Differentiating in Baby Steps, Part 3: Differentiating by Interest through Credits

You may want to read Part 1 and 2 on Differentiating in Baby Steps first, here.

The course catalog, my freshman year of college, was almost as fun as a J. Crew catalog. I couldn’t fathom how many options were open to me, and the sense of choosing my own academic destiny was intoxicating.

Why must students wait until college before they can have the autonomy to choose the credits they need to meet their goals?

The most concrete form of differentiation you can employ in the classroom is to offer options to students for their major assessments. Would they like to create a poster, a NPR style radio show, or build a theme park?

There’s one problem: we all know that it takes much longer to build a theme park than it does to make a poster. Unless it’s a huge freakin’ poster.

How to solve that problem?

Create a table where you delineate how many credits a student can receive for a certain kinds of work, and what grade is possible by amassing a certain number of credits. Click here for an example.


1. You must provide models of excellence and a few sub-par models and students must articulate what they see as the difference. They need to own what they’re getting into when they choose a certain project type, and many an amateur film-maker rued the day they chose to do film, even though it earns more credit; film can be a time consuming burden for a student who doesn’t love working on it.

2. Tag models of excellence each year to update the student model portfolios. Yes, the first year is hardest. I created a few of my own models the first time I allowed certain modalities.

3. When a student chooses to aim for less than an A (this tends to be more acceptable at the high school level where student autonomy is more encouraged), it might be wise to meet with his/her advisor (or send a note home) to make sure other responsible adults are in the know. In truth, this type of choice can be a “canary in the coal mine,” and help you find students who need more support and encouragement. They would know if this is a) someone about to fall through the cracks or b) someone who is on three teams and the school play, being responsible and realistic with time-management.

This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Read part 4, here.  

What should I expect?!

As humans we crave expectations, clarity, and common language. It feels good to go into a situation (especially a new situation) knowing what to expect and what is expected of you. People of all ages, from children to adults, feel more confident and capable when they know what to expect in different settings.

Consider being invited to a social gathering such as a dinner party. You might find yourself asking certain questions: “What is the dress attire?” “What kind of dish shall I bring?” “How many people will be in attendance?” Answers to these questions would allow you to be proactive with your behavior and appropriately organize for the upcoming event. Additionally, these answers would give you the confidence to walk through the door of the host’s house knowing that you will be socially, emotionally, and behaviorally appropriate to meet the expectations that have been established for the occasion.

It is critical to have clearly defined expectations in a school setting. Expectations allow a common language to exist and help to ensure appropriate behavior throughout the entire school-site. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, family members, and community members all want to know what is expected when they walk through the doors of a school building. They may not always express this desire, but it would be difficult to find someone who would not want to know what is to be expected. The nature of human behavior is to want to do what is expected in different settings in order to appropriately fit into the established social norm.

Here are a few suggestions I’ve learned over the years:

  • Creating clearly defined expectations for the different settings of your school-site (i.e. bus, front office, hallway, cafeteria, gymnasium, classroom, playground, etc.) can help ensure comfort and security of those entering the building and can help create a safe and supportive learning environment for students.
  • Do not assume that everyone already knows the expectations of a given setting. It is important to establish these expectations with all stakeholders and then teach the behaviors you want to see, just as we teach academics. The truth of the matter is no one wants to show up to a hundred-person black tie affair in ripped jeans and a t-shirt holding a six-layer taco dip that feeds four.
  • Be proactive! Set the stage for this school year and help everyone in your building feel part of a positive school culture.

Would love to hear your ideas on setting expectations in the comments below!