Teachers know there are many factors to consider when creating lesson plans—we know there are students of varying ability and motivation levels in our classrooms, and we know we can’t overwhelm one group of students or under-challenge another. This is where differentiating instruction comes into play, which is tough, but we can do this.
And then it hits us: once we get through our differentiating instruction successfully—keeping higher performers engaged and challenged while not losing our struggling students—we need do the same with our student assessment. Differentiating assessment…we don’t hear that term used much, but it’s just as important as differentiating instruction. The two really should go hand in hand. So, here’s the challenge: how do you create separate exams and distribute them to the appropriate students? Even worse—how do you do this without the students knowing? We can’t tell students they’re getting a more difficult exam than their peers…and we certainly can’t tell students they aren’t capable of taking the same exam as some of their classmates.
With all of these hurdles to take into consideration, you might be excited to know that differentiating assessment is now a much easier and secure process than ever before. Using a computer-based assessment program (I recommend ExamSoft), we can easily create multiple exams within one class AND save time doing it. The process begins like any exam creation process—writing questions. Instead of writing a singular exam though, you can create a bank of items of varying difficulty levels. This can be as easy as changing question distractors or even the format type of certain questions. Yes, question writing is not the easiest task; however, once you have the foundation of each item, altering a multiple-choice item into a short-answer or fill-in-the-blank question is typically quite simple.
Here’s a brief tangent—remember the first time you gave 100 students several short-answer questions or a three-page essay and quickly realized you just gave up whatever personal life you had for the next five days? This process helps to alleviate that too—only give those short-answer questions to your students who are ready for them! Could there be a better win-win situation? Students are appropriately assessed, and you just turned those 100 short answers into 30, saving yourself an enormous amount of time that would have been spent hand grading!
OK, back to differentiating assessment within ExamSoft. You’ve created a bank of questions to choose from when authoring your exams. At this point, I strongly suggest mapping those items to levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy; this allows you to easily see the difficulty level of each question you are selecting for your exams without having to read through each item every time. Now you’re ready to put your exams together—simply select the items appropriate for each group of student performance that you have identified and drop them into an exam. ExamSoft will allow you to create courses for each set of students and then make only one exam available to each student. No paper distribution. No worrying about making sure students get the appropriate version passed to them. Students will download and take the exam intended for them without having any idea that they’re being assessed differently than some of their peers.
Here’s a helpful tip that will make exam day even easier: before they begin their assessments, let students know the exam questions are scrambled. This is great for exam security, of course, but it also helps ensure that students won’t notice they’re taking different assessments. Even though you have just successfully differentiated instruction and assessment, we know the content of the exams will still be similar—it’s only the difficulty levels at which students are assessed that have changed. Therefore, post-exam discussions either by students individually or in a class review setting can occur unaffected since the overarching content is the focus, not the specific questions.
Could this have worked out any better? Students are now being appropriately assessed based on their abilities and not on standards that are too easy (and boring) for some or too difficult (and overwhelming) for others. This is all done without the risk of students feeling labeled or singled out AND with minimal extra time commitment. Remember when differentiating assessment was really tough? I do, and I’m happy it’s a thing of the past.
Dan Thompson currently assists faculty at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in course design and development, while also introducing new methods of utilizing educational technology in the curriculum to create a learner-centered environment. Additionally, he instructs faculty in implementing appropriate assessments and the use of sound pedagogical strategies in and across the curriculum. He holds a Master of Science in Technology Enhanced Learning and a Bachelor of Science in Adolescent/Young Adult Education from the University of Dayton. His background includes serving as Education Innovations and Learning Design Manager at Kent State University College of Podiatric Medicine where he assisted with the implementation of active learning principles in preparation for a curricular change. He also taught at the secondary level and assisted faculty in course design at the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine.
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