Know your students

Differentiation and assessment for learning, a personal view

Last year Paul Jackson was approached by a neighbour whose Grade 7 (UK year 8) daughter, was struggling in Maths and wanted him to tutor her. This is not something he usually does, but as a neighbour, he reluctantly agreed. Some serious thinking followed.


Amy (not her real name) is a bright, friendly engaging young lady who does not find Maths easy, but what struck me most was when I asked her about her maths teacher she said that she didn’t know his name (this was in April, two-thirds through the school year!) and that he never spoke to her!


It seems to me that the essential ingredient of differentiation is that every student in each class needs to feel cared for and that their (in my case) mathematical needs are being looked after. Clearly this was not so for Amy and as a result, her parents were asking for tutoring. Differentiation means that every student has a program of work specifically tailor made for them. But fortunately this does not mean 30 different programs for a class of 30. I use self-differentiation as much as possible. When I set work for a class I always qualify it, such as:

  • Just do the odd numbered questions, unless you find it difficult, then do the even numbers as well
  • If you find it easy, skip to the later starred (more difficult) questions

Tactics like these mean that students are differentiating for themselves and as teacher I need to monitor that they are differentiating appropriately. Most soon learn what is right for them, but not all students know themselves as well as they should, so we need to watch for those that skip questions when they need to do all or those who are over cautious. You soon get to know your students – that is how you learn to differentiate.

Refining differentiation

Further differentiation would come in at this point, identifying those that regularly struggle and who need extra practice or simpler problems. At the other extreme there will be those who could go further. Differentiation means being prepared for these outcomes, but again I would use self-differentiation:

    • When you realise someone needs extra practice, offer it to the class. Make sure he or she takes it, but there’ll be others who ask for it. Do they need it?
    • I made a mistake last February when I squeezed one Year 8 boy into the Intermediate Maths Contest. He was the star of a very able Year 8 group, and space was limited, but I should have offered it to the whole class. Those interested would have had to prove to me they should be entered for the contest, perhaps through a practice paper – and I would have made sure he took one. An opportunity to allow the best in the class to self-differentiate missed!

Assessment for learning is what should be happening every time you speak to a student, listen to what they say, or mark their work. Every interaction with your students should involve you considering what the student has understood, and what is needed next.

I think the worst way to start a lesson is to write the topic for the day on the board: I like to keep them guessing!  I often like to start classes with class discussion, and the route to wherever I might want the class to go is determined by the answers the students give. Often ‘wrong’ answers lead to the most interesting discussions – “wrong” answers are the best answers, and I often praise students for them!

Assessment for learning is that process the teacher goes through when listening to student answers, assessing what they understand, what they need to practice and where they should go next. It makes every class exciting for the teacher (hopefully for the kids too!), as at the start of the topic I have a few strategies up my sleeve, but exactly which way we take into a topic is determined by the students’ answers – and by their questions.  Of course, some students don’t like to ask questions, but they can still show their understanding and involvement in the class in non-verbal ways. You can often tell by their body language whether they are following or not.

Assessment for learning also takes place when you mark their work – what haven’t, or have, they understood, and what is needed next? Therefore you should write comments to help them with their learning when marking, never a mark out of 10 – as that is all they will see and your comments are ignored. Assessment of learning is that relatively rare time when you need a formal assessment to generate a mark – most likely for a report or parents’ evening.

The point of school

So, my neighbour Amy didn’t feel that she had a differentiated program of study to meet her needs, and her teacher never spoke to her, nor did he appear to mark much, so there was no ongoing interaction between teacher and student and the teacher wasn’t assessing what Amy knew and how her learning should progress.

It makes me wonder why Amy bothered to go to class. When there are so many on-line learning platforms now and students can ‘learn’ everything on their laptops, why should they attend school? This is the question we need to be asking ourselves. In my view, the answer comes through the differentiation and assessment for learning that takes place in class. And that is a result of the relationship the teacher develops with each and every student. If a student isn’t frequently given the opportunity to contribute to the class or group in some meaningful way, what’s the point of him/her being there?


Paul Jackson

Paul is Head of Mathematics at the German Swiss International School, Hong Kong.

See more of Paul’s work at and @pauljackson5110




Feature Image: Jills – Pixabay

Other Image: ArtsyBee – Pixabay