Letting Students Succeed at Their Own Speed

“Challenge every student.” That was my goal for the quarter. As I peruse the results of students’ latest math assessments, my goal again crosses my mind.

The test scores are fine, but upon closer scrutiny, I can see the divides.

My high fliers meticulously showed their work and defended their answers, as requested, taking additional time to point out any typos or to make humorous comments about word problems. Clearly they had plenty of time on their hands.

The majority of students naturally grouped themselves into specific content specialties based on their understanding. Most of them did a decent job on the test, but specific strengths and weaknesses surfaced.

Then, with a sigh, I look over the results of my struggling students. Their answers seem to reflect a foreign understanding of the topics covered in this assessment. I recall their hands in the air during the test, constantly seeking clarification and reassurance. Some have left questions blank or have written something entirely illogical. Hmph.

As a class, we strive to learn from our mistakes. It was my turn to reflect on the last unit and see where I could have done something differently, something better.

The problem always returned to pacing. I was covering material too fast or not fast enough. I knew students learned at a different rate depending on the content, but how could that knowledge shape classroom instruction on a regular basis and still be manageable? These thoughts led to an experiment in self-paced instruction.

Making Progress

In theory, I wanted to design a system that kept track of students’ progress, held them accountable for their learning, and enabled them to tackle increasingly difficult learning goals at their own pace. In practice, it surpassed these expectations, leaving my students—and me—with a sense of accomplishment and a desire to interact similarly with future material.

Math often lends itself nicely to sequenced levels of understanding: one concept must be understood in order to successfully progress to the next concept. With this idea in mind, I considered an upcoming mini-unit on inequalities. Students would need to progress meaningfully from one step to the next: from introduction to basic understanding to mastery and finally to enrichment and review.

I organized the content, then turned to the procedures. If this experiment was going to have a chance of success, it needed to be clear and student-friendly. I dedicated a large bulletin board to the cause and incorporated a higher education theme. This particular theme represented a topic about which I was personally passionate. At the time I was working on my master’s degree, and it lent itself well to the idea of progression.

I partitioned the bulletin board into a grid that left enough space for each student to have his or her own column. To the side, each row was labeled with a colored circle, starting from the bottom:

  • Yellow – High School Diploma
  • Green – Associate’s Degree
  • Blue – Bachelor’s Degree
  • Red – Master’s Degree
  • Purple – Doctoral Degree
  • White – Continuing Education.

Students would each have a pushpin that monitored their progress from yellow at the bottom to white at the top. The theme was expressed in a Chinese proverb posted above the bulletin board: “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”

Before launching the mini-unit, I gathered materials and designed tasks, activities, and assessments to correspond with each color/level. Student interest was piqued as I prepared the bulletin board. I was ready.

On Their Own

The first day of this adventure was built on their anticipation. We spent time discussing elements and expectations. I asked them to consider the bulletin board and describe what they noticed or what they predicted we would be using it for.

Because we live in a college community, many students personally related to the progression. Several had parents who were pursuing a degree or taught at the university level. Other students had friends or family members who were in higher education. In most classes students also tangentially referenced their own goals for their education. This naturally segued to a discussion about what it could all mean for our classroom.

I handed out a study guide to be used as a common resource, then we looked at the yellow station together.

The yellow circle on the bulletin board corresponded to the yellow level on the study guide and to the yellow circle station at the front of the room. At that location were steps that followed this general outline:

  1. Watch a short video or read a given passage (via 1-to-1 technology).
  2. Complete the station’s activity.
  3. Fill out the matching study guide section.
  4. Check the study guide with a posted key.
  5. Study and ask any clarification questions.
  6. Request a quiz. Must score 80% or better to advance.

On that first day I kept emphasizing that students would be able to work at their own pace and decide what their learning would look like. Since so much of our classroom was normally large- and small-group work, many students relished the opportunity to work on their own.

For some students this meant quickly progressing through the topics, and several students surprised me in this area. I expected my advanced students to run with this unit, but there were others who stepped up and loved the competition element or the ownership they had in their learning. By the time they progressed to Continuing Education, they were challenged with enrichment material and acted as classroom consultants for struggling students. Still others worked with partners or in small groups to tackle station elements.

They were individually held accountable when it came to their quizzes, so nearly all the students were motivated to make sure they understood the content and did not just float in the background of a group’s efforts.

Our classroom rules were represented by the acronym PRIDE. Students were empowered by the “I” which stood for integrity; they would make positive choices while allowing me to display my trust in them. If students chose poorly, there were natural consequences.

Because keys were posted for the study guides and all of the station activities, students had the opportunity to cheat, To do so, however, was to their detriment. If they did not understand the material and therefore did not pass the quiz, they had to repeat the steps of the level. Retake quizzes were available as needed.

A benefit of having immediate quiz results was that my time was freed up so I could work with students who were not passing quizzes, had questions, or sought clarification.

The posted keys for the activities gave me time to distribute and assess quizzes as well as work with students who required help. Anytime I had additional adult support in my room, I enlisted their help as well. An undergraduate methods student assisted and my team specialist also participated. Para-educators would be another valuable resource.

Assessments and Outcomes

Quizzes consisted of five questions. A score of 80% or higher was required in order to progress, inspiring them to study. They knew they could get only one question completely incorrect or miss two components worth a half a point each.

When they passed, I handed back their quizzes with a smile and said, “Congratulations! You may progress to the next level!” If not, we looked over their results and students watched a different video and attempted the quiz again. All study guides and quizzes were kept on record in a classroom folder.

I was pleased with the results of this unit; students thrived in an environment that made it possible for them to take ownership of their learning and pace themselves accordingly.

Not only was I satisfied with the outcomes, most students also shared in the excitement. During an exit interview, I asked them if they liked working at their own pace, and more than 85% responded positively with either “kind of” or “a lot.” When asked how they felt they understood the material, 63% said they thought they learned better through this method and 25% indicated that they felt they learned about the same amount.

Although it demanded a great deal of advance preparation, the design of the unit was beneficial to me as a teacher. It organized my teaching. It engaged students and allowed them to work at their own pace. And, it helped me achieve a goal I set for myself as an educator: it challenged each student.

Diane Krueger is an eighth grade English teacher, formerly a seventh grade math teacher, at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2015.


  1. I remember one of my science teachers using a similar progression in middle school. One interesting quirk of her pedagogy was that she gave us a pretest, so that we could start later on in the progression if we were sufficiently advanced. So, for instance, you could skip the “what causes day and night” portion of astronomy and get to more advanced concepts like “what causes the seasons” depending on how well you did.