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Science For All

Supporting Success in Science

Science Scope—May/June 2022 (Volume 45, Issue 5)

By Becky McDowell

Recently, a student teacher I was overseeing came to me with a problem. She had a student that she knew loved science. He would regale her with his ideas for building rockets, his engineering within Minecraft worlds, and the science books and documentaries he had recently consumed. But, he was not scoring well on the summative assessments, and she was worried.

So why did this student, who is passionate and knowledgeable about science, fail these tests? Apparently, her school’s science curriculum relied solely on written responses for its summative assessments. While the student could talk at length about his ideas and science concepts, he had writing anxiety. So, he wrote the least amount possible, omitting the details necessary to demonstrate that he knew the answers to the questions. When the teacher and student talked about the test items, he could verbalize answers with specific science details that were not evident in his written responses. My student teacher was grappling with a central question to the craft: How do we support all of our students in having a greater chance at success within the classroom?

What is differentiation?

Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014), noted for her framework of differentiated instruction, describes differentiation as responsive teaching that includes varied approaches to what and how students learn and demonstrate their learning. The goal of differentiation is to provide all students with the support they need to achieve the greatest success possible. Students with IEPs or 504s may already have specific modifications assigned, but this does not mean that the differentiation needs to end there nor that students without these documented modifications cannot receive differentiation. Differentiation is not about making the work easier. Rather, the goal of differentiation is to find ways to tap into student strengths and to allow students to learn and demonstrate their learning in a way that is commensurate with these strengths. Differentiation is more than just a strategy or tool; it is a mindset about teaching and learning that encourages student ownership and takes a critical look at what is essential for students to know and be able to do.

Tomlinson’s framework

Tomlinson’s (2010) framework for differentiated instruction describes how a teacher’s response to students’ needs is guided by a growth mindset that values:

  • continual assessment
  • student voice within the classroom community
  • respectful tasks that are interesting and worth doing
  • flexible grouping
  • challenging students with work just above their comfort levels
  • high-quality curriculum

Tomlinson identifies five key elements a teacher can differentiate: content, process, product, affect, and learning environment. Each of these can be differentiated according to students’ readiness, interests, and learning profile. Let’s take a closer look at these within the classroom.

Content (knowledge, understanding, and skills)

  • Look for: prior experience with and knowledge of topic, preconceptions, and use of vocabulary
  • Differentiate by: using leveled text or graphic organizers, creating opportunities for independent study or curriculum compaction, reteaching foundational concepts
  • Look for: passions, hobbies, content preferences
  • Differentiate by: using interest centers, providing choice on research topics or related readings
Learner profile
  • Look for: learning preferences, environmental preferences such as seating choice, culture-based preferences such as discussion norms, competitive versus collaborative, and group orientation such as preference for working alone or with certain types of partners
  • Differentiate by: using multimodal lessons, providing choice of reading independently or with a partner, providing choice of small-group or independent instruction, varying the style of formative assessments related to group and competition

Process (how students learn content)

  • Look for: work speed and support, types of questions students ask, types of mistakes students make
  • Differentiate by: providing scaffolds such as graphic organizers, mini-lessons, varying the amount or kind of teacher support such as written directions, using supportive technology
  • Look for: passions, hobbies, content preferences
  • Differentiate by: varying phenomenon or prompts, offering choice of review activities, varying mini-lab stations
Learner profile
  • Look for: learning preferences, environmental preferences, culture-based preferences, competitive, versus collaborative, group orientation, technology preferences
  • Differentiate by: providing options for independent or group work, designating roles within groups, using supportive technology, varying modality of lessons

Product (demonstration of learning)

  • Look for: performance on formative assessments, misconceptions
  • Differentiate by: varying timelines and checkpoints, varying role within a performance assessment task
  • Look for: interests, task preferences
  • Differentiate by: providing a choice of questions to answer and products to create
Learner profile
  • Look for: modality preference, culture-based preferences, group orientation
  • Differentiate by: providing a choice of questions to answer and products to create

Affect and Environment

The key elements of affect and environment are related to students’ emotional needs and the classroom culture. Some students need more praise, while some prefer that the whole group receive recognition instead. Students also have varying emotional responses when working in a group and may need supports such as encouragement and breaks provided and strategic groupings with preferred peers to succeed. The classroom environment also needs to be considered when differentiating. Are there quiet learning spaces, group spaces, or flexible seating choices for students who need to move in order to pay attention? Noticing how the classroom feels will help inform whether more encouragement or group changes are needed.

Differentiating assessments

Let’s explore how to differentiate various types of assessments based on the following standard: MS-LS2-2. Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

Formative assessments

When figuring out what students need to know and be able to do, the NGSS evidence statements are a great tool to see the breakdown of the performance expectations into its learning components (see link to NGSS evidence statements in Online Resources). For example, MS-LS2-2 requires that students can identify and describe:

  • competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial relationships
  • the impact of resource availability
  • patterns of interactions across ecosystems

So, as each new concept is added to the students’ repertoire, formative assessments are used to check for understanding. To the extent possible, these assessments should be varied and support the student in practicing the types of tasks required of the summative assessment but may or may not include all three dimensions of the performance expectation.

Suggestions for varying formative assessments include conducting them at different times for different students based on readiness or providing more or less frequent check-ins. This might look like self-paced learning checks in the classroom using tools like Kahoot!, Nearpod, or Pear Deck. Although auto-scoring will work for some types of questions and provide immediate feedback for the student, many two- and three-dimensional questions will provide a more accurate picture of what the student is thinking but will require teacher review. Both Nearpod and Pear Deck have drawing question types that can be used for modeling. I would, however, recommend also allowing text responses to go along with digital drawings because space is usually limited for adding labels and explanations to digital drawings. When possible, I also like to include question choices such as “choose one of the following questions to answer” and “write and answer one question you were prepared to answer, but I did not ask.” These types of questions allow the student to lean into their strengths.

Phenomena as informed assessments

Phenomena can be more than unit starters and engaging discussion points. They are also great formative assessment tools. Figures 1 and 2 show an interdependent relationship (mutualism) between two animals from different ecosystems. One approach to differentiating this phenomenon is allowing students to self-select into discussion groups based on interest in specific ecosystems. The teacher would provide each group with a picture or short video showing a relationship from their chosen ecosystem to observe. During this stage of the learning process, students share what they think they already know about the topic and what they wonder or are interested in figuring out. This can be accomplished using consensus models and driving question boards (for more on driving question boards and consensus models, see link to driving question board, an OpenSciEd resource, in Online Resources) or written on poster paper, but it could also be accomplished collaboratively using digital tools like Google, Jamboard, or Padlet. When using these tools, students who have great ideas but don’t like to write can use speech-to-text to record and contribute or record video with a tool like Flipgrid. By asking students to add their names to the contributions they have made, the teacher can gather valuable feedback on student readiness and preconceptions. Students can then pair up with another group or share their question boards with the whole class.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The giraffe and oxpecker have a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.

Figure 2
The rainbow cleaner wrasse has a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with several other fish including this dragon wrasse.

The rainbow cleaner wrasse has a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with several other fish including this dragon wrasse.

Performance assessments

Performance tasks are another great option for formative assessments. Since performance tasks can be learning opportunities, teachers can provide support throughout the process while gathering information that helps inform future learning. My student teacher allowed for students to demonstrate their understanding of food webs by providing students the choice of using Padlet or poster paper as a way of differentiating the process. She had students strategically grouped with supportive peers within her diverse class and provided criteria that stated each student needed to contribute at least four connections within the food web so all students were contributing. This allowed students to have plenty of choice and ownership, while also holding all students accountable while working in a group. This, in turn, allowed her to better gauge their understanding of the concepts before moving on to new content.

Summative assessments

The key to differentiation for summative assessments is providing choice and variety. An entire test consisting of written short- and long-answer questions will not allow students with writing difficulties to show what they know. I like to include various question types that support different modality preferences and provide options for completing, such as leveraging assistive technology (technology used by individuals to accomplish things that might otherwise be difficult or impossible). I also make sure students have plenty of time to complete the tasks. Sometimes, I also develop optional portions of the task (i.e., answer one of the following questions).

When differentiating your own summative assessments, whether they are ones you have created, those that come with curriculum, or adaptations of open-source assessments (see link to Wonder of Science ecosystems assessment in Online Resources), you will want to consider your students’ various needs and preferences when choosing options that make the most sense for your classroom. Below is an example of differentiating a summative assessment task based on student needs and preferences. The following summative assessment task does not wholly address the PE MS-LS2-2, but is used as a model for differentiation.

Resource: Encyclopedia of Life Cards

The Encyclopedia of Life is an online repository of information about organisms on Earth. A free account is required to access most content, but teachers can download and print the animal and ecosystem card decks to share or create new ones. This site even has lesson plans, templates, and articles (see the links to Encyclopedia of Life lesson plans and biodiversity card decks in Online Resources).

For this prompt, choose two biodiversity card decks of interest. Organize at least 10 of the organisms from each deck into two food webs. Identify the following relationships: competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial. If you are unable to identify a mutually beneficial relationship, then identify an organism not in the deck that would most likely have this relationship with an organism in each deck. Construct an explanation an observer could use to identify and predict the most likely types of organisms involved in relationships in a different ecosystem. Use evidence from the food webs you created to support your explanation.

Differentiation: Readiness

  • Below grade level and English language learners: Scaffold by providing sentence stems or graphic organizers, word banks or key definitions, or by using speech-to-text or tools like Flipgrid to record explanations, and increasing allotted time
  • Above grade level: Add complexity such as increasing the number of ecosystems involved or requiring more details in a constructed response, add commensalism and parasitism to the type of relationships included

Differentiation: Interest

  • Provide choice of ecosystems and allow students to come up with their own as well
  • Use Minecraft or other fictional worlds as one of the ecosystems to compare
  • Include mandatory components as well as some optional components such as designating the first ecosystem and allowing students to choose the second

Differentiation: Learner profile

  • Allow students to work in groups or alone on a portion of the task
  • Provide options to complete the activity using physical cards or with a digital tool such as Padlet
  • Provide hands-on manipulatives or models students can use while answering questions such as a sample food web
  • Allow students to use speech-to-text as needed to write explanations or spell words

Differentiation: Affect/Environment

  • Allow flexible seating options that provide movement opportunities and quiet spots
  • Circulate the room to provide encouragement as needed


This article explored differentiation through varied options and approaches to assessments. We illustrated differentiation as the acknowledgment and mindset that students be supported in learning and showing their learning in various ways. By providing students with tailored opportunities to learn and demonstrate their understanding, students are able to access the same rigorous material but in a different way. We owe our students equitable access to content and assessments through differentiation. While some traditional tests might be necessary as preparation for state tests, students are motivated when given a choice that allows them to demonstrate what they know in a way that resonates with who they are.

Online Resources

Encyclopedia of Life biodiversity card decks—

Encyclopedia of Life lesson plans—

NGSS evidence statements—

OpenSciEd driving question board—

Wonders of Science ecosystems assessment—

Becky McDowell ( is a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction: Science Education at the University of Wyoming and a former eighth-grade science teacher and a K–8 differentiation instructional coach.


Tomlinson, C.A. 2010. Differentiation model. Differentiation Central.

Tomlinson, C.A. 2014. The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Equity Inclusion Teaching Strategies Middle School

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