Differentiating the pace of learning means students learn at a pace commensurate with their abilities in order to maintain their interest and provide a developmentally appropriate level of challenge. For some high ability students, some of the time, this will mean accelerating to get to more advanced material. At other times, they will want to decelerate, to dig deeper into the complexities of the content. Flexibility is the key to differentiating the pace; responding to the learner’s need to go faster or slower.
Gifted students differ widely in their processing speed and style. Some will be quick and impulsive, others slow and reflective. When asked for their preferences, self-pacing was the form of differentiation most popular with students in Kanevsky’sstudy. Almost 90% of students who were and were not identified gifted indicated they enjoyed learning at their own pace. Approximately 75% also reported they “wanted “lots of time to dig in to ideas and projects” and “having time to think after being given a really difficult idea to understand. I don’t like to rush when I’m working on hard stuff.”
Acceleration options come in many shapes and sizes. There’s much more to acceleration than grade-skipping. Grade-skipping may be the most familiar form of acceleration but it is only one of a varied collection of practices that enable high potential students to learn and move through school more quickly. The 2009 Work Group on Acceleration identified18 (see Table 4.6.5; descriptions are provided in Appendix F). The nine that emphasize the rate at which new subject matter is introduced are considered content-based while the nine that involve moving students into settings with older students (as well as advanced content) are considered grade-based.Rapid, advanced learners will need access to a variety of these options during their years in school.
As recounted in the Nation Deceived research. report, both content-based and grade-based acceleration are supported by the positive findings of almost 100 years of research. This report also provides chapters summarizing the research related to the impact of the various types of acceleration on academic, social and emotional development. Ultimately, accelerating the pace of learning is the practice recommended for gifted students with the most extensive and positive body of research supporting it.
Pre-assessment for mastery, an essential feature of pacing modification identifies intended outcomes for students who already know the content, therefore, this content should be eliminated. The results of Pre-assessments provide convincing evidence to justify giving students time for other differentiated learning experiences. For example, students may pursue self-selected activities, real life topics, extracurricular topics, etc. The purpose of adjusting the pace is to ensure students are learning, rather than waiting to learn. Whether students go deeper or faster than their peers, they will maintain their motivation and interest if their appetite for new understandings is accommodated.
Table 1. Forms of acceleration
Formal or informal approaches to assessing student knowledge and skill prior to instruction are essential to differentiating the pace of learning. The choice of pre-assessment will depend on how the results will be used. If the results will be used to group students for the next lesson, an informal procedure may be appropriate. If the results will be used to determine which concepts a student has mastered in an entire unit of study, a formal pretest should be used. It should be equivalent to the posttest. Concepts and skills the student knows can be skipped so the student can move on to more advanced material.
Pacing modifications include “compacting”curriculum within subject areas. This “diagnostic-prescriptive” to approach to differentiation involves pre-assessing the content of the unit, using the pre-assessment results to adjust or create new goals. Instruction is streamlined, excusing the student from instruction on topics and skills the pretest results indicated were already mastered. The amount of practice on content nearly mastered is also reduced. The time that has been liberated by this streamlining can now be invested in an individual pursuit.
Uncompacted: All students begin and proceed through a math unit on adding decimals at the same pace. The unit introduces ten new concepts.
Compacted: All students complete a pretest of the learning outcomes for the unit on adding decimals. Any student earning a score of 90% or less on the items assessing understanding of a particular concept will be expected to complete all of the assignments related to that concept. Those earning 91% or more will move into the “Money Studies Centre” to apply and extend their understandings of the ten concepts related to decimals.
Grade-skipping is one of the most controversial practices in education. When the decision to move a student into a grade one or more years higher is undertaken systematically, it is likely to succeed. The Iowa Acceleration Scalewas designed to guide efforts to make this decision. New South Wales (Australia) has also developed a set of Guidelines for Accelerated Progression. A student’s curriculum must continue to be differentiated after being placed in a higher grade.