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 Flipped Learning

Students supplied with video lectures came to lessons better prepared than when they had been given textbook readings.

(DeGrazia, Falconer, Nicodemus, & Medlin, 2012)

Students preferred live in-person lectures to video lectures, but also liked interactive class time more than in-person lectures.

(Toto & Nguyen, 2009)

According to Bishop & Verleger (2013), who conducted a meta-survey on research into Flipped Learning, there has only been one empirical study on the influence of flipped classroom instruction on objective learning outcomes:

Students in the flipped environment scored significantly higher on homework assignments, projects, and tests.

(Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, 2009)

There is a need for a scientific research base if Flipped Learning is to be taken seriously by decision-makers in schools, colleges and universities.

Additional support for Flipped Learning comes from Clintondale High School, Michigan, USA, which took the extraordinary step of converting to a Flipped School, i.e. Flipped Learning is the sole method employed:

The failure rate among freshman math students dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent in one year’s time.

Finkel (2012)


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. (2009). Criteria for accrediting engineering programs effective for evaluations during the 2010-2011 accreditation cycle. Baltimore, MD.

Bishop, J.L. & Verleger, M.A. (2013). The Flipped Classroom: A survey of the research. 120th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

DeGrazia, J.L., Falconer, J.L., Nicodemus, G., & Medlin, W. (2012). Proceedings from ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition 2012: Incorporating screencasts into chemical engineering courses.

Finkel, E. (2012). Flipping the script in K12. District Administration. Retrieved from

Toto, R. & Nguyen, H. (2009). Proceedings from Frontiers in Education Conference 2009: Flipping the work design in an industrial engineering course. San Antonio, Texas.

Ways to tackle plagiarism

 Some recommendations:

  • Investigate the extent and nature of plagiarism & collusion in your institution.
  • Commission lawyers to investigate related legal issues in your country – copyright, paternity right, database rights, moral rights, data protection, deception/fraud, derogatory treatment.
  • Develop an easy-to-understand definition of plagiarism that is highlighted and clarified. Be aware that there will still be ambiguities.
  • Clarify which kinds of resources may be used without naming author, e.g. collective works such as yearbooks.
  • Develop disciplinary procedures that are transparent to students & staff. Discipline could include learning as well as punishment.
  • If non-compliance is detected, investigate reasons for non-compliance & the intention of the student.
  • Discuss common issues in order to raise awareness, e.g. the thin line between collaboration & collusion.
  • Promote academic integrity as part of Integrity as a desirable quality of all graduates of your institution. Academic staff can lead by example of course.
  • Teach students critical analysis, how to build an argument, citation and referencing skills & provide them with ample practice activities that are discipline-specific. This may be initiated in language & communication subjects, but can continue in all subjects.
  • Put emphasis on teaching students time management skills. Also, avoid giving students multiple concurrent deadlines for submission of work.
  • Invest in detection software and train staff in its use. For deterrence purposes publicise that your institution uses this software but do not advertise its limitations. Decide how the software is going to be used, e.g. random samples or comprehensive checks.
  • Require students to submit written work/images electronically together with a declaration that it is their own work. Establish a searchable database of student work for each course. Make new students aware of the existence of the database. Inform students of the reason for collecting their work (data protection issue).
  • Train academic staff to be sensitive to changes in discourse style.
  • Design assessment tasks that minimize the effectiveness of plagiarism or collusion.



Flipped Learning: Just another teaching template


Task 1: Before reading this article, search for The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the first video entitled Rethinking Space and Time. Answer the following questions:

What is meant by “space”? What is meant by “time”? (Suggested answers are at the end of this entry.)



In this article, the Flipped Learning pedagogical approach will be clarified and evaluated for its advantages and limitations according to available empirical evidence and through critical reflection upon its underlying assumptions. The author aims to show that Flipped Learning is neither revolutionary nor a universal remedy for under-performance in study environments. It does not constitute a method or approach but merely a template or framework for arranging work before and during face-to-face lessons. However, Flipped Learning does have several strengths and, in combination with more recently available learning technologies and complimentary approaches, represents one of many legitimate options for well-informed educators. This blog entry then goes on to provide examples of good practice and practical suggestions for educators who opt to experiment with Flipped Learning in their school or university.

“school work at home, homework at school”

What is Flipped Learning?   

This has been explained elsewhere so I will be concise. The simple definition provided above is memorable but a more precise one has been provided by the Flipped Learning Network, an online association of Flipped Learning practitioners:

“Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides [my emphasis] students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

In many descriptions of this approach, a caricature contrast is drawn between the ‘Traditional Classroom’ where the teacher acts as a ‘Sage on the Stage’ and the ‘Flipped Classroom’ where the teacher is a ‘Guide on the Side”. The sage is associated with transmission of knowledge, passive learning and content-coverage, in other words direct instruction. The guide is associated with learner collaboration, active learning and learning by discovery. The guide’s teaching style is underpinned by constructivist learning theory.

For such a major role shift to occur, homework tasks, which traditionally have been employed to consolidate knowledge acquired during face-to-face lessons, become the main classroom activity. Conversely, the input of new knowledge, instead of being the major focus of lessons, is designated for pre-class study.

However, students are not left to pre-study in isolation without support. For this pre-class phase, the teacher supplies a package of self-study materials to learners, typically short video presentations of key concepts. Students watch these videos at home and complete self-checking quizzes until they believe they comprehend. This means that valuable face-to-face time with the teacher can be devoted to a variety of activities that allow pupils to apply the ideas and extend their knowledge through, for example, case studies, interactive labs, project work or collaborative problem-solving. The teacher is present to monitor, provide guidance and feedback on tasks that activate higher order thinking skills.

Below are two illustrations of Flipped Learning, the first portraying the process and the second showing how it relates to Bloom’s Taxonomy.




Source: Williams, B. (2013). How I flipped my classroom. NNNC Conference, Norfolk, NE.

Flipped Learning is thus intended to be a sub-category of blended learning, i.e. partially face-to-face and partially online. With the advent of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, learners may complete their pre-class work at a time and location that is convenient for them, and will hopefully begin to adopt a more opportunistic learning habit as a consequence.

Origins of Flipped Learning

Some educators react that Flipped Learning is nothing new. For instance, a literature teacher once commented to this author that he routinely asks his students to prepare for class by reading a chapter of the set text and answering surface level comprehension questions. Preliminary homework is also a feature of the method called ‘Team-based Learning’ (TBL) that was devised by Michaelsen, Knight and Fink (2004). (However, TBL in my view is unethical in that students are tested and graded on their preparatory studies with insufficient input and support from their teachers.)

Perhaps though, Mastery Learning is the true precursor of Flipped Learning.  Diagnostic pre-assessment and high quality group-based instruction are also features of this method devised by Bloom (1971). Mastery Learning was researched more rigorously than many other educational methods and results in terms of impact on learning were impressive. However, in the 1970s and 1980s there were practical hurdles to overcome when it came to implementing Mastery Learning. At the time it was criticized for being labour-intensive for teachers and unworkable with large classes of students.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took a revolutionary step in 2001 by opening its huge archive of online lecture recordings to the general public. This spurred interest in free online learning and has led to the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are accessible through gateway websites such as Udacity, Coursera, edX and FutureLearn.

In 2007, Bergmann and Sams reported on their pedagogical experimentation in a US high school environment and have since become the authors of two popular books about Flipped Learning (see references). They have described their experiences in detail, focusing on the impact on individual learners. Their view of Flipped Learning is interesting in that they regard it as a catalyst for shifting from a teacher-centred to a student-centred pedagogical paradigm. I would argue that there is a time and place when teacher-centredness is advantageous and that the real goal is learning-centredness. (Please see my tongue-in-cheek entry on Learning-Based Learning for more about my perspective.)

At the time of writing, Flipped Learning remains a popular topic in education. There is particularly strong interest in Flipped Learning in the university sector, where educators are more likely to be required to deliver lengthy lectures and feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the format. Instead of making lectures interactive though, which is a perfectly viable option, they have decided to switch to a method that relegates lectures to homework.

Advantages and disadvantages of Flipped Learning


Pros Cons
1.       Students are able to watch short preparatory video lectures at their own pace and convenience. 1.       Video presentations lack the fidelity and subtleties of face-to-face lessons. Also, some learners will not watch the videos before lessons. The traditional lecture format and transmission model of learning are likely to be maintained.
2.       Teachers are present when students attempt to apply concepts, and can monitor and intervene as and when necessary to support learners. 2. Teachers are not present when students attempt to understand concepts and they cannot immediately react to students’ misconceptions.
3.       Short video lectures can be accompanied by self-checking quizzes. Students can attempt the quizzes as frequently as they wish. 3. If students give incorrect answers to self-checking quizzes, they may not understand why they are wrong.
4.       Students may work at their own pace through the video lectures and accompanying self-checking exercises. This is differentiation according to learning rates. 4. Students are typically provided with only one path to learning the key concepts, i.e. via the short video lectures. This is not differentiation according to modalities.*
5.       In Flipped Learning, there is a logical progression from the comprehension of concepts and rules to their application. 5. Flipped Learning assumes that learning should be deductive in nature. Sometimes, however, it is valuable for learners to discover concepts and rules by looking for patterns in examples.
6.       In order to create video lectures, there are many simple-to-use applications available nowadays. 6. IT skills and facilities vary considerably according to different learning environments. Teachers must ensure that all students have access to the video lectures outside the classroom.
7.       In this method, there is a strong emphasis on mastering content knowledge. 7. It is not as convincing that this method could help learners to master procedural knowledge, i.e. skills.
8.       Lectures are replaced by self-study so that students come to class armed with pre-requisite knowledge to explore concepts more deeply. 8. The role of seminars, tutorials and lab classes to explore concepts more fully and apply knowledge seems
to have been forgotten.


*Of course, teachers do not need to limit the type of pre-lesson study materials to video lectures. They could also indicate relevant pages of textbooks or provide links to pertinent websites.


Compensating for the disadvantages of Flipped Learning

The Flipped Learning Network (  claims that adherence to four principles is conducive to the quality of instruction.

  1. Flexible learning environment
  • Spaces and time frames that permit students to interact and reflect on their learning
  • Continual monitoring of students to make adjustments as appropriate
  • Provision of alternative ways to learn content and demonstrate mastery
  1. Learning culture
  • Opportunities to engage in meaningful, student-centred activities
  • Activities that are accessible to all learners thanks to scaffolding, differentiation and feedback
  1. Intentional content
  • Highlighting of key concepts in direct instruction
  • Creation and/or curation of relevant content, e.g. videos
  • Differentiation to make content accessible to all learners
  1. Professional educator
  • Availability to all students
  • Conductor of formative assessment
  • Collaboration with other educators in the spirit of ongoing development

The author considers these as general principles of good teaching and not specific to Flipped Learning. A more advisable approach would be an eclectic one, utilising methods as and when they are appropriate to the learning situation. There is no need to place Flipped Learning on a pedestal and use it whatever learning situation is encountered.


Task 2: Go back The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the second video entitled Overcoming Common Hurdles and complete the following task:

List three solutions to problems implementing Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)

Resources for Flipped Learning


Task 3: Return to The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the fifth video entitled Which Tech Tools Are Right for You? and complete the following task:

List three types of technology that are needed for Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)


Learning Management Systems (LMSs) aka Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are secure, help teachers to organise content, provide numerous tools including online quiz creation and have the capability to track student progress. Universities usually subscribe to an LMS but there are also open-source options. Here are three suggestions:

Software applications to produce videos are plentiful but here are three unusual and interesting ones:

Teachers will need somewhere to store videos. Of course, YouTube is an option but here are three alternative free online hosting depositories:

Final thoughts on Flipped Learning

I am going to be so bold as to make an analogy, and I hope it is a close one, between Flipped Learning and a template for writing a cover letter. If I adhered to a recommended cover letter template and were shortlisted for interview, I would not conclude that it was the cover letter template alone that had brought me success. There was also the content, the paragraphing, the skillful use of language, application of accurate and complex grammatical structures, appropriate vocabulary, etc. So, why, in judging the outcomes of Flipped Learning, is it just this “template” that is considered the sole factor. Teaching skills and content, the ability of the instructor to motivate learners, positive interactions with and between learners, these are factors that make the real difference between successful and not-so-successful courses. Flipped Learning is just a template or framework to be used or discarded at the discretion of well-informed and trained teachers.


Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2014). Flipped learning: Gateway to student engagement. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bloom, B. S. (1971). Mastery learning. In J. H. Block (Ed.), Mastery learning: Theory and practice (pp. 47–63). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bretzmann, J. (2013). Flipping 2.0: Practical strategies for flipping your class. Bretzmann Group LLC.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L.D. (2004). Team-based-learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.


Suggested answers to tasks

Task 1: “Space” = classroom layout that is suitable for interactive group work ; “Time” = best use of face-to-face classroom time if concepts have already been learnt before the lesson.

Task 2: i) Provide flashdrives or DVDs to students who do not have Internet access at home;

  1. ii) Keep videos short so that students can concentrate optimally;

iii) Do not worry about creating perfect videos.

Task 3: i) Video cameras (even a smartphone’s)

  1. ii) Screencasting programmes

iii) Whiteboarding apps for tablets

Hong Kong secondary curriculum renewal: Challenges and successes

Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has revised its school curricula (with a knock-on effect on universities as well).

I was present during the process from 2007 onwards. From 2013 to 2015, I was working in a university and was therefore in a good position to follow the progress of students from secondary to tertiary education.

In the Prezi below, I report reactions of school principals to the processes of introducing the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum, the perceived challenges and successes.

To clarify the last part of the presentation, which refers to the connectivity between secondary and tertiary education, I have observed that Hong Kong universities do not really value students’ portfolios of other learning experiences, they are much more concerned about academic results. Secondly, the learning objectives of first-year foundation programmes at universities in terms of the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, too closely resemble those of the core NSS subject Liberal Studies. Also, IELTS seems to be supplanting NSS English because the latter is not yet firmly established.

The formative and summative assessment disambiguator

Assessment for learning

Assessment of  learning

Also known as…

Formative assessment

Summative assessment


To  diagnose student difficulties in reaching learning objectives; To identify student strengths that can be built upon; To inform future learning and teaching. To measure and summarise student achievement of learning objectives in the form of grades; To inform selection procedures for, e.g. promotion, entrance to higher education, employment.


Formal or informal (ad hoc)



Prior to / During school term

During / At end of school term








Specific, qualitative feedback in the form of evaluative comments on performance or   highlighted descriptors on a criteria marking scheme.  Students are provided with constructive and concrete advice on how to improve, time and opportunities for further development and practice. Scores   may be given to show students the result they would have achieved in a ‘real’ test, but the scores do not contribute to grades. Students should absorb teachers’ comments fully before seeing scores. Feedback is optional. If the students are going to do a similar test/exam in future,   then feedback could serve a formative purpose. If the test/exam content is the last time they will be tested on this, then of course no feedback, just grades. If the summative assessment is criterion-referenced, then students can refer to the   criteria marking scheme to understand what the grade implies about their   capabilities, but there is nothing they can do to change their grade.

Feedback providers

Self / Peers / Teacher

Teacher / Examiner

Understanding learning goals

Enhances student understanding of learning objectives, criteria, standards, etc. Merely checks student ability to meet learning objectives




Learning-based Learning

LBLDuring the years that I have worked in higher education I have witnessed several passing methodological “bandwagons” onto which educators have jumped, and a little later jumped off (or surreptitiously slipped off ). For example, in recent times Flipped Classroom has become very trendy. A few years ago, there were high hopes for Second Life Virtual Learning.

For your reference, here is an A-Z of methods, or “Learnings”:

Action Active Adventure Applied Case-based Challenge-based Collaborative Community-based Competency-based Computer-assisted Concept-based Content-based Context-based Crossover Digital Discovery E-Enquiry/Inquiry-based Experiential Exploratory Flip (or Flipped Classroom) Game-based Hands-on Holistic Humanistic Incidental M-/Mobile Mastery Online Problem-based Programmed Project-based Second Life Virtual Service Situated Skills-based Student-centered Task-based Team-based Technology-based Web-based Work-based

Have I missed any?

I asked myself why such methods could hold attraction for educators and on what bases they should be selected.

One can see the apparent attractions of employing a method for teaching and learning. Both teachers and students should become comfortable with the routines and processes involved. Teachers should feel happy and confident because they know their chosen method was carefully designed to be consistent with à la mode learning theory. Institutions should feel happy because they can advertise their use of modern, scientifically proven, methods. The creators of the methods should be delighted with their influence on the quality of learning (and the royalties from sales of their methodology books).

The problem though is that so far no single method that has been proposed is able to suit all learning environments. Particularly with those methods that are based on something, e.g. problems, cases or skills, by adopting one method the educator is immediately restricting options.

Here however, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I make the bold claim that my own method – Learning-based Learning or LBL™ * overcomes this difficulty by encompassing all of the other “Learnings”. LBL is amazing because it eliminates the need to think of the other methods as mutually exclusive, rival solutions.

In LBL, teachers are aware of all the above “Learnings” and select elements of them according to their judgment of the needs in particular learning circumstances, and for particular learners.

LBL is complemented by another method – Teaching-based Teaching or TBT™ – in which the capability to adopt LBL by untrained teachers, for example the majority of university professors, is enhanced through the requirement that, besides attending workshops about learning and teaching, they also progress through a substantial and rigorous teaching practicum. Thus, the connection between pedagogical theory and practice is strengthened in their minds through the inculcation of career-long reflective practice. Those teachers gradually become more sensitive to what is going on in their classrooms and better able to teach reactively, to teach in response to learning environments that are in constant flux. Armed also with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the methods, they can pick and choose from them in an informed and effective manner.

*LBL and TBT are not really trademarked