all or almost all of the problems correct. These kids proceeded with partner games that allowed them to practice a more challenging skill. I put a check mark next to each student’s name when they participated in that enrichment, and an AB next to Martin’s name to indicate he was absent during it.

Progressing
10 kids are marked as progressing: they got the majority of problems right but still need a bit more practice. For their follow up, I worked with them in a small group (while the kids who had mastered the skill were playing the partner game) and modeled how to solve additional problems. My plan was to practice 3 problems, but we had time for 2 problems only which I indicated in red. Again, I marked those present with a check and an AB for one who wasn’t.

Emerging: Needs Concept Instruction
Students under this group needed a lot more concept instruction (they missed the majority of the problems in the assignment.) Most got confused with 3 digit regrouping but one (Justice) was not able to regroup even with 2 digits. I indicated that on the form and followed up by practicing regrouping in small group settings. Each time I conducted one of those small groups, I wrote the date in the follow-up box as documentation.

Emerging: Needs Basic Skills Practice
2 students missed the majority of problems in the assignment because they needed basic skills practice. In this case, they were not able to add numbers correctly and therefore weren’t ready for regrouping. As follow-up, I planned to put those students who were still learning basic addition facts on the computer to play a game through the school’s math software program. Later I went back and added that this occurred daily throughout the month of October.

Whole-Class Follow Up
Since only 7 kids in the class demonstrated mastery in 3 digit addition with regrouping, I chose to revisit the concept again in the following day’s lesson. Once more kids have mastered the concept, I might choose to write “N/A” in the whole-class follow up section, or put “review/reinforce throughout the year.”

Absent
Here I wrote the names of all the students who weren’t in the classroom when the assignment was given. Later on, I had the absent students make up the work, and I wrote the results in red. Jerome and Isaiah have a circled “P” next to their names as they showed they were Progressing, and Clara has a circled “M” next to her name as she demonstrated Mastery. I indicated that I skipped this assignment with Peter, as he was absent for 4 days and I determined this particular assignment didn’t need to be made up.

By popular request, I made this form available in a full page version (for those with larger class sizes) AND a Word doc version is now included so it’s completely EDITABLE!

The Quick Skill Assessment Form

Hundreds of teachers have used this system successfully and it’s made their differentiation and assessment a LOT simpler:

Have found this very useful, especially for formative assessment! –Agata

This is my second year using this resource. It is so amazingly simple to use. Really cuts down on my bookkeeping! –Valerie

This product saved me hours of trying to develop these forms. –Paulette

These sheets are absolutely wonderful! I have found myself using them for EVERYTHING! They help me note who has mastered a skill, and when I did the reteaching for those who did not meet the standards. They are amazing. thank you! –Rebecca

This will streamline my individual, group, and informal assessments. I feel so efficient and organized now! –Arden

Such a simple and easy way to change my assessment practices…why didn’t I think of this before? –Anonymous

Like the layout–I can read data with a quick glance. –Melissa

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this!!! It is used on a regular basis and I am able to see a snapshot of the class. I have tried everything from post-its, to labels, to index cards and this is the best by far! –Brigette

I hope it’s helpful for, you, too! Have you found any easy to manage systems for differentiation? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alicia February 2, 2015 at 2:41 am

Where do you place the students who do no work in your table? I have a few students who made it to 8th grade doing no work, and I have been unable to convince them that doing their work is a worthwhile endeavor…

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2 Angela Watson February 2, 2015 at 9:47 am

Hi, Alicia! If you need to document in the form that a student refused to complete the assignment, maybe you could create a special code just for that, such as R for Refused or B for Blank Paper. You could indicate that at the bottom of the form where absent students are recorded, and then when you follow up with the absent kids, you could also follow up with the student who refused to work.

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3 Danyal February 2, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for good job, made me think over my own methods of teaching and improvements.:-)

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4 Angela Watson February 2, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Great. Thanks so much for commenting, Danyal!

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5 Anne Tenaglia February 2, 2015 at 6:16 pm

These are great ideas but this is not differentiation, it’s remediation/enrichment. Universal Learning gives many ideas about how to differentiate, which is changing the manner in which you instruct and assess, according to a child’s learning method – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. 7 intelligences, many ways to vary instruction and assessment. Very hard to do, admittedly, in a regular 30-student classroom with no aide. Your form is very useful for keeping track of who may need a different method of instruction or assessment.

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6 Angela Watson February 2, 2015 at 10:36 pm

Anne, I appreciate your thoughtful comment and insights. I know there is a great deal of confusion over terms like differentiation, personalization, and individualization. Interestingly, the research around learning styles has been debunked for the most part, as there is little scientific evidence to support it. That kind of muddies the waters even more for me.

I approach differentiation in the way that Carol Tomlinson has defined it, which is that teachers can differentiate according to content, process, product, and/or learning environment. I’m glad you opened up the conversation about what true differentiation is, and I hope others will chime in with their understanding as well as how their district is defining it.

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7 Lydia February 3, 2015 at 6:04 pm

I agree that work can be differentiated by content, process, and product. It was recently implied that my lesson was not differentiated because not all three areas were differentiated. What are your thoughts on each lesson needing each of the three (or four if environment is also included) areas of differentiation?

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8 Angela Watson February 3, 2015 at 8:06 pm

Good question, Lydia. Again, I’ll defer to Carol Tomlinson on this, because I think she’s a much better authority than me on differentiation. She maintains that differentiation can encompass ANY Of the 4 areas, or combinations of them, and that’s good enough for me!

My opinion is that teachers do NOT need to differentiate every lesson in each of the 4 areas. Most of the time it’s not necessary. I think teachers should be able to use their best judgment on what their kids need, and also make decisions on what practices are manageable and sustainable. Differentiating 8 or more lessons a day for every child in all 4 areas is not manageable or sustainable for most teachers.

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9 Mikki February 7, 2015 at 7:34 pm

Could you explain a little more about what you mean when you say “the research around learning styles has been debunked?” What does that mean? What about it has been “debunked”? Isn’t using the “intelligences” differentiating the process? Just trying to understand. Thanks!

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10 Angela Watson February 8, 2015 at 10:16 am

Hi, Mikki! A quick Google search pulls up tons of articles that explain this more fully than I have here. Check out this article from the Association for Psychological Science or this one from EdWeek, which I think is particularly good because it quotes Howard Gardner and his thoughts on how these latest understandings fit with the multiple intelligences theory.

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11 Cassie February 16, 2015 at 12:56 pm

Where do you work that you have less than 20 students? Class size is out of control where we live up to 30 students for K-3. Looking to move.

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12 Angela Watson February 16, 2015 at 6:15 pm

This was used in South Florida. I agree 30 kids in the primary grades is way too many! I hope you can find a better situation.

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13 Doris Lizama April 11, 2015 at 4:45 pm

Thank you for the form! I will use it!!! Looks very simple and yea data is right at your fingertips!!!

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14 Pat April 11, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Angela, how would you use this information to create a history for each child? When I conference with parents, especially those whose child has an IEP, 504, and/or PEP, I’m expected to support all remediation/accommodation strategies with times and dates. I love this, but I feel that I’d be flipping back and forth and picking out names a lot. Thank you!

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15 Angela Watson September 14, 2015 at 8:23 am

I just brought the whole binder with me to meetings, and if I needed evidence of how I’d re-taught a specific skill, I flipped to that assignment and shared how the child did and how I followed up. Let me do some thinking about this, and see if I can come up with something more streamlined.

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16 Dr. Donna McCaw July 2, 2016 at 5:52 am

Could you use Google forms and hyperlink the student’s name to their performance evidence? Each student’s work that you would see as progress evidence could be scanned in your phone and placed into their folder. Not every assignment would be needed, only those in professional judgment told the story of that student’s growth or lack hereof.

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17 Annie May 17, 2015 at 9:38 pm

How do you progress when there are students who haven’t come close to mastering but the majority have either mastered or come close to it? How do you get to all the lessons if you revisit with the whole class to meet the needs of the few? I am still struggling with meeting the needs of all my students when I am a single teacher without an aide and only an hour for Math class if I am lucky.

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18 Angela Watson May 18, 2015 at 8:58 am

This is really tough stuff, Annie. I don’t want to underplay the difficulty of it. Theoretically, you don’t revisit with the whole class if the majority of them get it. You revisit just with those who need it. Putting that into practice is not easy. Try to get the rest of the class working on collaborative or independent work, and pull aside those students who need remediation then. You can also modify assignments for students who need extra help–take off the problems you know they’re not going to be able to solve, and add in remedial problems. So if the rest of the class is doing 5 word problems, give the struggling kids the 2 easiest problems plus 3 other problems that provide practice in a previously taught skill they haven’t mastered. Does that make sense?

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19 Ilana September 17, 2015 at 8:38 am

Unfortunately I couldn’t get beyond your first sentence because of your grammar error. We vs us. Try swapping the pronouns. The best ideas lose some credibility when the grasp of the English language is a bit off.

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20 Angela Watson September 17, 2015 at 9:09 am

Fixed. Thank you.

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21 Molly September 21, 2015 at 10:06 pm

That was a rude and unnecessary comment. Kudos to you, Angela, for handling it so maturely.

This is a great resource, and I can’t wait to try it out. Differentiation IS extremely difficult to put into practice.

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22 Ken Thompson December 4, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Just purchased. I have 5 classes of 28 to 30 students. Is there an easy way to copy student’s names from an excel file into this word doc. Once I enter all the names, I can save a master copy to reuse but if there is a shortcut it would help the first time. Thanks.

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23 Angela Watson December 5, 2015 at 9:25 am

Thanks for your purchase! I’m not sure copying students’ names would help with the way this form is supposed to be used. You’d have to manually decide which column to place each student’s name in as you assess their work–it’s not like all the names would go in the same spot every time you use the form. After you use the form the first time, you’ll understand what I mean. :) Let me know if you have questions.

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24 Naomi Dorazio September 20, 2016 at 10:18 am

I love it! Excellent article. Thanks for the info, super helpful. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a Category: Images, I found a blank fillable form here https://goo.gl/ed5z9y

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