Does Differentiated Instruction belong in higher education?

The arguments for…

  1. In higher education, learners are predominantly adults with a clearer idea of what they wish to learn compared with children. According to the adult learning theory devised by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s that popularised the term ‘andragogy’ (vs ‘pedagogy’), one characteristic of adult learners’ motivation is the willingness to learn when the subject matter is relevant to their perceived needs. In this regard, differentiated instruction (DI) offers an advantage in that, amongst the repertoire of DI strategies are some which differentiate content of learning for individual students. As an example, following a pre-test of relevant knowledge, lecturers can ‘curriculum compact’, i.e. excuse a learner from studying particular content because they have already exhibited sufficient mastery, thus buying time for them to acquire other knowledge. A second DI strategy that applies here is the ‘learning contract’, the negotiation of which factors in a student’s needs and interests. So, DI does offer a range of techniques to tailor courses for individual adult learners.
  2. At colleges, polytechnics and universities, student populations are often highly diverse. Besides readiness, interest and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2005), there are numerous other factors that distinguish students from each other:
  • nationality
  • physical disability
  • specific learning disorder, e.g. dyspraxia
  • age
  • gender
  • socioeconomic status
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • mode of study, e.g. part-time
  • etc.

In this situation, it can be argued that the question is not whether such diversity should be catered for but how it should be catered for, and DI is a rare example of a systematic yet versatile response that is available to higher education lecturers.

  1. Educators in higher education can draw confidence from the insights gained by researchers who have looked into the impact of DI in school-level education. There have been positive findings about the effect of DI on motivation, for example. (For a list of key findings about DI, see my blog entry on the topic.) Although it may be retorted that primary and secondary level education is not sufficiently relatable to higher education, it is interesting to note that in other areas, research discoveries from elementary and high school education are highly respected at university level, e.g. Black & Wiliam’s seminal work on the effectiveness of formative assessment.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with positive results. As an example, Ernst & Ernst (2005) reported that “students generally responded favorably to the differentiated approach, reporting higher levels of intellectual growth”.

The arguments against…

  1. Another assumption about adult learners in Knowles’ andragogy theory runs counter to the one of the main tenets of differentiated instruction. Adult learners, says Knowles, need to be self-directed in their learning whereas in DI, the person making decisions about learning is usually the instructor, with some input from learners. Since DI was developed for younger learners, the element of control by teachers is stronger than one would expect to encounter in university settings.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with negative results. In the same paper, Ernst & Ernst (2005), flags were raised about the increased time commitment needed to implement DI and it was reported that “instructor’s concerns related to the fairness of the approach”.
  3. There are alternatives to DI such as Universal Design for Learning and the increased use of Technology-Enhanced Learning in order to accommodate individual learning differences.
  4. Compared with school teachers, university lecturers may not always know their students that well. This is because student cohorts may be large, contact hours may be lower, and students may go AWOL from time to time. If the lecturers are not that well informed about the learners, then any attempt at differentiated instruction would be based upon assumptions. By contrast, primary/elementary school teachers will have much greater opportunity to find about their learners and therefore apply DI more meaningfully.

So, what to do? Adopt or ignore DI?

As I have proposed in another blog entry, entitled Can differentiated instruction lead to self-directed learning?, I suggest that DI could serve as an interim measure in higher education. There may be many university students who are already self-directed but, given the increased access to higher education compared with a generation ago, it is reasonable to suppose that a more directive approach such as DI could be appropriate on occasion and for particular learners.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy, Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Key research findings about Differentiated Instruction

A model of differentiation like Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (click here for more information) contains numerous instructional strategies which may be employed independently or in concert and in many possible combinations. This makes such a model very difficult to research and evaluate. Saying that, below are some fairly recent findings that I found interesting, and I hope you will, too.

Tiered ability grouping combined with differentiated learning materials increases the gap in achievement between lower and higher ability students.

Lower ability students’ achievement is enhanced through collaboration with higher ability classmates.

Schofield, J.W. (2010). International evidence on ability grouping with curriculum differentiation and the achievement gap in secondary schools. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1492 – 1528.

The concept of ‘learning styles’ is insufficiently clear or evidenced, and therefore should not be a deciding factor when differentiating instruction.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K.A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6 – 17.

Differentiated Instruction has a positive effect on student engagement and motivation.

Konstantinou-Katzi, P., Tsolaki, E., Maletiou-Mavrotheris, M., & Koutselini, M. (2012). Differentiation of teaching and learning mathematics: an action research study in tertiary education. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 44(3), 332 – 349.

Educational technology shows promise as a means to make the differentiation of instruction and provision of individualised formative feedback more feasible and practical.

Scalise, K. et al. (2007). Adaptive technology for e-learning: principles and case studies of an emerging field. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (14), 2295 – 2309.

Many teachers report that they lack “the time, the skill and the will” to utilise DI strategies. This situation could be ameliorated through support from curriculum developers and publishers of educational materials.

Hertberg-Davis, H. (2009). Myth 7: Differentiation in the regular classroom is equivalent to gifted programs and is sufficient: Classroom teachers have the time, the skill, and the will to differentiate adequately. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53, 251-253.



Can Differentiated Instruction lead to Self-Directed Learning?

My question in this entry is whether Differentiated Instruction (DI) can be justified for the opportunity it offers to kick-start and scaffold the process of becoming a self-directed learner.

Differentiated instruction (DI) comprises a set of instructional strategies that teachers employ selectively to address the diverse learning needs of students. For a more complete account, kindly click here.

DI is controversial. For example, consider this quotation from Colin Everest: “Differentiation is just another pressure meted out by managers… Apparently I must use a variety of methods at every turn and I must present every topic through a variety of methods and approaches.” It can create an extra burden for teachers and so needs to be justified with compelling evidence that it is a worthwhile investment of teachers’ energy and time, and compares favourably with alternative approaches in terms of impact on learning.

However, leaving that debate aside, I propose that DI may merit consideration because of its relatedness to Self-Directed Learning (SDL).

In adopting DI, a teacher proactively plans varied approaches to…

  • what students need to learn,
  • how they will learn it, and
  • how they can express what they have learned

…in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible.

(Tomlinson, 2003)

By analogy, I contend that, in becoming self-directed a learner takes charge of…

  • what s/he needs to learn,
  • how s/he will learn it, and
  • how s/he can express what s/he has learned

…in order to increase the likelihood that s/he will learn as much as s/he can as efficiently as possible.

My portrayal of SDL is not too distant from Knowles’ (1975) definition of it as “a process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

In both DI and SDL, the element of choice is central, and informed choice at that. The difference is that in DI, it is the teacher making choices, and in SDL it is primarily the learner’s responsibility.

To make effective choices, the teacher or learner needs to be aware of the learner’s…

  • readiness to learn at particular levels of challenge,
  • degree of interest in learning topics,
  • background factors such as culture, gender and educational heritage, and
  • (more controversially) learning styles.

Following the learning, there is reflection and evaluation by the teacher and learner, and adjustments to future learning are made as a consequence.

I envisage teachers using DI in the early years of instruction, with the teacher making their decisions transparent to learners, followed by progressive transfer of control to learners as the students advance through their school careers. Perhaps in the last years of secondary/high school, the learners may be making most of the decisions about their own learning, thus exercising metacognitive skills prior to entry to higher education or the workplace.

Here is a very simple depiction of what I am imagining:



Do you think this is worthwhile exploring or researching? I welcome reactions….


Everest, C. (2003, February 18). Differentiation, the new monster in education. Retrieved from

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2003). Differentiating instruction for academic diversity. In J.M. Cooper (Ed.), Classroom teaching skills. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Differentiated instruction (DI) – a strong rationale, but does it really work?

“We do not teach a group, but thirty separate people.  Because of this, the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and it is the idea of teaching a unitary lesson that seems odd”. (Rinvolucri, 1986)

Rinvolucri’s realization is a common one. In fact, advocates of DI go further, suggesting that it is not just abilities that vary between learners but also degrees of interest and learning styles. All of these variations, it is argued, beg a considered and positive response from the teaching profession. The movement towards catering for all learners also gains support from the fact that in many countries equal access to educational opportunities is enshrined in law.

DI defined

Differentiated instruction is an attempt at a systematic response to learner differences, a framework to help teachers move away from ‘teaching to the middle’. Tailoring lessons for the middle band of students in a class results in some students being over challenged, some under challenged, some unable to gain access to key concepts, and many demotivated. By contrast, with differentiated instruction the aim is to arrange lessons so that all students progress towards desired learning outcomes but reach them in ways that are personally suitable. Lecturers and teachers try to make it possible for all learners to acquire course content, make sense of ideas, and develop learning products that are compatible with their learning profiles.

Historical development of DI

Differentiated instruction is by no means a new phenomenon. Teachers have always practised some degree of differentiation simply by noticing which students require more or less challenge and by asking them different questions. But as a systematic response with a ‘package’ of strategies it is fairly recent. It has been around since the 1980s when it was introduced for the sake of gifted students, and it has received fresh impetus with the move to include students with disabilities into general education classrooms. The cultural make-up of classrooms has also become very diverse with the presence of immigrants and international students. In the United States’ public school system for instance, differentiated instruction has been applied at all levels for students of all abilities. Moreover, it is now an accepted part of pre-service training for teachers in many parts of the world, especially North America, Europe and Australasia.

Supporters of DI

Differentiated instruction has a number of proponents. Key writers on the subject are Susan Winnebrenner (1992, 1996) and Carol Ann Tomlinson (2000). The former writes about particular types of learners, e.g. those with learning difficulties, whereas the latter provides a particularly clear overview. Tomlinson’s book – How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms – is available from the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) in the USA.

Evidence for the value of DI

Tomlinson claims support for her version of differentiated instruction by drawing conclusions from research into teaching and learning:

  1. Learners must make sense of what teachers seek to impart, and this process is influenced by prior knowledge, interests, beliefs, learning styles, and attitudes about self and the place of learning. (National Research Council, 1990)
  2. Learning takes place effectively where knowledge is well-organised, students are actively engaged in the learning process, a variety of testing instruments are employed, and students feel secure and have a sense of belonging to their learning environment. (National Research Council, 1990)
  3. The degree of challenge must be just enough to push learners slightly beyond their independence level. (Vygotsky, 1962)
  4. Motivation to learn increases when students are interested in what they are trying to learn. (Piaget, 1978)
  5. People learn in different ways influenced by factors such as brain architecture, culture and gender. (Delpit, 1995; Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985)

The implications, suggests Tomlinson, are that teachers need to provide learning experiences that encourage students to work in their preferred fashion, are motivating, and challenge them appropriately. Additional support for differentiated instruction comes from classroom examples and testimonials from satisfied students and convinced instructors. However, empirical validation of the full model of differentiated instruction is rather lacking. It is an area that warrants future research.

Introducing DI to Schools: A Hong Kong Case Study

I assisted with action research conducted by teaching staff at Hong Kong secondary schools from 2007-1012. The school leaders were intrigued by DI because the approach appeared to be consistent with their institutions’ mission statements such as “[School name] educators should try to handle each one in the way she is made.” Following a series of training workshops to introduce the approach, teachers were given freedom to experiment in their classrooms for one academic year after which principals and vice-principals observed lessons.

The DI strategies that teachers found more immediately useable were as follows: varied questioning, tiered activities, concept-based teaching and minilessons. It was observed that diagnostic pre-assessments were employed insufficiently at first, but when they were introduced, the following strategies became more workable: curriculum compacting and flexible grouping. As peer feedback became common practice in the school, other strategies became practical, namely peer mentoring and jigsaw activities.

Question for teachers

In your experience of using DI, has it really had an impact on learning and grades?


Delpit, L. (1995) Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. The New Press.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books.

National Research Council (1990) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. NationalAcademy Press.

Piaget, J. (1978) Success and understanding. HarvardUniversity Press.

Rinvolucri, M. (1986) Strategies for a mixed ability group. Practical English Teaching, Vol 7/1.

Sternberg, R. (1985) Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2000) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). LB3061.3 Tom

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and language. MIT Press.

Winnebrenner, S. (1992) Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Free Spirit Publishing.

Winnebrenner, S. (1996) Teaching kids with learning difficulties in the regular classroom. Free Spirit Publishing.