The Value of Ability Testing in Differentiating Instruction

In my last blog post, I outlined why differentiation is important and how ability tests can provide useful information beyond an achievement test score to support it. Now I’d like to expand more on how ability tests can be practically integrated into a plan for differentiating instruction.

Types of Abilities

Psychologists have spent more than a century exploring the structure of human abilities, identifying broad types of thinking processes as well as innumerable specific types of skills and traits that differ between individuals. However, a few key abilities are useful for the purposes of planning instruction, and general reasoning abilities—otherwise known as fluid reasoning—are likely the most useful of all.

Students have both a general level of reasoning ability as well as specific strengths and weaknesses in different areas of reasoning. Each student’s pattern of reasoning abilities can be connected to differentiated instruction through the specific areas of abilities measured: verbal, quantitative, and figural (abstract) reasoning.

Verbal reasoning abilities are obviously important to education because much of our curriculum is taught using language—reading, listening, and writing. Verbal reasoning can be measured irrespective of native language and includes the ability to infer the meaning of new words, make sense of verbal information, recognize patterns in concepts, and express complex ideas verbally and in writing. 

Quantitative reasoning is not quite as broadly important as verbal reasoning in education, but it is crucial for mathematics and many scientific fields. Quantitative reasoning involves the ability to recognize patterns in numbers and devise strategies for solving quantitative problems. Solving problems involves formal math but also the ability to think about proportionality and probabilities that are important in everyday life, such as adapting a recipe, judging the outcomes of a decision, or managing a budget. 

Figural or abstract reasoning is the least directly tied to education, although it is still quite useful. Figural reasoning is usually measured with abstract and figural representations—for example, shapes and visual patterns or shading—and the problem-solving strategies used are rarely taught in school unless they are part of test preparation activities or “brain puzzle” types of activities. Reasoning with figures again involves recognizing patterns and recognizing or planning problem solutions using abstract figures.

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Adapting Instruction

Every student will have a general level of reasoning ability that is best measured by averaging their performance on various reasoning tasks that sample the content domains I talked about above. A large number of students will also have at least one content domain where they have significantly higher or lower performance than the others. Alongside achievement, information about reasoning ability can help plan instruction. Some examples follow.

Adapting for Below-Average General Reasoning Ability

Description: These students have characteristics that differ from the average student, including difficulty learning abstract concepts, implementing less effective strategies (using more trial and error), and struggling to recognize relationships and similarities beyond surface-level features.

Recommendations: For these students, it is especially critical to build their resilience and to capitalize on their areas of interest to maintain their motivation in learning. Identify and emphasize other competencies these students have, especially when students work in groups. Finally, these students especially benefit from instruction that is tailored to their current achievement level so that instruction is in their zone of proximal development and not far beyond. These students benefit from more concrete instruction with real-life connections and smaller jumps in task difficulty. 

Adapting for Above-Average General Reasoning Ability

Description: These students will generally learn more quickly—or with fewer practice opportunities—than others. They likely have a good memory for facts and identify or create more effective learning strategies.

Recommendations: Because these students learn more quickly than other students, they often benefit from greater autonomy in their learning and possibly from guided discovery methods. Be sure that differentiation for these students provides greater depth or complexity of content within the content standards. Don’t differentiate by providing more of the same types of practice or busy work. Do challenge these students to go beyond the minimum, such as encouraging them to use more precise than vague vocabulary definitions. They should also be expected to go deeper in analyzing a scientific experiment or writing a persuasive argument.

Adapting for a Strength (Significantly Higher Score) in Verbal Reasoning Compared With General

Description: These students have a relatively greater ability to recognize patterns and relationships among words and concepts than they do with other areas of reasoning, such as numbers and figures. These strengths often allow them to excel in the classroom beyond the level of other students with a similar general reasoning ability. This is because a verbal strength allows them to learn more effectively from lectures, reading, and other verbally-demanding instructional approaches. For English learners who demonstrate strength in verbal abilities, this may manifest as an ability to learn English more quickly and benefit from accelerated language instruction.

Recommendations: These students will benefit when they have a chance to talk and write about what they are learning in any content area. These students also usually have a better memory for arbitrary sequences. This makes them higher performers than other students when it comes to spelling and grammar. However, in domains such as mathematics, chemistry, or physics, this skill can allow them to memorize formulas without really understanding them. Be sure to have these students go beyond memorization and demonstrate a full comprehension of formulas.

Adapting for a Weakness (Significantly Lower Score) in Verbal Reasoning Compared With General

Description: These students have a weaker ability to recognize patterns and relationships among words and concepts, which puts them at greater risk than other students with similar general reasoning ability because our school system is so dependent on language. If a student with a verbal weakness is also an English learner (verbal reasoning ability is independent of English proficiency), this is a severe liability because the ability to infer the meaning of new words and to acquire language is so important for their academic success.

Recommendations: Verbal communication is too important to just hope these students can rely on their other strengths. They need focused support to develop their skills in verbal reasoning and learning. Although they may struggle to put their thoughts into words, these students will benefit from being encouraged to do so. A strategy that can help with this process is the think-pair-share strategy which provides these students with more opportunities to plan what they want to say before sharing with the class. They may also want to use concept maps or diagrams to represent their thinking and support writing or speaking about their problem-solving or conceptualization of a learning objective. In other words, the outcome may still be a spoken or written response, but other representations can help these students formulate that response using their relative strengths in quantitative and/or figural reasoning. Where possible, teachers might also allow for visual representations of solutions or class concepts instead of written descriptions.


If you're looking to implement differentiation in the classroom, you can get a complete picture of students' abilities with the CogAT assessment, which measures their Verbal, Quantitative, and Nonverbal reasoning.

The concepts of differentiation using general reasoning ability and specific strengths and weaknesses explored in this post are further covered in the CogAT Guide to Adapting Instruction, available to CogAT adopters via download.