What Are the Advantages of Differentiated Instruction?

February 28, 2023

When educators don’t proactively implement instructional strategies that align with their students’ learning styles, those students tend to lose focus on instructional materials. Consequently, when tested, learners in single-strategy educational environments often show poor retention of the subject matter covered. This results in a higher dropout rate, a lower pass rate, and a reduced graduation rate. As an instructor, you can help solve this problem by applying the principles of differentiated instruction to the higher education classroom. 

What Is Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is an activity-driven approach to education that guides students through a subject or course using a variety of projects, tasks, or problem-solving activities. 

This educational approach has been the norm in K-12 classrooms for generations. As early as one-room schoolhouse days, American educators were finding creative ways to shepherd diverse assortments of students through the curriculum.

In his now-classic memoir of rural Appalachian education, The Thread that Runs So True, 20th-century educator Jesse Stuart recalled his realization that the real work of young children is play. Stuart reorganized his beginner class, which included a 21-year-old student, around competitive academic games—while older students focused on classic “three Rs” activities.

Stuart divided his one-room school by age. In contrast, modern educators often divide a classroom by student interests, preparation, or strengths, and then create varied learning pathways for each group. Note that differentiated instruction is not the same as dividing your classroom by ability. It is also not just small-group or team-based learning—although such activities are often part of a differentiated classroom.

According to Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, differentiated education rests on five pillars:

  1. Learning isn’t linear. People forget more easily than they remember. Researchers call this trend the “forgetting curve.” Differentiated instruction techniques are designed to prevent this trend.
  2. Students progress at different paces. Some students learn fast, while others learn more slowly. However, “fast” learners might only gain cursory understanding, while “slower” learners often absorb content more deeply. The advantages of differentiated instruction strategies include addressing learner deficiencies in both speed and depth.
  3. Active learning promotes faster growth than passive learning. Many studies have shown that active learning promotes greater knowledge retention than passive learning. Differentiated instruction brings learning to life and helps students more quickly better understand their studies.
  4. Team-based learning isn’t trivial. Healthy, team-based learning environments are just one of the many benefits of differentiated instruction. Collaborative learning, peer mentoring, and conflict resolution skills all boost a student’s overall ability to learn.
  5. Your primary role as an instructor is to design educational experiences. Effective educators don’t just inform and assess students. Rather, the best teachers guide students toward and cleverly evaluate mastery.

Why Is Higher Education Implementing Differentiated Instruction?

Today’s K-12 education preparation programs typically include coursework in differentiated instruction. But where does this leave the college instructor who has never taken education courses and is not an expert in pedagogical theories? 

At Harvard University, Dr. Logan McCarty, Director of Science Education, and Dr. Louis Deslauriers, Director of Science Teaching and Learning, discovered that both faculty members and students primarily experienced passive, lecture-based learning environments. 

Why don’t faculty and students get more active in their classes? And how can university educators translate the advantages of differentiated instruction into postsecondary classrooms?

McCarty and Deslauriers decided to evaluate the benefits of differentiated instruction for students by dividing their classes into active and passive learning subgroups. Learners in the active group claimed that they learned less than learners in the passive group. But when tested, the active learners retained far more information than their passive learner peers.

McCarty and Deslauriers attributed the learning perception gap to feelings associated with the increased cognitive effort required to learn in an active environment. Those feelings led students to believe they were learning less than if a superstar lecturer had simply handed them pre-digested information. This kind of student feedback often convinces lecturers that their passive teaching methods are more effective than they really are.

If Harvard’s students and teachers are defaulting to passive learning, then students and teachers at your school likely are too. But colleges and universities are increasingly realizing the benefits of differentiated instruction in the classroom. With the help of modern technology, more universities are readily implementing differentiated instruction techniques.

Christian Brothers University (CBU), for example, helps students learn by making them teach. CBU’s Dr. Stan Eisen, Professor of Biology and Director of Pre-Health Professional Programs, requires his students to write children’s books as the final exam in his parasitology course. 

Besides being an engaging project, the children’s book is a more down-to-earth method of evaluating student mastery than the traditional exam. According to Dr. Eisen, only students who thoroughly understand parasitology can explain the subject in clear, concrete, and simple terms.

The University of Maryland reorganized and updated its classrooms to be more amenable to a differentiated format. Called TERP classrooms—TERP stands for Teach, Engage, Respond, and Participate—these refurbished learning spaces make use of round tables, multiple screens, mobile student desks with tablet arms and integrated storage compartments, and multiple writing spaces on the walls. TERP classrooms demonstrate the advantages of differentiated instruction by enabling a collaborative and flexible learning environment for students of all learning styles and backgrounds.

At Assumption College, Dr. James Lang, Professor of English and Director for the Center of Teaching Excellence, is encouraging his faculty to use backwards course design when creating new courses. Lang says to begin with the question, “What do I want my students to have retained from this course 20 years from now?” From there, faculty members can design courses with differentiated instructional strategies that guide each student toward that ultimate outcome.  

The Advantages of Differentiated Instruction

What are the benefits of differentiated instruction for students and teachers?

Differentiated instruction provides challenging, meaningful, and engaging activities for learners of all levels. Writing for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexa Epitropoulos lists seven distinct advantages of differentiated instruction.

  1. Differentiated instruction is proactive. In a differentiated instruction model, the teacher does not wait for students to fall behind before employing new learning strategies. Instead, with differentiated instruction, the instructor is proactive and takes a motivational and positive approach. Teachers prepare differentiated instructional techniques before the course begins, which helps prevent many students from ever falling behind. The teacher also assumes varied learning needs to accommodate for the various ways students master course material.
  2. Differentiated instruction is qualitative. Differentiated instruction doesn’t mean that teachers give more work to advanced students and less work to students that might struggle. Each student completes the same amount of work. However, the quality of the work required may vary according to ability, interest, or previous content knowledge. 
  3. Differentiated instruction is rooted in assessment. Educators using differentiated instruction begin the class with an assessment. The results of the assessment determine the teacher’s instructional approach. Throughout the course, teachers continue to assess student learning through one-on-one conversations, student work, classroom observations, and formal assessments. Teachers then iteratively design course content and instructional strategies based on the results of each assessment. With differentiated instruction, assessments not only help evaluate student mastery, but also gauge teaching effectiveness. 
  4. Differentiated instruction takes multiple approaches. With differentiation in the classroom, instructors can manage what students learn, how students learn, and how students are assessed. With its flexibility, differentiated instruction allows teachers to maximize individual growth in the course content.
  5. Differentiated instruction is student centered. Differentiated instruction presupposes that students learn in different ways and at different paces. Teachers using this instructional model cultivate and facilitate diverse educational experiences designed to advance each student’s learning, regardless of their learning style and background. 
  6. Differentiated instruction blends individual, small group, and whole group strategies. A common misconception about differentiated learning is that the approach only works for individuals or small groups. However, the advantages of differentiated instruction extend to larger groups of students. University instructors can bring the benefits of differentiated instruction to classrooms of various sizes—from individual students to large groups of students. 
  7. Differentiated instruction is dynamic and organic. In a differentiated learning space, teachers and students learn together. Students focus on learning the course content while teachers tailor their instructional strategies to student learning styles.

Postsecondary students particularly benefit from differentiated instruction because of how diverse they are. A demographic cliff is coming in higher education. As Americans have smaller families and the traditional college demographic is shrinks, some schools will face up to 15% reductions in student population—as early as the late 2020s. 

Moreover, in the future, students are expected to attend community or technical colleges as the wage premium for four-year college degrees declines. In this environment, schools are turning their recruitment initiatives toward non-traditional students, including minority students, older learners, and first-in-the-family college students.

These learners may not have strong academic or self-regulatory skills—or may simply be too busy or career-focused—to thrive in a traditional lecture-oriented classroom. Therefore, schools that rely on passive learning approaches will find themselves unable to retain newly recruited students. 

In an article for the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Tanya Santangelo and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain:

“By juxtaposing knowledge of increased student diversity with insights related to teaching and learning, one would logically assume postsecondary instructional practices have evolved from being uniform and didactic. However, […] the status quo persists […]. In contrast to the educational practices that exist in higher education, pedagogy in elementary and secondary schools is evolving to meet the needs of diverse learners. This has been accomplished, in part, through the use of differentiated instruction.”

How is differentiated instruction meeting the needs of diverse learners at the college level?

Differentiated learning helps postsecondary students overcome the “forgetting curve” by reinforcing subject matter competency. Providing students with ample practice activities and reinforcement of course information is the best way educators can promote mastery of a subject.

Moreover, differentiated instruction combines individual, group, and full class education techniques. One of the largest benefits of differentiated instruction for students is that it incorporates many different teaching styles. In courses applying differentiated instruction, whole-class discussions are often followed by group or individual learning activities that help cement subject comprehension.

Finally, differentiated instruction places more focus on qualitatively adjusting student assignments. This is particularly helpful for college and university students, because the quality of required assignments is more important in determining student understanding and retention than the quantity of required assignments. Adjusting the nature of an assignment instead of simply altering the quantity of work for that assignment is a much more effective and active way of promoting learning.

The benefits of differentiation in the classroom are also significant for postsecondary teachers. Writing in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Windi D. Turner, Oscar J. Solis, and Doris H. Kincade state that most surveyed instructors believed differentiated instructors brought “significant” rewards. However, differentiated instruction also comes with many challenges. For instance, college classes may enroll hundreds of students, college professors might not focus on their teaching, and many university instructors have not been trained to implement differentiated instruction. 

Nevertheless, as higher education evolves and by necessity adapts to a more technological and diverse world, instructors will discover that differentiated instruction is not only optimal, but also necessary for student learning and information retention. Universities will begin to modify their physical learning spaces, more effectively manage their classroom sizes, and better equip their instructors to create various innovative and active learning approaches. 

A peek into the local elementary, middle, or high school classroom may give you a glimpse of what the college classroom of the future will look like—in terms of both diversity and structure. 

The future of the college classroom is diverse. Universities cannot continue to rely on the passive, one-size-fits-all instructional strategies of the past. Colleges will need to bring the techniques and benefits of differentiated instruction to guide the students of the future.

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