Using Tiered Assignments for Differentiated Instruction

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Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Tiered assignments are used to organize work according to each student's zone of proximal development (ZPD). Explore the use of differentiated instruction through altering assignments, providing assignments, and differentiating by learning styles. Updated: 12/28/2021


What is differentiated instruction? Differentiated instruction ensures that every student is challenged according to his or her instructional level or learning style. There are a variety of ways that we as teachers differentiate for our students including flexible grouping, offering them choices, and asking open-ended questions. Another way to differentiate instruction is through tiered assignments. Tiered assignments cluster students according to levels of achievement so that each student is able to work within his or her zone of proximal development (ZPD), or instructional level. Tiered assignments may be structured according to challenge level, complexity, outcome, process, product, or resources. In this lesson, we'll examine each of the ways to tier instruction.

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  • 0:04 Differentiation
  • 0:54 Altering Assignments…
  • 1:39 Providing Assignments
  • 2:33 Differentiating by…
  • 3:10 Lesson Summary
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Altering Assignments for Students

When differentiating instruction by challenge level, teachers use Bloom's Taxonomy to provide different assignments to students based on their ability. For example, students at the lowest performance level may reproduce a science experiment while students at a higher level might use the information they've learned to create an entirely new experiment.

Another way to tier instruction is by complexity. When structuring an assignment by complexity, all students are given the same assignment, but the assignment's focus is altered based on achievement. For example, all students are required to create a presentation about the events leading up to the Vietnam War, but higher-achieving students need to focus on making a comparison to the American Revolutionary War.

Provide Assignments

The third way to structure a tiered assignment is by differentiating the outcome. Like assignments that are differentiated by complexity, all students are given the same assignment, but rather than setting the focus for the students, the teacher leaves the assignment open-ended enough so the result is a variance of student outcomes. For example, after reading a story, the teacher may ask the students to rewrite the final chapter and provide a different ending. This type of differentiation occurs naturally as those with higher abilities will produce a more advanced product.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Tiered Assignments for Differentiated Instruction:

Essay Prompt:

Write an essay of one paragraph that defines differentiated instruction and tiered assignments.

Example: Briefly note the many different ways tiered assignments can be organized, such as by level or complexity.

Letter Prompt:

Imagine that you are a teacher, and you plan on using tiered assignments as part of the differentiated instruction in your classroom. Think about the importance of tact when utilizing differentiated instruction, and write a letter to your students' parents explaining that you will be using tiered assignments.

Example: Explain in your letter that your use of differentiation is aimed to capitalize on the learning styles of all your students, and is never intended to put students of varying abilities against each other.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a chart, poster, or other type of graphic organizer that lists and briefly describes the various methods to implement differentiation and tiered assignments (Bloom's Taxonomy, complexity, differentiating the outcome, process, and Gardner's Multiple Intelligences).

Tip: You might find that making an Excel spreadsheet works best here, as it helps keep the information organized.

Lesson Plan Prompt:

Devise a lesson plan for your class on a subject you will be teaching using differentiated instruction. Use at least one differentiated method described in the lesson (and listed on your graphic organizer!) to create a tiered assignment.

Example: If using complexity when teaching about the Civil War, all of your ninth grade students are writing an essay about its causes. You decide to use complexity in which you will ask your higher-performing students to write a letter from the perspective of either an Antebellum Southerner or Antebellum Northerner on the causes.

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