Differentiated Instruction in the College Classroom

Multiple forms of learning in the same classroom.


May 4, 2016

One concept that higher education should borrow from K-12 educators is differentiated instruction. This is the notion – rooted in the one-room schoolhouse – that multiple forms of learning can take place simultaneously in a single classroom.

Differentiated instruction addresses differences in student preparation, interests, and strengths by offering a variety of learning pathways within the same classroom that differ in terms of content, focus, activities, or outcome.

Differentiated instruction is not the same as tracking, which divides students into ability groups. Nor should it be confused with individualized instruction, since it involves team-based learning or small group activities.

Differentiated instruction is an activity- or project-driven approach that divides students into teams which engage in a variety of projects, tasks, or problem-solving activities.

Differentiated instruction rests on five fundamental principles. The first, as my colleague Liz McKay, Director of Academic Experience, explains, is that learning isn’t simply a linear process in which ignorance gives way to mastery. Rather, learning typically involves mastering a succession of sub-competencies, each of which requires practice and reinforcement. Mastery tends to fade over time; educational psychologists call this the “forgetting curve,” and it can only be overcome through repeat practice. The purpose of a particular activity might be to combat the forgetting curve – which might be helpful for all students regardless of their progress through the course material.

A second principle is that rather than distinguishing students on the basis of pace – with the faster students considered more advanced or slower paced students “slow” in a pejorative sense – we would do better to focus on depth of understanding or proficiency with a particular skills. A fast-paced student might have only a superficial understanding of a concept, while a slower-paced student might have greater facility with the same concept and a greater ability to apply that knowledge or skill. In this case, the faster-paced student might have a lot to learn from the slower-paced student.

The third principle is that active and collaborative learning  – that is, learning by doing – is, in many instances, the most efficacious way to teach key concepts or skills. Rather than lecturing at “slower” students in order to bring them up to speed, project- and team-based learning will often help them grasp essential subjects.  Such an approach will also have a more enduring impact.

The fourth principle is that team-based learning – too often dismissed as “group work” – is anything but trivial. It can leverage the power of peer mentoring, especially if the teams are relatively small and if team members have specific, individual responsibilities. In addition to prompting discussion, team-based learning can enhance students’ collaboration skills, including the ability to pool knowledge, resolve differences, reconcile conflicting perspectives, delegate responsibilities, and ensure accountability.

The most important principle underlying differentiated instruction is the recognition that instructors aren’t simply content area specialists or evaluators of student work, but, rather, designers of educational experiences. As learning designers, instructors must specify what they want a student to know or to be able to do and, then, design activities that will help students attain that objective and devise assessments to measure whether the students have actually achieved mastery.

Designing learning experiences and appropriate assessments is far more demanding than lecturing or administering a multiple choice or even an essay examination. But as higher education moves toward a greater acceptance of hybrid modes of delivery and personalization of pace, the in-class portions of courses will inevitably include students with varying levels of fluency with the most recent material. The challenge facing instructors is to meet the learning needs of all students, not just a subset.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.




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