For this educator, data has been an invaluable tool for sustaining differentiated learning and for supporting a growth mindset.

4 tips for using data to differentiate instruction

For this educator, data has been an invaluable tool for differentiating learning and also for supporting a growth mindset

Finding ways to help all students grow academically – regardless of where they are starting from – can be challenging. From my experiences teaching special education, general education, and English Learners, I can tell you there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works.

In order to meet the unique and individual learning needs of each student, teachers have to find ways to differentiate instruction, and data is critical to doing so.

Teachers often have a lot of assessment data at their fingertips, but they have to know how to use it in order to be successful. An administrator once said in a meeting, “Data by itself is useless. Data is only useful if you apply it.”

To help guide your own informed data-driven differentiated instruction, here are some things to keep in mind.

Data should be collected consistently over time. It should not just be a one-and-done approach. You must be able to collect data pre- and post-lesson, as well as after any intervention.

Data should be organized by standards. As a math teacher, I appreciate being able to get a detailed look at data that is specifically organized by standards. This helps me better understand what areas students are mastering and what areas they may need more help in.

In Florida, our standards are linked through the grade levels, so the data also allows me to see if students are below grade level and why. For instance, perhaps a student missed a benchmark in a previous year and that is preventing them from moving forward. It’s like building blocks –each grade level prepares you for the next step.

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Resources and lessons should be aligned to the data. Once you have your data, you can differentiate instruction by seeing where there may be a gap and determining which prerequisite lessons may be necessary in order for the student to catch up. If the data shows a student is having difficulty with a specific standard/benchmark/mathematical concept, then I can focus on getting extra resources to address that need.

i-Ready from Curriculum Associates has been great for tying data to instructional resources as it helps assess each student using an online diagnostic and then provides personalized lessons based on each student’s results. The accompanying Teacher Toolbox  has also been so helpful in providing resources that are perfectly aligned to the standards I am currently teaching. This all helps me seamlessly connect student data and instruction – I can increase the rigor of the lessons and classroom activities once I see students are mastering concepts or I can go back and assign prerequisite lessons if students are struggling.    

This process has yielded great results for my students. In fact, last year I had a class that was 80 percent ESOL. I worked in class with those students in small centers, and then assigned them to work on their i-Ready lessons independently at home. Some students ended the year showing 100 percent, 200 percent, and even 300 percent growth!

Students should be involved in their own growth. Try using students’ assessment data to help them set goals and to get them excited and invested in their academic growth. When I receive my students’ diagnostic reports, I usually share the complete growth report (not just the scores) with each student so they can see their improvements. This allows students who may have scored below grade-level to better understand why and where they could improve. Plus, it makes them feel even more proud when they make upward growth on the next diagnostic.

I also set monthly goals for “passed” lessons and award my students a “badge” if they reach their goal. And, I have end-of-the-year prizes, certificates, and awards for students who earned a certain number of badges. These are all listed on my class website: This approach has helped me keep students motivated, encouraged, and excited about working to get to that next level.

While helping them celebrate growth, it’s also important to help students understand that it’s okay to not get every answer right. I have a motto posted at the front of my room that says: “I learn more from my mistakes than I do from my success.” It’s been a huge help in getting students to let go of the stigma or mindset that causes them to fear getting anything wrong.

As a math teacher, I also love that it allows me the opportunity to teach problem-solving and the fact that there are MANY ways to get an answer to a problem. Differentiated instruction during small group time allows me to practice these different strategies with the students so they are prepared with many strategies on how to get a solution when faced with a problem. The more I work with students independently to help them “catch up,” the more they want to participate in class and continue that forward growth.

For me, data has been an invaluable tool for differentiating learning and also for supporting a growth mindset. The results in my classroom have been amazing. Students no longer hide or duck down in hopes of not being called on. I’ve had students who began the year sitting shyly in the back of the classroom grow into students who raise their hand for every question.

This is my goal for all students – to help them feel proud of their accomplishments and eager to grow even more.

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