students huddled around a tablet

3 Steps To Implement Data-Driven Instruction (2/3): Whole Group and Small Group Planning

In my last post, I described how to get a data-driven program off the ground by encouraging and enticing students to answer questions on an online platform that stores and organizes their responses. In this week’s post, we will look at some ways that data can help us plan for whole group or small group lessons. I tend to interpret my class data by starting with a broad overview and “zooming in” to understand more specifics. It’s important to note that almost all of the data we will use comes in the form of visualizations (graphs, charts, etc) – this is one of the main advantages of using a digital platform to store, organize, and represent data – using digital data is much more time efficient and user friendly than using data gathered by hand. Here are the three levels I tend to focus on:

  • Course/Unit Overview  – This is the broadest level – an overview of the class’s progress through a course or unit. Use this to make broad plans (yearly or monthly overviews).

    Khan Academy Class Overview

    Khan Academy Class Overview – Bars represent number of students who have mastered given percent of course
  • By skill – Once I have an overall sense of my class’s progress, I’ll zoom in one level to see which skills to target with the whole group, and which I might address in leveled groupings.

    Khan Academy data organized by skill
    Khan Academy data organized by skill
  • By student – Zooming all the way in, by student, lets us know when one-on-one support is in order. This can be a tutoring session, a pep talk about homework, or a call to a parent. (More on this in next week’s post).

    NoRedInk - Data organized by student

    NoRedInk – Data organized by student

The Response to Intervention model can help us to think about data-driven instruction as a process of targeting whole group needs first, then differentiating through small group activities, and finally targeting unique needs of outlying students through one-on-one support. While RTI was originally designed to identify and support at-risk students, I have also found it useful in identifying and supporting the individual needs of high-performing students, who are similarly underserved by a “teach-to-the-middle” approach.

Class Overview for Weekly or Unit Planning

We can use whole group data to understand the progress of our class as a whole over time.

NoRedInk - Excerpt from a Class Overview
NoRedInk – Excerpt from a Class Overview

Looking at the screenshot above, how could this inform your teaching on a whole group level? I might choose to spend a class on ‘Commas’ or ‘Verb Tenses’, while saving ‘Adjectives’ for a small group activity. Notice that the green check-mark means the whole class has mastered ‘Identifying Parts of Speech’ – before we could have whole group lessons on ‘Plural v Possessive Nouns’ or ‘Verb Tense,’ I wanted to make sure everyone was familiar with the fundamental concepts and vocabulary around nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Creating Leveled Groups

When I look at an overview of class progress, I usually notice that students tend to cluster around certain levels of understanding.

Use clusters to create leveled groupings
Use clusters to create leveled groupings

I like to make leveled groupings fluid – sometimes the class will cluster in three groups, but a few weeks later, they may spread out to four or five, so we can change the groups as needed. Sometimes, students will have similar overall levels of progress, but some are farther along in decimals while others are farther along in geometry. Being able to look at data on so many levels helps us make the best decisions in assigning groups and to make adjustments when needed.

Seeing students move around from group to group also helps students develop a growth mindset – Knowing they can move into a more challenging group by making an effort (or to a less challenging group by not being diligent or focused) can be a very strong motivator. I see on a daily basis the excitement and relief that students feel when they are properly matched with a group and with learning activities that are just at their comfort level.

Of course, data is just one part of the equation – when a student’s results confirm my opinion about their understanding, great. When the data is at odds with my opinion, I need to take another look – when this happens, I’ll usually have a one-on-one chat to better assess their understanding. Sometimes, a student knows the math but is challenged by the interface; other times, a student may be getting “help” when completing their work, so the data makes it seem like they understand more than they actually do.

Get the support you need to bring personalized learning to your school:

Assigning Leveled Work

Once you have determined the appropriate groupings for your students, the next step is to assign work for each group. This is one of the more-challenging aspects of leveled groupings, as there are a number of ways to select activities, each of which has it’s advantages and disadvantages. One way is to start with the basics all students need to understand and work our way up from there.

  • Find a “floor” – identify a foundational level of understanding you want all students to have, and find the students who are not yet at that level. In the image below, most students have completed “Rounding Whole Numbers 2” and “Comparing Multi-digit Numbers”, but a few have not – these would be good assignments for that group to work on.
  • Find the “middle” – For students that have the foundations, scan through your skills to find those that about half the class has completed. In the image below, I’ve clicked on “Identifying Factors and Multiples,” to ‘zoom in’ on that skill and see which students have completed it. Students listed as ‘needs practice’ can be assigned this skill, though I would not assign it to students who are still building foundations.

  • Find a “horizon” – In the above image, the students who have mastered “Identifying Factors and Multiples” will need something more advanced. I’ll look a grade level above to find skills no one in the class has mastered. The gray bar in the image below shows me that no one has attempted “Signs of sums,” so I could assign this to a group that is hungry for a challenge.
Khan Academy 7th Grade Skills
Khan Academy 7th Grade Skills

Advocating for Change

I hear a lot of questions about how to square leveled group work with a course curriculum. Won’t students in the basics group miss out on key lessons? When you implement a new strategy into your classroom, you should be prepared for some questions from curious (and concerned) parties, such as parents and co-workers.

I have found that while a basics group may not cover the entire grade-level curriculum, if they were to be exposed to this material, they would not fully understand and retain it anyway. (“The Importance of Background Knowledge” Marzano, 2004) I have also found that there are typically 1 or 2 students in a class that face this issue, and they are usually best served by focusing on skills they missed in a previous grade. For example, students that start the year 2 years below grade level may finish the year a half year below grade level, so they are still mastering several years of content in one school year. If they don’t receive the support they need in foundations (literacy, numeracy, etc), they are likely to just fall farther behind as the material gets more difficult.

I have also found that, other than these few students, the rest of the class covers well more than one year of content. We typically “review” the previous grade level early in the year, and students that were slightly below grade level tend to cover the prior year, current year, and at least a bit of the following year’s content. Students who are on or above grade level can often advance one or more grade levels and even have time to complete enrichment activities if they get too far ahead. So keep in mind, while the learning process may not look the same (“on Tuesday we are covering pages 15-18”), the measurable results will usually be significantly better than if you were to only teach-to-the-middle. An NYU study by Gureckis and Markant explores the advantages of self-directed learning.

In a future post, I’ll go into more detail about best practices for supporting students in the transition to small-group, Inquiry-based learning.

Are You Ready for some DDI?

This is just one way to choose work to assign leveled groups, and should be enough to get started. Depending on your platform, class size, and personal interests, you may want to use other methods – by digging in to the data and trying it out, you will likely discover a method that is better for you. If you need more help finding leveled assignments for your class, leave your question in the comments below or send me an e-mail. I’ll be happy to offer suggestions if I can. I would also love to hear about your experiences using DDI with your class!


What do you think?

Share your experiences with data-driven instruction, or ask a question. We’d love to hear from you!