Tiered Assignments In Physical Education

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Using Differentiated Instruction in Physical Education

Kathleen Ellis, Lauren Lieberman, and Dani LeRoux

Originally appeared in Palaestra, Volume 24, Number 4, 2009

This article is reproduced with permission. Any further use requires permission from the copyright holder.

With the No Child Left Behind law, teachers are required to be highly qualified in the core area in which they teach. However, is being an expert enough; or better yet, the foundation responsible for a child’s education? A great deal of hype has surrounded the use of differentiated instruction as an effective and successful strategy for educating diverse students within the same setting. Expertise in the content being taught is only a fraction of the overall differentiated instruction picture, as in theory, teachers can be experts in their fields, but may not be experts in how to take into account the diversities of learners. An exemplary teacher not only is an expert in his/her core academic area, but has a strong foundation and use of differentiated instructional principles. Differentiated instruction has the focus of diversity, common outcomes, and is student-centered. It is designed to instigate multiple strategies impacting individual students while focusing on a common goal. In other words, the students are all learning identical content, but the strategy for successfully achieving the common outcome/goal is dependent on individual student learning styles and developmental levels (Lieberman & Houston-Wilson, 2009).

Creating An Effective Learning Climate

Differentiating instruction is not a new concept. It has been incorporated as a successful instructional strategy with gifted and talented students for decades. Over the past several years, the advantage of using differentiated instruction in the inclusive learning environment has gained intense focus. Differentiated instruction in and of itself uses instructional strategies based on individual student learning styles and needs. While its success as an all-inclusive instructional strategy is conclusive when effectively incorporated in various learning environments, it was only recently that the value of differentiated instruction was introduced to the physical education setting (Gregory & Chapman, 2007).

Differentiating instruction in physical education is adapted physical education for all learners in an inclusive classroom environment. While adapted physical education has the focus of adapting or modifying the curriculum, activities, or environment to meet the needs of students with disabilities, differentiated instruction has the focus of modifying the content, learning activities, outcomes, and environment to meet the needs of all diverse learners.

When one walks into a typical physical education class, the first thing that comes to mind is diversity—various sizes, shapes, abilities, desires, motivation levels. However, no matter how diverse, teachers must make the physical education environment one that is conducive to learning. Meeting the needs of diverse learners in an inclusive setting involves taking into account what each child needs from this climate in order to feel comfortable, motivated, and successful (see Table 1).

Table 1
Differentiated Instruction Inclusive Strategies

  • Information to investigate: Facts about the learner
    Inclusive strategies based on
    • Strengths
    • Background knowledge and experience
    • Interests
    • Learning style(s)
    • Multiple intelligences
    • Important relationships
  • Information to investigate: Goals
    Inclusive strategies based on
    • Does the learner have any unique goals?
    • Are there particular concerns about this learner?
  • Information to investigate: Facts about classroom demands
    Inclusive strategies based on
    • Content demands—How is content made available to the learners?
  • Information to investigate: Process demands
    Inclusive strategies based on
    • What processes do teachers use to facilitate student learning?
  • Information to investigate: Product demands
    Inclusive strategies based on
    • How do students demonstrate what they have learned?
    • How are they graded?

(Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007)

To create an effective learning climate which incorporates instructional strategies promoting inclusion, one may use strategies which are individualized for a given student.

Bethany has low vision and is in a physical education class participating in track and field events. In this case, tactile instruction can be used to teach Bethany the correct form and movement for the shot put, so she can be completely included in the activities with her peers. By focusing on her specific learning style, Bethany can participate in track and field activities.

Knowing the Learner

It is a fairly common understanding among professionals that students differ in their learning styles. In other words, no two students are likely to learn in the exact same way. Some global learning styles involve those who learn best by auditory means, those who learn best visually, and those who learn best by hands on or tactile means. Others may learn best while working with peers, or in small or large groups, or in a more isolated situation (Gregory, & Chapman, 2007). In many cases, students may require more than one learning style to fully grasp concepts being taught. Therefore, understanding individual learning styles and incorporating these into instructional strategies is a requirement, not an option, for differentiated instruction. Knowing your students may be the most important part of differentiated instruction…if you don’t know the important aspects of their learning needs and abilities, then determining effective instructional strategies is nearly impossible. Teachers should take into account characteristics of their students when determining strategies to use, such a various learning styles; ways in which students process information; and use of multiple intelligence theory (Gardner, 1983).

Knowing your learners is critically important in successful lesson planning and arrangement of the learning environment, including grouping strategies.

Samantha loves to play soccer, but because she is totally blind she relies a great deal on her auditory ability. Ms. Judge, the physical education teacher, took this into account when planning the lessons and made sure that all equipment used had some auditory device and that small, cohesive groups were incorporated in order to allow more time on task and peer tutoring. In addition, she looked at her learning style as an auditory and tactile learner and made sure her paraeducator worked with her and helped her become familiar with the learning environment and equipment in use. For example, when learning soccer, Ms. Judge had Samantha use a soccer ball with a bell inside, as well as cones which contained beepers so she knew where to dribble the ball. Ms. Judge physically helped Samantha understand how to dribble and gave her verbal and tactile feedback when she was practicing.

Assessing the Learner

Some of us may remember back during our undergraduate years when we took a course on measurement and evaluation (AKA, tests and measurement). Regardless of when or if such a course was completed, one of the take-home messages was that without assessment no programs or instruction can be effectively incorporated with the expectation of success. The first and foremost step for any program or class is to determine a needs assessment. Completing a needs assessment determines students’ prior knowledge and skills for upcoming lessons or programs; what areas of interest or overall feelings regarding lessons or programs the students demonstrate; what is needed for students to become more proficient or master skills being incorporated; and to determine skill and understanding levels to format learning groups.

One big thing to remember is that assessment is a continuous, ongoing process. It is completed almost daily, sometimes unconsciously, in order to provide immediate, critical feedback, and make changes in the lessons/programs to ensure learning. Parents are often a good place to gain useful information regarding current performance and unique learning information. As a teacher, there is never a time when assessment is not taking place.

Completion of the needs assessment at the beginning assists in implementing the instructional content and strategies used, informal assessment during the teaching and learning processes assists in ensuring the best learning environment for all students; summative assessment at the conclusion of a learning outcome assists in strengthening future learning outcomes for involved students; and regular self-assessments by the teacher may lead to modifications or changes designed to improve strategies used.

It is important to ensure that students are aware of ongoing assessment and defined success.

During a basketball unit, Janessa was included in the formative rubric assessment. The rubric gave a gold medal to any student who could put three or more basketball-related skills together, such as dribbling, passing, and shooting. They could get a silver for two or more skills, bronze for one or more skills, and honorable mention for participation only. Janessa knew the criteria for grading and worked hard with her partner and friend, Sammy, to get a gold medal. She and Sammy even demonstrated their skills for the class at the end of the unit, allowing the class to see a glimpse of wheelchair basketball!

Grouping Students for Learning

Students can be grouped based on readiness to learn certain content or skills. Table 2 discusses the various ways students can be grouped in order to incorporate differentiated strategies.

Table 2
Grouping Strategies within Differentiated Instruction

  • Grouping based on: Students’ knowledge of a subject
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Grouping students with a good knowledge of the subject with peers who have lesser understanding allows for those with better understanding to assist in learning of subject
    • Grouping students based on knowledge of subject allows for greater attention to specific group based on need
  • Grouping based on: Students’ ability to perform skill or task at hand
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Mixed ability groups to encourage peer teaching and cooperation
    • Focus additional skill building activities with groups showing greater need
    • Refinement activities for those with higher skills
  • Grouping based on: Cooperative learning groups
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Small mixed ability groups work together toward a common goal
    • All group members must be equally involved in activity
    • Reduces competition because outcome is not individualistic
    • Each member brings something to the group that others do not, hence groups must incorporate each others strengths in order to be successful
  • Grouping based on: Interest in a certain area of content
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Allows students to choose area of interest and focus on improving skills for lifelong participation
  • Grouping based on: Peer tutoring
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Higher skilled student of same age or older works with peer on specific skills
    • Less intimidating and likely more comfortable than working with teacher
    • Benefits both sides in different ways, where one is learning and one is sharing prior knowledge and experience
  • Grouping based on: Heterogeneous grouping
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Teaching children of same age and ability levels in the same classroom environment
    • Allows children to progress at their own rate
    • Uses authentic and/or performance based assessment allowing progress to be evaluated based on natural growth and development of skills/performance
    • This approach recognizes and honors individual differences as it is more "child-centered"
  • Grouping based on: Multiple age grouping
    Grouping strategy/purpose
    • Encourages interacting with various ability levels and learning at own rate
    • Emphasizes child’s developmental needs and how best to turn them to strengths
    • Focuses on the whole child, not just physical development, but also psychologically and socially

(Gregory, & Chapman, 2007)

Ms. Michaels, the physical education teacher, knew the students who had short attention spans, those who could focus for long periods of time, and those who needed some motivation to get moving. She made small cooperative learning groups and combined these learning styles in each group, so the students could motivate each other. Matthew was put into a group as a student who had task persistence and a long attention span, needing only some assistance in activities requiring high balance skills. He, along with his similar peers, Jessica and Michael, helped their group stay focused in Project Adventure to get their group across a moat full of alligators (AKA the balance beam).

Instructional Strategies

As mentioned earlier, differentiated instruction has the focus of diversity. It takes into account not only the content being taught and requires the teacher to be an expert in this area, but also to have a strong foundation of understanding of his/her students, the cognitive learning theory, and strategies for incorporating differentiated instruction. Successful integration of differentiated instruction requires an all-or-none principle. Teachers must be proficient in all four areas or else differentiated instruction strategies are likely not to be effective. Steps for implementing differentiated instruction into the physical education setting include—consistency; planning the program; use of focus activities at start of class; not wasting time; using graphic organizers; using cooperative group learning; using metaphorical and analogous thinking to make meaningful connections; and, awareness of student level of readiness and thinking complexity.

The importance of modifying curriculum and/or equipment to include ALL students is a critical step for any physical educator.

Mr. Estes teaches elementary physical education and his first grade class is one of diverse, mixed abilities. Two of his students, Jonathan and Ryan, have cerebral palsy and use motorized wheelchairs. For the lesson of catching and throwing, he modified the learning environment so that Jonathan and Ryan could catch and throw small and medium beach balls hanging from a line directly in front of them. This allowed them to work at their own pace and level without losing valuable time retrieving equipment. Both Jonathan and Ryan were able to work on their hand-eye coordination and movement of their arms during this activity, which increased their overall upper body movement and range of motion!

Curricular Approaches

Organizing curriculum to meet the various needs of diverse learners is no easy task. Differentiated instruction takes into consideration several strategies related to curriculum approach and organization—learning stations; incorporating projects into your classroom; use choice boards to give students empowerment over learning; use problem-based learning approaches; and incorporate student learning contracts in your classroom.

Bryn’s class was working on bicycling and there were a few modifications to this activity based on student ability level. Ms. Rush knew the students’ level of readiness, and she introduced several options of bikes ranging from two wheelers, three wheelers, two seaters, to tandem bikes. This allowed her students, regardless of ability or disability, to move up in equipment use as their riding ability progressed. Since Bryn had low vision and had never ridden a bike before, she was able to comfortably start with a tandem bike, allowing her to be successful in this unit.


Effective teachers take all of the skills and abilities of their learners into account. By differentiating instruction, students are set up for success and are taught to their strengths. Differentiated instruction does take time, energy, attention, and patience; yet, the outcome is well worth the energy. By assessing each student and then setting up effective instruction, grouping, and curricular approaches, every child will be successful. Table 3 provides an example of considerations for programming to ensure that differentiated instruction is appropriately implemented and successful.

Table 3
Example of Considerations for Programming to Ensure Differentiated Instruction

  • Function: Low physical fitness
    Needs: Can cover 1/2-2/3 of the distance covered during the class as his/her peers
    Approach taken by instructor for all students
    • When the class is running around cones set on the perimeter of the gym, set a group of 4 cones in a smaller circle inside the gymnasium
    • Run/walk for time and not distance
    • Have some students play just offense or just defense in games
    • Set up fitness stations with several levels to accommodate all learners
  • Function: Balance difficulties
    Needs: Has difficulty during kicking, throwing, or balance activities
    Approach taken by instructor for all students
    • Set up kicking, throwing, or balance beam next to wall
    • Allow some children to throw or kick from sitting
    • Work on throwing and balancing in the pool
  • Function: Short attention
    Needs: Can attend to activities for 2-3 minutes at a time
    Approach taken by instructor for all students
    • Have paraeducators work in small groups to help with attention
    • Have all students work in stations at their own pace so the student can move along when they complete a skill or station work
    • Utilize bright and textured balls and equipment to hold attention of all
    • Set students up for a challenge such as number of times they hit the target, number of jumps with a jump rope ,or performing a skill at a specific level to keep them focused
  • Function: Minimal low back flexibility
    Needs: Limited ability to bend, stretch and touch toes which inhibits activities such as kicking, jumping, or tumbling
    Approach taken by instructor for all students
    • Infuse more stretching throughout the classes
    • Kick a larger ball
    • Jump using a wall or on an inclined surface
    • Tumble on an incline mat
  • Function: Slow eye-hand coordination
    Needs: Difficulty catching objects thrown from 10 feet or more
    Approach taken by instructor for all students
    • Use balloons or beach balls for catching
    • Set up stations incorporating a ball on a string
    • Have students catch a ball rolling down a ramp or chute
    • Use a bounce pass and say the student’s name first

Selected References

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gregory, G. H., & Chapman, C. (2007). Differential instructional strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lieberman, L. J., & Houston-Wilson, C. (2009). Strategies for inclusion; A handbook for physical educators. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Thousand, S. J., Villa, R. A., & Nevin, A.I. (2007). Differentiating instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kathleen Ellis is Associate Professor of Adapted Physical Education in the Department of Kinesiology at West Chester University, PA, and serves PALAESTRA as Department Editor for the Calendar section.

Lauren Lieberman is Professor of Adapted Physical Education at SUNY-Brockport, NY. Danielle LeRoux, is Adapted Physical Education Teacher, Cecil County Public Schools, Elkton, MD.

Field Services & Federal Quota


Adolescent learners vary widely in their physical, emotional, and cognitive development. For many teachers, the most challenging aspect of teaching middle school students is the constant problem solving energy required to meet their diverse needs. When diversity is at its peak, we are sometimes left feeling that short of super-human feats on the part of heroic teachers, it’s not possible to meet the varied needs of the children before us.

When varied learner readiness is the aspect of diversity confronting us, it can be a challenge to ensure academic growth for all. If students appear bored or overwhelmed, a common response is to track them into ability-based classes. Whether we isolate high achieving students into accelerated courses, learning disabled students into special education classes, students who have fallen behind into remedial classes, or English language learners into a stream of their own, we frequently do so at a cost to both the students themselves and to the mainstream population from which they’ve been separated. If we embrace full inclusion without applying effective differentiation strategies, we fail as well.  Diverse classrooms where every learner makes significant progress are possible in part through tiered instruction and assessment.

For the most part, this blog details the journey of the middle school math department at Jakarta International School from 2006-2011, the years needed to institutionalize a tiered approach. The purpose here is to share the rationale, describe the process, provide examples, and a share some results.


Consider this… You’re teaching a very heterogeneous class of learners. Planning with the end in mind, you design a course assessment encompassing all course learning goals. Meeting the standard indicates preparedness for future academic success. At the end of the course, all students perform well on the assessment. It’s time to reflect.

There’s reason to celebrate. All students have met the grade level proficiency standard. This is no small feat. Students are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to work successfully in subsequent grade levels.

We might feel less enthusiastic while reflecting on our students’ growth. Depending on their initial readiness for success, different students have had different growth opportunities. Students at the beginning end of the readiness continuum have learned the most. Students in close proximity to the learning target have grown less. Some highly advanced students have experienced no growth at all. We feel pride that struggling students have made significant gains and disappointed that advanced learners have stagnated.

This scenario illustrates the most basic premise for a tiered approach. When we establish a single common learning destination for students in mixed-ability classrooms, one outcome seems inevitable – all students will not have equal growth possibilities.

Our guiding vision for student learning includes academic and personal development for all students.

Middle school math teachers around the world face the challenge of teaching students with varied readiness levels for success.  The graph below shows a typically diverse breakdown of algebra readiness test results for JIS 7th graders at the beginning of a school year.  The diversity reflected in the graph is pretty universal to heterogeneous, middle school math classrooms.

Some students are advanced, already capable of succeeding in a typical algebra class, while other students are far from ready, which isn’t too alarming since it is the beginning of 7th grade.

Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow” offer guidance.  The research from both of these psychologists, not to mention our common sense, suggests we should offer learning challenges suited to each child’s readiness level in order to create the optimal conditions for learning.  Realizing that our students’ readiness levels differ so much, we offer varied challenges so every student can learn in a state of relaxed alertness.

I like the graph below, which Csikszentmihalyi uses in part to make the point that we can create the conditions for “Flow” by either increasing our skill level with a given activity or by boosting the challenges we face.  Tiered instruction and assessment enhances a teacher’s ability to do both on behalf of students.

Bill and Ochan Powell’s framework for effective teaching supports the use of tiered instruction to work within a child’s ZPD and a challenge-by-choice approach to increasingly shift ownership for learning to  students.


That we should differentiate for varied readiness levels is not so controversial.  The challenge lies in how to do so.

In a tiered class, students engage essential course content at varying levels of depth and breadth.

Students choose the challenge on homework assignments and assessments that will help them maximize their learning.

Three different levels of challenge are offered. We designate each by a color.


There are some steps we consistently follow when planning tiered lessons.

A lesson will have 1 or more learning goals.  For example, the goal of a geometry lesson might be to have students apply equation solving skills while learning about triangle properties.

Following whole-group instruction, students are asked to select the challenge level that will help them maximize their learning. For example…

This learning cycle repeats itself as the unit proceeds.  Click for more samples of…

***Tiered Problems for a Variety of Middle School Math Topics***

Tiered lessons share some general characteristics.

After developing tiered assessments and assignments, we started thinking more and more about how to manage our tiered classrooms. Essentially, any strategy that develops cooperative learning skills and/or promotes self-reliance is worthwhile. Similarly, planning lessons with big ideas in mind promotes a sense of cohesiveness between all challenge levels.

At the end of a unit, students select the assessment challenge level that will enable them to best demonstrate the extent of their learning. The following graph shows the breakdown of color choices for all middle school students at JIS on all summative assessments during the 2006-10 school years.

Following a unit’s assessment(s), students reflect on their learning experience during the unit.

Reflections generally reveal students feeling appropriately challenged. In the majority of cases, students felt that they had selected a level of challenge that was an appropriate learning target towards the goal of maximizing their learning. Sometimes students believed they could have made a better decision. In few  cases did they perceive that all targets were outside their zones of proximal development (situations where students who selected green felt  the assessment was too difficult or students selected black and felt the assessment was too simple).


The psychological benefits of feeling appropriately challenged seemed to translate into improved learning outcomes. Compared to the difficulty level of assessments in previous years (prior to offering choices), green level assessments are the most similar.  With the introduction of the blue and black level challenges, it’s clear that students are now tackling greater challenges, on average, than in the past. The graph below shows that grades held steady at the same time, suggesting an overall increase in student achievement.

Before introducing tiered assessments, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum tended to bring average test scores down.  After, students at the beginning end of the readiness spectrum (those who selected green level assessments) performed at an accuracy level comparable to students taking blue and black level assessments. The performance of students working at a “green level of readiness” seemed to improve following the implementation of a tiered approach.

During the 2009-10 school year, JIS began giving students the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) assessment.  Students were tested at the beginning and end of the school year.  Results indicate the tiered approach is having its intended effect: students across the readiness spectrum are meeting or exceeding expected growth rates.

Each student has a RIT, a number that represents their current skill level in mathematics.  Over the course of the year, students are expected to grow by different amounts depending on their starting points.  The horizontal axis represents student subgroups across the readiness continuum.  The Blue bars represent JIS 7th graders’ mean growth.  The Red bar represents the mean target growth set by NWEA, the organization that administers the MAP, based on historical growth rates.

We believe these consistently strong results from year to year (with 2 out of 3 teachers being different) speak to the power and importance of systematically implementing a tiered approach.  An articulated tiered curriculum (the learning goals we have for students across the readiness continuum in addition to the materials that support the attainment of these goals) is a critical component of effective differentiation.  Each teacher has been able to focus their energy on helping students be successful towards reaching tiered learning goals, rather than focused on developing a tiered curriculum, which while intellectually stimulating and fun, is also quite challenging.

The JIS 7th grade results are particularly dramatic examples of the power of Challenge by Choice.  7th grade math classes tend to have an enormous range of readiness levels because the breadth of topics covered is so wide and these topics extend learning from previous years.

Differentiation in 7th grade also exemplifies the importance of supporting advanced learners through a balanced offering of acceleration and enrichment.  Rather than moving on to a relatively narrow set of 8th grade algebra learning goals via a traditional tracking system, advanced kids get the chance to grapple with rich problem solving challenges for a variety of important math topics like probability and statistics; ratio, proportion and percentages; and measurement.  When topics lend themselves to acceleration, like equation solving, advanced kids are accelerated through above grade level learning goals like solving systems of equations as an example.

Remember the algebra readiness test results from the beginning of the year.  A similar test at the end of 7th grade yields dramatically improved results.

Another positive development has been the decreasing need for a remedial 8th grade math course.  For years, the math department felt that a remedial course was needed to serve the needs of our most vulnerable students.  Teachers never felt very satisfied with the effectiveness of the course, but we didn’t know what to do. Having previously tracked students, it didn’t feel possible to have all students successfully complete the same 8th grade math course. Over time, it’s been wonderful to see our 8th grade math teachers feeling more comfortable with differentiation and our students feeling more confident in their skills. Both developments have led to the elimination of our remedial 8th grade math course, and a single math course has now been offered at each grade level (with no remedial 8th grade option) since 2009.

Besides academic development, adolescents also need and want opportunities to struggle, opportunities to make decisions, and teachers who guide them with a broad view of their development.

Achievement test scores and enrollment figures are easy to report as measures of success, but they only tell (a relatively insignificant) part of the story.  Tiering’s impact on class culture and other aspects of our vision for student learning has been even more significant. Listen to some teacher, student, and parent reflections on the “Perspectives” page to develop a sense for how people feel.

Beyond achievement gains and encouraging stakeholder sentiments, research on effective teaching and learning consistently supports a tiered approach. The following are some recommendations for supporting learners of different readiness levels.  Tiering makes it possible to support all students in the way that’s consistent with how they learn best.

An added benefit of the tiered approach is that heterogeneous student groupings can be preserved. The advantages of effective differentiation vs. ability based tracking are numerous. Here are some benefits brainstormed by the JIS Math department.

The challenge of meeting diverse needs is universal.  A wonderful aspect of the work at JIS is that it’s been done by an extremely diverse math faculty.

It would be irresponsible not to mention certain “dangers” or downsides that accompany this work. The upfront workload is significant.  I’ve developed tiered learning materials on my own, and I’ve also done it alongside colleagues. Both approaches can work but it goes without saying that the more you divide the work between team members, the easier, more effective, and FUN the work will be.

Another caution relates to the green challenge level. In our experience, it’s critical that green level expectations be rigorous and respectful. Using a tiered approach can have an incredibly positive impact on the sense of community in a classroom.  On the flip side,  class culture can deteriorate quickly if students perceive that green problems are for the “dumbies” or beneath the mainstream expectation (for more on this point, see “Finding Tiered Problems.”)

I hope this brief introduction leaves you feeling more interested to think about using a tiered approach with your students.

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