In today’s classrooms teachers are often challenged to instruct academically diverse learners (Tomlinson, 2005). Due to the variety of learners a teacher may encounter in their classroom it is important that they find ways of instruction that allows each student to succeed. Tomlinson (2005) explains that by using differentiated instruction in their classroom a teacher will more likely be able to achieve this goal. She describes differentiated instruction as, “a systematic approach to planning curriculum and instruction for academically diverse learners. It is a way of thinking about the classroom with the dual goals of honoring each student’s learning needs and maximizing each student’s capacity (Tomlinson & Strikland p.6).” One method of conducting differentiated classrooms is to use tiered assignments.

According to Roberts and Inman (2007) it is important that before tiered activities are introduced that the students have an understanding of themselves and their abilities. The fact that each student has strengths and each student can succeed, are two concepts that should be familiar before diving into tiered assignments. A differentiated classroom “respects diversity…maintains high expectations and … generates openness.” (Roberts and Inman, 2007, p. 14) Once this is accomplished and the students feel safe it becomes much easier to have tiered assignments. When students begin to realize that they all have their strengths and weaknesses, they become more open and understanding to the process of differentiation. Tomlinson (1999) says that tiered assignments can be used when an educator wants to “ensure that students with different learning needs work with the same essential ideas and use the same key skills” (p.83). The two main ideas that tiered assignments touch on are that every student comes away with the targeted skills and concepts and that every student is challenged and able to accomplish the task at hand. (Tomlinson, 1999, p.83) If differentiated instruction is the key to success, then how are educators able to implement it into their daily teaching routines? One clear example of how differentiated instruction is utilized within the classroom is through the application of tiered assignments.

Using Tiered Assignments
Tiered assignments allow for teachers to teach the same objective to their students and for that objective to be obtained at various levels and modalities (Danzi, Reul & Smith, 2008). Tiered assignments are created by the teacher to appeal to the multiple intelligences of the students and are assignments that range from simple to complex (Danzi et. al., 2008). Based off their learning style and ability the students can then choose, or be assigned, and complete an assignment that is best suited to their own individual needs (Danzi et. al., 2008). By providing different levels of assignments students can then obtain a higher level of success, therefore increase confidence in the school environment.

Before a teacher can successfully implement tiered assignments it is important to understand the different levels of learners in the classroom. Each student comes to school with different backgrounds and has different levels of prior knowledge in regards to the subjects taught at school (Lopez & Schroeder, 2008). It is unfair to assume that each child will learn in the same way or that each student has the same level of prior knowledge about a subject. A student’s social class, ethnicity, family life and spoken language are all examples of what influences students’ learning. According to Lopez and Schroeder who were part of an action research project entitled Designing Strategies That Meet the Variety of Learning Styles of Students they state that, “It is the teacher’s responsibility to facilitate learning regardless of the student’s ability” (Lopez & Schroeder, 2008). It is therefore important to do pre-assessment tests with students to have an accurate understanding of the prior knowledge they bring to each subject.

Pre-assessments should be:
1. Written.
2. Individual.
3. Focused on the key information, concepts, and skills of the unit, including the embedded [province] and local standards.
4. Relatively short.
5. Assessed only for instructional planning and grouping (not graded).
6. Returned to students only at the end of the unit when they can assess their own growth. (
Rakow, 2007)

During the action research project, Lopez and Schroeder utilized tiered assignments by dividing students into groups based off the pre-assessments. One example of a tiered assignment dealt with the topic of currency. Students in the first tier chose a country and found the name of the currency used in that country, the appearance of that particular currency and its value. Students in the second tier chose two countries from two different continents and also found the name of the currency, the appearance and the value. Students in the third tier chose three different countries (one first world country, one third world country and one of the own choice) and found the names of the currencies for each country, the appearance and the value. Once finished with their research each tier level presented their findings to the class (Lopez & Schroeder, 2008). As is easily demonstrated from this example, tiered assignments allow for all students in the class to achieve the main objective (to lean about currency), yet to go about it in ways that pertain to their individual learning needs. Each tier builds upon the previous one and allows for students to experience success at their own academic level.

Another example of how tiered assignments were implemented into a classroom setting comes from the action research project of Danzi, Reul and Smith entitled Improving Student Motivation in Mixed Ability Classrooms Using Differentiated Instruction. Students in a grade eight language arts class were required to present a summary of a text they had read. The students were given three options as to how they would present their chosen text. Students could choose to use a graphic organizer to summarize their text, present a summary of the text as a book talk in front of the class or students could complete a written book report to summarize the text they had read (Danzi et. al., 2008). This use of tiered assignments allowed the students to choose the assignment that best suited their individual needs (Danzi et. al., 2008). It was noted with this particular study that although tiered assignments did work for many students to help them achieve academic success, others misused it. Students who were fully capable of being in the higher tier like the book report would sometimes choose the lower tiered assignment like the graphic organizer because they knew it would not be as challenging and therefore be faster and easier to accomplish (Danzi et. al., 2008). In situations like this it is important as a teacher to be aware of the capabilities and actions of the students and to provide them with assignments that challenges them at just the right level.

Mawhinney, author of the article Finding the Answer, described a tiered assignment method that was used in New York State with Rhinebeck High School. The English and global studies teachers developed the Odyssey program, which is a performance-based assessment for all grade ten students (Mawhinney, 2000). Through Odyssey a three tiered program was created which required the students to write a research paper, make an oral presentation and use their research in a creative way (Mawhinney, 2000). The gymnasium at the school was turned into a museum and performance centre and students of all ages were invited to watch the grade tens present their material (Mawhinney, 2000). The benefits of the Odyssey program were that all students did research on topics of their choice and demonstrated a mastery of their topic through their own individual strengths and personal interests (Mawhinney, 2000). In his article Mawhinney states that, “[s]tudents- especially those with learning or developmental delays- experienced success in a way that they never had before” (2000). Another benefit to the program was that staff noticed a growing respect from students in regards to each other’s achievements and talents (Mawhinney, 2000).

Creating Tiered Assingments

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Technology can enhance the ability to bring tiered assignments into the class. (McQuarrie, McRae & Stack-Cutler, 2008) It allows for more freedom and can reduce a teachers’ work load when creating numerous assignments. It is important to realize that although there are many positives effects of technology, access to it may be problematic at times and that it is meant to enhance not to take over classroom instruction. Many times technology improves lines of communication between the parents, teachers and students. (McQuarrie, McRae & Stack-Cutler, 2008) Some examples of technology are laptops, ipod touch, digital cameras, audio and video recorders, Smart boards, word processors, databases, spreadsheets, draw/paint/graphics applications, Internet browsers, multimedia applications, clipart/media clips and others that may not even be available yet.

There are many different ways in which a teacher can implement tiered assignments into their daily classroom routine. It is not only a way to reach the struggling and excelling learners in the classroom, but it is also a way to reach all students. This method ensures that everyone is able to obtain a common objective while providing the appropriate stimulating material for their individual comprehension levels. It is important that students feel comfortable and confident in themselves when it comes to learning and tiered assignments are one way in which teachers can ensure this goal is achieved.


Danzi, J, Reul, K, & Smith, R. (2008). Improving student motivation in mixed ability classrooms using differentiated instruction. Retrieved from f0.pdf

Lopez, D.M, & Schroeder, L. (2008). Designing strategies that meet the variety of learning styles of
students. Retrieved from

Mawhinney, T.S. (2000). Finding the Answer. Principal Leadership, 4(1), Retrieved from

McQuarrie, L, McRae, P, & Stack-Cutler, H. (2008). Differentiated instruction provincial research review: choice, complexity and creativity. Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI).

Rakow, S. (2007). All Means all: classrooms that work for advanced learners. Middle Ground: National Middle School Association, 11 (1), 10-12.

Roberts, J, & Inman, T. (2007). Strategies for differentiating instruction best practices for the classroom. Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press Inc.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated classroom. New Jersey: Pearson. P. 83-87

Tomlinson, C.A, & Strickland, C.A. (2005). Differentiation in Practice. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.