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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Differentiated assignments

Has anyone had experience with differentiated assignments? That is, where you specifically give students more than one option for an assignment and different options might be worth different grades (e.g., you have to do option A for a chance to earn an A or you can choose option B but then the highest grade you can get is a B)? I'm thinking about doing this because I have a couple of assignments where there is a possibility for some students to do something that is really a level above other students but I don't want to tell students they have to do that. For example, in my Economics for Teachers class, one of the projects is to develop a "mini-lesson" using an example from pop culture (music, movies, TV, etc.). Ideally, students would come up with their own example but there are also many sources that provide examples for them (some of which we will be specifically discussing in class). So I'm considering telling students that in order to earn an A, they must come up with their own example; they have the option of using one of the examples from a source that already exists but then the maximum grade they can receive is a B+.

Similarly, in the final project for the data course, students must do a simple empirical analysis. I don't actually want to require that students do multiple regression; I would rather students focus on thinking through what analytic methods would be appropriate to the empirical question and discussing the relevant issues, not get bogged down (or freaked out) trying to figure out how to run a regression. But there are certainly some students who are capable of doing regressions and fully understanding what they are doing, and I want to make sure those students are challenged too. Since I will be giving students a set of questions to choose from for their projects (sadly, with 135 students total, I simply cannot give them complete free rein over their topics), I'm considering telling students that they can choose a question from list A (which will be questions that require regression to answer well) if they want to shoot for earning an A, or they can choose a question from list B, which will be somewhat simpler projects but then the maximum grade they can earn is a B+.

On the one hand, I feel like differentiated assignments are sort of 'giving in' and lowering expectations for a lot of students. On the other hand, it seems more realistic, and more fair, to specifically tell students "this is somewhat easier so it's not worth as much but it's up to you to make the choice." What do you think?


  1. It's also a lot more work for you as an instructor (which should, I think, factor into the decision).

    An additional consideration. Suppose a student picks from Column A (harder, more work, but makes an A grade possible), and then...well, maybe doesn't do as well. How much is adequate from the A list worth relative to very good from the B list? I don't even want to think about that.

  2. I like the idea of differentiated assignments. In fact, it reminds me of a grading rubric. "Don't feel like working on this material? Fine, but just know it will hurt your grade by __."

  3. @Doc: It's a little more work to create the assignments but I'm thinking it will actually make my life a little easier in the long run. I seem to spend a lot of time grading and the differentiated assignments would at least allow me to stop arguing with myself about whether to give someone an A or not. I guess I'm thinking that other than the top grade, I'd still scale things according to how well the student completed the assignment - a student who tries something more challenging but doesn't quite pull it off would earn a B, partly because I do see that as just as worthy as a student who tries something less challenging and does it well. But yes, I do worry about how grades will work out on a relative basis...
    @Aaron: thanks - that's basically the way I'm thinking about it as well. I just haven't ever talked to anyone who actually did this so I have no idea how students respond or if it's worth bothering...


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