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Providing Curriculum Alternatives
to Motivate Gifted Students
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC EC Digest #E524
Authors: Susan Winebrenner and Sandra Berger
How to get the best performance from every student is a
challenging task, especially in classrooms where there
are many different levels of ability. Often, students
who are gifted are not challenged to perform to their full
capacity because they seem to be doing just fine.
Unfortunately, these students may never achieve their
potential because they have not had complex tasks and
have never learned to really work. This digest presents
two strategies to help highly able students get more out
of school. Teachers may find that the following
strategies enable them to challenge and motivate not
only gifted students, but also other students who have
talents and abilities in specific areas.
Strategies for Motivating Students to Work and Learn
Gifted students benefit from participating in
activities that are different from those designed for
other students. Such alternative activities should
extend basic concepts and allow students to connect
their personal interests to the course curriculum.
Extra credit activities should be avoided as they send a
message that more work is required. Two strategies that
are helpful to teachers in managing alternative
activities are compacting and contracts.
Compacting. Students who demonstrate
spend less time with the regular curriculum and more time
with extension and enrichment opportunities.
Contracts. Written agreements between
students that outline what students will learn, how they
will learn it, in what period of time, and how they will be
evaluated. Contracts allow students to engage actively
in the decision-making process, directing their course
of study (Parke, 1989, pp.70-71).
Guidelines for Compacting
The following guidelines are useful for pretestable
subject areas where students move between an
instructional group and extension activities.
- At the beginning of a unit, provide opportunities for interested
students to demonstrate mastery in some way. The same activity may
be used for postassessment.
- Students who achieve a specified criterion or grade attend class only
on the days when instruction includes concepts they have not mastered.
On those occasions, they become part of the regular class and
participate in assigned activities.
- For each student who achieves a specified criterion level on the
preassessment activity, prepare a contract listing required concepts,
enrichment options, and specified working conditions. Check only
the topics students have not mastered so they know when to join the
The following guidelines are useful when material may
not be pretestable because it is unfamiliar to students.
Compacting is still required because gifted students
need less time than their age peers to learn new material.
- Prepare a study guide that includes the same concepts for which all
students will be responsible.
- Offer the study guide opportunity to all students who have exhibited
easy mastery of previous topics. Eligible students will be expected
to learn the study guide material, but it is understood that they
will spend the majority of their school time working on their
extension tasks. Students should not be required to write out the
answers for the content of the study guide. They may use any means
they choose to learn the material, but must be able to demonstrate
- Include dates when students must meet with the rest of the class to
demonstrate their competence with the required concepts. Students
who do not demonstrate competence must return to work with the class
for the rest of the unit.
Thus, during a specific unit of time, students are moving back and forth
between the teacher directed group and independent work on extension activities.
Guidelines for Contracts
The following guidelines are useful for pretestable
subject areas where students are moving between
instructional group and extension activities.
- In one section of the contract, list the concepts or outcomes that
the whole class will learn. In another section of the contract,
list a variety of alternative or extension activities from which
students may choose. These activities may be developed by the
teacher, the student, or both. If extension activities are
developed solely by the teacher, options should include "Your
original idea" so that students can link their personal interests
with the required curriculum. Ideas designed by the student must
have teacher approval.
- Students work on alternative activities on the days when the class
is learning concepts they have previously mastered.
- Students should be responsible for documenting their time. One
option is to ask students to keep a log of their activities on the
days they are not working with the rest of the class. Set guidelines
for those activities.
- Student outcomes or grades result from a combination of work completed
with the class and a posttest or postassessment activity. The section
on Guidelines for Evaluation of Alternative Work provides details.
The following guidelines are useful for subject areas
that may not be pretestable because material is
unfamiliar to students. In this case, teachers use a
study guide with an independent study agreement,
illustrated on the reverse.
- Provide students with a study guide that contains a list of expected
outcomes for a unit, which they may choose to achieve independently.
Instead of working with the regular class, these students will research
and present information about an alternative topic related to the
general theme or unit.
- Students work on the extended activity in school during the time the
class is working with the regular content. Thus, the activity becomes
their real work for the class period.
- Students sign an agreement similar to the following illustration.
Independent Study Agreement
The following terms are agreed to by teacher and student:
The student may learn the key concepts or the information
the study guide independently.
The student must demonstrate mastery at appropriate checkpoints to
continue this arrangement for the rest of the unit.
The student must participate in selected group activities when one
day's notice is given by the teacher.
The student agrees to complete an independent project by (date) to
share with the class.
Project description: ___________________ .
The student agrees to work on the selected project
according to the following guidelines while the
remainder of the class is involved with the teacher.
A similar agreement may be used with all independent study activities.
The prototype may be used for ideas on what to include, or teachers
may use their own ideas. Students rejoin the large group for special
experiences in which all students should participate.
- Students who do not work on their alternative activity or do not honor
the working conditions of the agreement are required to rejoin the
class for the duration of the unit.
- Students present their project to the class at an appropriate time.
Written work is not required. Students are expected to present a talk
of 7-10 minutes, accompanied by at least one visual aid. Or, students
may negotiate a suitable means of demonstrating to the class what has
- Evaluation or grading alternatives are described in the section that
follows on Guidelines for Evaluation of Alternative Work.
Guidelines for Evaluation of Alternative Work
The following guidelines are useful for pretestable subject areas where
students are moving between instructional group and extension activities.
- Alternative student work is more easily managed when student activities
require more than one class period to complete. In mathematics, for
example, students might research the real world applications of the
course content, work with various number bases, or investigate the
lives of famous mathematicians. In writing or English classes,
students might work on more complex or open-ended writing assignments,
or investigate the writing style of several authors.
- When eligible students work on alternative activities, the goal should
be to provide them with opportunities to master challenging tasks.
They would earn the same credit as if they had completed the regular
tasks as long as they adhere to the agreed-upon working conditions.
The following guidelines are useful for subjects that may not be
pretestable because material is unfamiliar to students.
- Alternative work extends the regular curriculum. Therefore, extension
projects should earn at least a grade of B or the equivalent because
the students are going beyond what is required.
- All criteria for evaluation should be presented and understood before
students begin an extended activity. Teacher expectations should be
- Students earn a grade of B if the completed work represents typical
research that merely reports secondary sources and if the presentation
is properly made to an appropriate audience.
- Students earn a grade of A if the completed work represents unique or
creative research, provides evidence of primary sources, represents
an interesting or unusual synthesis of available data, or the material
is presented in an original manner.
- It is important for students to understand that they need to be
working productively during school time. If they do not follow the
expected working conditions, they need to rejoin the regular
instructional group and may be required to make up some of the
regular work. If students become immersed in the topic and wish
to continue beyond the expected date, they must provide a progress
report at regular intervals.
- If point systems, rubrics, or holistic assessment methods are used
for other activities, these methods may also be used to evaluate
students' extended projects. Students may become engaged in the
creation of the scoring rubrics and evaluate their own work as the
project progresses by measuring their project against the rubric
criteria. Responsibility for evaluating student work is then
shared between teacher and students.
Effective teachers at all grade levels have found that
students differ in the ways they learn best and therefore
learn better when teachers vary approaches to learning.
Compacting and contracts make it possible for teachers
to present alternative activities to highly capable
learners that are challenging, promote cognitive
growth, and are based on student interests. Regular use
of compacting and contracts will benefit not only gifted
students, but also provide interesting educational
opportunities for the entire class.
Parke, B. N. (1989). Gifted Students in Regular Classrooms. Needham Heights, MA:
Allyn & Bacon.
Reis, S., & Renzulli, J. (1992). "Using curriculum compacting to challenge the
above-average." Educational Leadership, 50 (2), 51-57.
Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom.
Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
Note: This digest was developed from Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular
Classroom by Susan Winebrenner.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely
reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication
was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, under Contract No. RI93002005. The opinions expressed in
this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department
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