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.