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.

Motivation for secondary/high school students

During my years in schools, it has been my observation that motivation is a particular challenge for students aged 14-16. This view is based upon my experience as a teacher and teacher trainer in Japan, the UK, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Whether learners are in secondary or high schools, this age group must study a broad range of subjects, some of which they enjoy and others not, according to individual interest and other factors, e.g. the syllabus, the learning and teaching methods but perhaps most importantly, the qualities of their teachers. Twelve and thirteen year olds, by contrast, are still fresh to the “big school” and seem more content to follow a prescribed diet of studies. Seventeen and eighteen year olds are focused on school leaving examinations. Of course I am generalising but I do think it is worthwhile to reconsider how to stimulate the enthusiasm of 14-16 year olds.

Option 1 is to tell them to be motivated, basically. It has not failed to amaze me that many teachers act like motivational speakers and assume that pep talks work. Maybe they do, I do not have data to contradict that assumption. However, I have observed this approach meeting a stony silence from many adolescents. They may be at an age when it is just not cool to follow adults’ advice. However, in some environments this is the accepted way to encourage learners.

Option 2 is for teachers to strive to make their subject as fascinating as possible. For some disciplines, for example language arts, there is flexibility over choice of content. So, some teachers work hard to research their learners’ interests and select, e.g. reading texts that are more likely to be engaging and provoke a reaction. Skilled teachers of all disciplines can also spice up lessons through clever task design, making the learning interactive and fun in spite of the students’ indifference to the lesson topics. This is basically my approach, too, but I admit that it doesn’t always work.

Therefore, I wondered whether I could get learners in this age group to reflect upon different types of motivation and come to the realisation that a particular school subject may still be worth applying themselves to even if they don’t have interest per se. I put together a session for learners with some tasks to complete that hopefully led them to this realisation. My workshop was entitled Motivating yourself to learn and its objectives were as follows:

  • Realise what motivates you to study
  • Understand definitions of types of motivation
  • Become aware of connections between subjects studied and types of motivation
  • Find reasons for positive attitudes to studying all subjects

The description of four types of motivation is debatable, of course. There are rival theories of motivation with different categories but I felt that these 4 types were accessible enough to 14-16 year olds.

I attach the learning materials Motivation_HO1 Motivation_HO2 Motivation_HO3 Motivation_HO4 and PPT show Motivating yourself to learn from that workshop for your consideration.

Do you think that these reflective exercises could positively impact on teenagers’ motivation to study?


What is ‘global competency’ for university students?

Francois Ortalo-Magne describes global competency (GP) as (partly) “an appreciation of the diversity of the human race”. Similarly, Richard Yelland says that GP is “to have an understanding that different cultures do things in different ways”.

The above views are not controversial to me. Cultural norms exist and, for an outsider, behaviours can only be understood by reference to the culture in question. Such ‘cultural relativism’ has been accepted in anthropology since the early twentieth century (Franz Boas). However, although knowledge about cultural diversity is an important starting point, one wonders how a higher education institution could prepare its students to appreciate the rich diversity of world cultures while avoiding the pitfall of stereotyping. The solution, it seems to me, instead of getting students to learn about a multitude of cultures at a superficial level, is to equip students with tools of enquiry to learn about aspects of given cultures in more depth as and when they need to do so during their working careers. Competency is thus partly at the level of metacognition; one should have the ability to step back from a situation and question whether there is something that one is misunderstanding, something related to the target culture, and then research it. Healthy scepticism can also be encouraged, too, in case the situation is atypical for that cultural setting.

Otherwise, as Pavel Zgaga mentions, GP is in danger of being characterised in such an abstract, decontextualised fashion that it will become unfit for any specific purpose. If GP relates to the whole world then it can only be relevant to truly global matters. However, that will be a minority of situations. More commonly, one, two or several cultures would be involved in a situation and then GP would be better understood as “relating to all parts of a situation” (Cambridge English Dictionary) or, in other terms, relating to the perspectives of the stakeholders. Incidentally, being able to take differing perspectives into account is an oft cited attribute of critical thinkers.

Let me provide an example. I conducted research (Andrews, 2005) on recently qualified teachers of English who had trained in the UK and had consequently taken up teaching positions overseas. Although they were appreciative of the teaching knowledge and skills that they had acquired during their training courses, a perceived shortfall was the lack of preparation they had received to adjust to different working practices in other countries. Expectations of what made a “good teacher” and “good employee” differed enormously between, e.g. a private South Korean language academy owner and their foreign teaching staff, and could result in conflict. Had the teachers looked into the educational traditions and values in that society, they may have relaxed in the light of their findings, or simply left if they found it unpalatable.

Awareness of other cultures, although an essential foundation, is still insufficient. Competency also implies procedural knowledge, or skills, and appropriate attitudes. At one institution where I was employed, in Hong Kong, the relevant graduate attributes were phrased thus:

Our students are expected to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture and with it a sense of national identity and pride; they should also have an appreciation of other cultures, and with that appreciation also a high degree of inter-cultural sensitivity, tolerance and a global perspective (my emphasis). The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Andrews, P. (2005). Effective online professional development for novice English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers. The Teacher Trainer.

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.