A Multiple Intelligence Approach

About this article

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul reminded us of the variety of God's gifts. How often do we embrace that in our classrooms when it comes to assessment? Fr. Ron Nuzzi introduces Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences in this article from Momentum. Nuzzi goes beyond a generic introduction when he relates these seven kinds of intelligence to Catholic education, particularly when it comes to teaching religion. The article offers examples and current educational research. One sidebar that gives suggestions for assessment activities for each intelligence may be particularly helpful in planning activities for students.

Helping students discover how they are smart should be the goal of assessment.

Is multiple intelligence instruction the way to proceed into the 21st century? Many educators in Catholic settings with whom I have worked remark that the theory reminds them of Paul's words about the variety of God-given gifts (I Cor 12:4–7), suggesting that the theory is more theology than psychology.

What is the theory? It is an alternative view of intelligence proposed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, and first published in his 1983 book Frames of Mind.1 Questioning the traditional measure of intelligence and the use of the single IQ score, Gardner refashioned the definition of intelligence after extended observation and study.

In fact, his work revealed at least seven intelligences, all possessed by every person to some degree, within which the wide spectrum of human potential and giftedness could be understood. Gardner's seven kinds of intelligence are briefly described in the first box at the end of this article.

During the past three years, I have conducted professional development workshops in the United States and Canada on using multiple intelligence theory in Catholic education. With few exceptions the teachers, principals and diocesan personnel in attendance have been genuinely excited about enriching the diversity of classroom teaching by implementing strategies that address the wide range of intelligences found in any student population.

New teachers and catechists who are familiar with the theory found it easy to conceive of alternate approaches to the curriculum and readily engaged in discussion about possible techniques. Veteran faculty quietly acknowledged the wisdom implicit in multiple intelligence teaching and typically received the entire presentation as a theoretical affirmation of the way they have always taught.

Despite their enthusiasm for multiple intelligence applications, educators have a big question relating to practice. That question expresses a fear of many teachers regarding helpful feedback and student evaluations: How do we assess learning based on multiple intelligence instruction?

It is an excellent question, and demonstrates that teachers clearly understand the incompatibility of traditional paper and pencil tests with the insights of multiple intelligence theory. The following example from one elementary school classroom illustrates the problem.

After a thorough introduction to multiple intelligence theory, a fifth-grade teacher decided to change her approach to teaching about the sacraments. Rather than opt for the traditional process of reading the textbook, lecture and follow-up questions, she had the students create a classroom game inspired by the popular Trivial Pursuit.

Their game, Sacrament Pursuit, was to be composed entirely of questions designed by the class. So that the students could learn all they needed to know, the teacher assembled a variety of materials: books, encyclopedias, pictures, filmstrips, musical recordings and videos. A priest was even available to them to answer questions.

The class had received appropriate instruction on multiple intelligence theory and their questions reflected that fact. Some questions were songs: What sacrament is this song about? Others required some bodily movement for an answer: Genuflect. Several questions called for a spoken answer: Who baptized Jesus? Still others necessitated writing or drawing: Draw a symbol for the Holy Spirit.

The students enjoyed the simulation immensely and appeared to have an excellent grasp of the central ideas and key concepts relating to sacraments. However, when the teacher administered the standardized test on this unit, she discovered that her students' performance was much less than she expected.

Clearly, once educators incorporate multiple intelligence strategies into the teaching repertoire, it becomes important to rethink the approach to assessment. In the preface to his book on multiple intelligences and assessment, David Lazear writes:

I believe that a multiple intelligence approach to assessment should grow naturally out of a multiple intelligence approach to curriculum (teaching for multiple intelligences), a multiple intelligence approach to instruction (teaching with multiple intelligences), and a multiple intelligence approach to the learning process (teaching about multiple intelligences).2

Using standardized testing after multiple intelligence instruction creates inconsistency in the learning process. While students in the above example had an exciting time learning and organizing their new knowledge for the game, they were unable to express their cognitive gains through the instrument provided for assessment. Why?

Educational research points to traditional approaches to assessment to answer this question. Specifically, educators have come to rely on a deficit-based approach to assessment in nearly all educational processes.

The deficit-based model emphasizes student failure. It points out what students do not know. It corrects wrong answers after marking them in red. It draws the attention of students, parents and other teachers to those elements of the curriculum that the student has not yet mastered.

Imagine the typical classroom teacher returning graded exams to the class. Students fumble nervously with their papers, quickly scanning them for the grade while rapidly reviewing those answers marked wrong. This situation has led to the maxim that schools have been teaching students how smart they are, when in fact they should be helping students discover how they are smart.

An authentic approach to assessment would not be deficit-based. Rather, it would help students demonstrate what they do in fact know, so that all could see how they are smart.

Howard Gardner laid the foundation for intelligence-based assessments in his recent book, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. He believes that assessment, like intelligence, is highly contextual. Authentic assessment for Gardner includes a mentor or apprentice type of relationship where the students demonstrate their skills and knowledge in the performance of curriculum-based tasks. Gardner writes:

Our society has embraced the formal testing mode to an excessive degree; I contend that aspects of the apprentice model of learning and assessment--which I term "contextualized learning"--could be profitably introduced into our educational system.3

Gardner outlines the general features of a new approach to assessment. As an alternative to standardized testing, Gardner suggests incorporating the following eight ideas:

  • Emphasis on assessment rather than testing
  • Assessment as simple, natural and occurring on a reliable schedule
  • Assessment of valid, actual and necessary knowledge
  • Use of instruments and procedures that respect multiple intelligences
  • Use of multiple measures
  • Sensitivity to individual differences, developmental levels and forms of expertise
  • Use of intrinsically interesting and motivating materials
  • Assessment as an aid to the student

Assessment that integrates Gardner's ideas would provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned and would move well beyond communicating to them where they had failed. Some assessment activities for students in each intelligence are outlined in the second box at the end of this article.

Classroom instruction is undergoing constant change to meet the educational needs of an increasingly diverse student population. As teachers learn to vary their instructional strategies, multiple intelligence theory continues to be one of the most favorably received pedagogical innovations of recent history.

But teachers are finding that adaptations of curriculum and instruction according to this theory are not sufficient. In fact, without appropriate changes in assessment techniques, multiple intelligence teaching can become just another source of frustration for the teacher.

Educators who accept the ideas developed here will probably respond positively to the question opening this article. Authentic assessment for the 21st century means moving away from the formal testing of traditional education to a model that is contextual and intelligence-based.

By teaching for, with and about multiple intelligences, teachers can begin to give shape to assessment strategies that respect the wide range of gifts, talents and intelligence present in their classrooms.

Father Nuzzi, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and an adjunct professor at The University of Dayton, is the author of the recent NCEA publication, Gifts of the Spirit: Multiple Intelligences in Religious Education.


1. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, New York, Basic Books, 1983.

2. David Lazear, Multiple Intelligence Approaches to Assessment: Solving the Assessment Conundrum, Tucson, AZ, Zephyr Press, 1994, p. xiii. Emphasis in the original.

3. Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, Basic Books, New York, 1993, pp.162–163.

Seven kinds of intelligence

  • Linguistic intelligence is the ability to use words and language effectively.
  • Musical intelligence is the ability to perceive and express variations in rhythm, pitch and melody.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to use numbers correctly and to use reason to solve problems.
  • Spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive the physical world clearly and to be able to think in images, pictures and mental illustrations.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to use one's body to express ideas and feelings and to manipulate objects skillfully.
  • Interpersonal intelligence is the skill of understanding, perceiving and appreciating the feelings and moods of others.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to understand one's self, one's strengths and weaknesses, and to direct one's actions through this self-understanding.

Ronald Nuzzi, Gifts of the Spirit: Multiple Intelligences in Religious Education, Washington, DC, National Catholic Educational Association, 96 pp.10–18.

Student Assessment Activities


  • Writing in a journal
  • Answering essay questions
  • Performing memory exercises
  • Participating in debates
  • Developing rhymes as a memory tool
  • Taking oral exams


  • Creating games and simulations
  • Outlining
  • Developing mnemonic devices
  • Creating "Top Ten" categories
  • Taking photographs or making a video
  • Completing acrostic exercises


  • Performing classroom theater or dramatizations
  • Developing a sign language
  • Role playing
  • Demonstrating the proper use of tools or instruments


  • Naming the most important thing learned in a particular unit
  • Telling what you would like to know more about
  • Explaining what personal difference some new knowledge makes for you


  • Creating new lyrics for familiar songs
  • Creating original musical compositions
  • Learning curriculum-based songs
  • Performing a classroom musical


  • Creating collages, posters and murals
  • Creating maps, flowcharts and graphs
  • Designing bulletin boards and school displays
  • Drawing, painting or sculpturing


  • Taking both sides on an issue
  • Teaching a classmate, then trading places
  • Participating in paired or grouped activities
  • Assembling cooperative jigsaws
  • Brainstorming about a topic


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at http://www.ncea.org.

Published April 1, 1997.