Critical Questions about Tiered Lessons

Cheryl M. Adams, Ph.D.

Ball State University

What is a tiered lesson?

Many of us have heard the term, "tiered lesson," as the differentiation movement has taken center stage as a means of meeting the needs of all students in the classroom. A tiered lesson is a differentiation strategy that addresses a particular standard, key concept, and generalization, but allows several pathways for students to arrive at an understanding of these components, based on the studentsí interests, readiness, or learning profiles.

If I teach a tiered lesson, am I meeting the needs of gifted students?

It depends. When the tiered lesson addresses the studentís readiness to interact with a particular topic/skill/idea, there is a good chance that the needs of the gifted students will be met. A lesson tiered by readiness level implies that the teacher has a good understanding of the studentsí ability levels with respect to the lesson and has designed the tiers to meet those needs. You might think of a wedding cake with tiers of varying sizes. Many examples of lessons tiered in readiness have three tiers-below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. There is no rule that states there may only be three tiers, however. The number of tiers will depend on the range of ability level in your classroom. Remember: You are forming tiers based on your assessment of your studentsí abilities to handle the material particular to this lesson. Students are re-grouped the next time you use tiering as a strategy.

When the lesson is tiered by interest or learning profile, we are looking at student characteristics other than ability level. Students will be in interest or learning style groups and the ability level will be varied. In these instances, we are not making any modifications to address the specific needs of gifted students, but are giving all students choices of content, process, or product that are at about the same ability level. These tiers are similar to those in a layer cake--all the same size..

Will my groups be the same size?

Not necessarily. The number of groups per tier will vary as will the number of students per tier. We are not looking to form groups of equal size; we are trying to form groups based on the readiness needs of individual students. For example, Tier One may have two groups of three students, Tier Two five groups of four students, and Tier Three may have one group of two students. When the lesson is tiered by interest or learning profile the same guidelines apply for forming these groups--different tiers may have varying numbers of students.

If I teach only the gifted students, does that mean I wonít tier lessons?

No. The gifted are a heterogeneous group even when in a pull-out or self-contained class. You will still need to address the varied ability levels in this population.

Is there anything I need to have done before I try a tiered lesson with my class?

Yes. You must have a clearly articulated classroom management plan that provides the structure for the class when students work in groups. In addition, you must have anchoring activities for students who finish early or are waiting for you to assist their group. Both of these are non-negotiables. It makes sense to alert your administration and the parents that you will be trying some new strategies in the classroom in case there are questions.

Are there specific parts to a tiered lesson?

Definitely! To take a closer look at the anatomy of a tiered lesson, Iíll use the one reproduced here. It was developed by Dr. Rebecca Pierce, Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Ball State University, in conjunction with her work on the Javits Grant, Project GATE.

First, identify the grade level and subject for which you will write the lesson.

In this case, the grade level is second and the subject is mathematics.

Second, identify the standard (national, state, district, etc.) that you are targeting.

A common mistake for those just beginning to tier is to develop three great activities and then try to force-fit them into a tiered lesson. Start with the standard first. If you donít know where you are going, how will you know if you get there?

Dr. Pierce has selected Standard 7, Fractions. She has used the standards for mathematics delineated by the Indianapolis Public Schools. If you use the new Indian Academic Standards for Mathematics (IASM), this would be Standard 1, Number Sense.

Third, identify the key concept and generalization.

The key concept follows from the standard. Ask yourself, "What Big Idea am I targeting?" In this example, it is an understanding of fractions. The generalization follows from the concept. Ask, "What do I want the students to know at the end of the lesson, regardless of their placement in the tiers?" In this lesson, all students will come away knowing that fractions represent parts of a whole.

Fourth, be sure students have the background necessary to be successful in the lesson.

What scaffolding is necessary? What must you have already covered? Are there other skills that must be taught first?

Fifth, determine in which area you will tier.

You may choose to tier the content (what you want the students to learn), the process (the way students make sense out of the content), or the product (the outcome at the end of a lesson, lesson set, or unit--often a project). When beginning to tier, I would suggest that you only tier one of these three. Once you are comfortable with tiering, you might try to tier more than one area in the same lesson.

Sixth, determine the type of tiering you will do: readiness, interest, or learning profile.

Readiness is based on the ability levels of the students. Interest is based on their interest in a topic, generally gauged through an interest survey. Learning profile may be determined through various learning style inventories. Gardnerís Multiple Intelligences as a learning style system is currently quite popular.

Seventh, based on your choices above, determine how many tiers you will need and develop the lesson.

Remember, when meeting the academic needs of gifted students, you will want to choose to tier according to readiness. You may have three tiers: below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level. If you choose to tier in interest or learning profile, you may control the number of tiers by limiting choices or using only a few different learning styles. Tiering on all eight of Gardnerís Multiple Intelligences in one lesson may not be a good place to start!

Differentiation means doing something different--qualitatively different. Make sure you keep this in mind when tiering the lessons. Secondly, be sure each tier is doing moderately challenging, respectful work. We donít want one group doing blackline practice sheets and another doing Japanese cooking!

Notice in Dr. Pierceís lesson that she has three tiers working on fractions. Each has paper shapes to divide. However, as you read the activities for each tier, beginning in Tier I and moving through Tier III, the activities differ from concrete to abstract, and from simple to complex, to use Carol Tomlinsonís Equalizer word pairs. Tier I is the lowest level; Tier III is the highest level.

Last, develop the assessment component to the lesson.

The assessment can be formative, summative, or a combination of both. You may use some means of recording your observations of the various groups, such as flip cards or sticky notes. You may have developed a rubric for each tier based on the particular product that is developed. You may give a formal paper-and-pencil test. You will choose your assessment based on your needs and your lesson design. In this lesson, Dr. Pierce is observing the students as they work and jotting down notes for a formative assessment of each student.

Where can I find more information on tiered lessons?

For more information on tiering, please contact the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at 1-800-842-4251. To give you some more examples to study, I have included a tiered lesson that I developed, and one from Starlynn Atkins, a teacher of the gifted in the Charles A. Beard Memorial System. Starlynn is working on her endorsement in gifted education through Ball State.

Two websites that provide good examples of tiered lessons are the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development at Ball State as part of the Javits Project and the Indiana Department of Education Gifted and Talented Unitís Tiered Lesson Project, developed by Dr. Cheryll Adams, Dr. Felicia Dixon, and Dr. Rebecca Pierce and funded by the IDOE.
For the BSU site, go to and click on Instruction on the white gate.
For the IDOE site, go to



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Updated June, 2006