Reach Students with Tiered Assignments Essay

Student engagement is a big buzzword these days. We want all students to be engaged while in our classroom as much as possible. If anything, it underscores the difficulty of our profession. We have to keep 20, 30, or even 40 students of different abilities, from different backgrounds tuned in for our entire class.

The answer of course, is differentiated instruction. While principals and edu-instructors toss the term around like it’s something you can pick up on the grocery aisle and deliver to students, it’s very hard to do in practice. In particular, reaching high and low students simultaneously is no easy task. Despite our good intentions, we teach to the middle.

But there are ways to reach all learners, at least some of the time. One method I’ve hit on in the last year has worked surprisingly well. For every major assignment, I offer three tiers for my students to choose from:

  1. Meets Standard (C)
  2. Above Standard (B)
  3. Excels (A)

Here’s a practical example from a lesson I’ll be teaching this week.

Learning Objective: I can analyze the military, economic and political strategies used by the Mongols to create their empire. Show this in one of the following ways:

Meets Standard (C): You are a spy for the Kingdom of France. The Mongols have already decimated armies in Hungary and Russia. Write a letter to your king, warning him about the Mongols, and giving him a military, political, and economic strategy the Mongols use in war and which one he should be most afraid of.

Above Standard (B): You are a captured singer/writer from the Khwarizm Empire. You’ve only been spared because you have talent. Sing/Write Genghis Khan a song about the glorious Mongol war machine. Make sure you include at least five specific details. Make sure to include a military, political, and economic strategy.

Excels (A): You are a spy for the Sultan of Egypt. Read the sources links below about the Mongol battle tactics. Using both sources and information from class, draft a report for your Sultan. Describe five tactics the Mongols use, analyze which are most effective, and come up with a three-point plan to defeat them in battle. Make sure you include at least five specific details.

I started doing this in part to combat grade inflation. C used to mean average, but now nearly everyone expects B’s or A’s. I wanted students and parents to clearly see what they had to do achieve each tier, and earn their grade. But I found benefits for every level of learner:

  • By stating the most basic level of proficiency in my learning objective, I was able to create a differentiated option well suited to low and EAL learners. Based on the student and quality of work, I sometimes assign a B or even an A to a student that only met the standard, if doing so cost them a great deal of effort and showed academic progress.
  • By clearly stating how to achieve excellence or mastery, middle learners more often than not choose to go the extra mile. Students who previously content with B’s or C’s, now started aiming for the highest level. In some cases I’ve even tried to recommend a lower tier, to have a students tell me they were going to excel and that was that. Those assignments haven’t always been perfect, but some have blown me away. What teacher doesn’t want their students aiming high, even if they fall short now and then?
  • High level students are given in-depth, rich assignments that allow them to show their mastery of the skill or content. Too often our high students make their presence known in our classroom because they finish first. I purposefully make the highest tier of assignment something that requires self-discovery and creativity. I am frequently astounded with the quality of work I get, when I challenge my highest level students to challenge themselves.

Tiered assignments have been a wonderful addition to my teacher tool box, and I continue to experiment with it all the time. You can’t always do it for every assignment, but I’d certainly recommend trying it with a larger assignment first, and going from there.

High School
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