Students are a very heterogeneous group – not only in terms of age, socioeconomic status, ethnic and cultural background, sexual preference, and so on, but also in terms of prior knowledge, interests and study methods. Their inherent diversity encompasses much more than just ethnic or cultural differences. Therefore, the complexity of society cannot and should not be considered as separate from the educational context. The challenge is to recognise and leverage this diversity in our education, and to address it through differentiated teaching, so that all students have sufficient opportunities to develop their talents.
Differentiation: what it is, and what it is not
Differentiation is not the same as personalised education, as it does not imply a different approach to each student. Differentiation emphasises meaningful activities for all students, and not only for students with specific learning needs. Differentiation, when seen as a collection of all measures taken to deal with differences between students, is a mindset or a professional attitude, rather than merely a method or a recipe. In addition to this 'growth mindset', having high expectations of all students is also important. Differentiation does not mean lowering the bar; it means providing tools or intermediate steps so that all students can reach and possibly even exceed the bar.
Differentiation: relevance in higher education
For students to be able to learn, lecturers must provide both challenges and successes. This can only be done if the differences between students are not ignored, and by using a flexible educational approach. Differentiation is conducive to students' learning performance and learning efficiency. It also increases the students' – and therefore also the lecturer’s – motivation and well-being. By paying specific attention to differences between students, and by considering these differences as assets that can provide added value (e.g. they allow for the creation of heterogeneous groups), all students can get a fair chance to develop and ultimately achieve the predefined competences.
There are many student characteristics that lecturers have no control over. However, there are a number of factors, such as the learning status (i.e. prior knowledge and attitudes towards learning), interests and the learning profile (i.e. how students learn), that lecturers can influence, and where they can really make a difference. We will explain several strategies that you can use in your teaching practice. For more info and specific examples, read the full-length Teaching Tip!
In order to address and leverage the differences between students, these differences first have to be acknowledged and accepted. This may seem obvious, but it is not. Several researchers state that having an understanding of student characteristics from the start of the programme is crucial. In the phase we call 'pre-assessment', the lecturer assesses the initial situation of the students. In the case of a small student group, this can simply be done through a conversation, which is also a way for the lecturer to show interest. For larger student groups, it may be more practical to use a form or questionnaire to inquire about a number of aspects.
When it is determined at the start of a programme component that certain students are experiencing difficulties that are hard to solve on their own, or when a pre-assessment reveals certain shortcomings in prior knowledge, it may be useful to include a pre-teaching phase. Pre-teaching is a way to proactively address differences between students, in this case mainly in learning status. Pre-teaching does not take place during the classes, but is intended to prepare students for the learning content that will be covered before formal classes begin. Pre-teaching mainly consists of short instructional lessons covering a number of basic rules. This way, learning content is refreshed and students get a better idea of what exactly is expected in terms of prior knowledge. Pre-teaching has the advantage that it can be organised relatively easily, even from home (e.g. through self-study packs).
There will always be differences between students, even after pre-teaching. Working with individual learning tasks can help to overcome these differences, primarily in learning status. To address differences effectively, working with Basic, Revision and In-depth groups (the 'BRI model') may prove useful. All students have to grasp the basic subject matter. Subject matter revision is aimed at students who experience certain difficulties, while in-depth subject matter is for students who can handle additional challenges.
For more detailed info on the BRI model, head over to the full-length Teaching Tip (link at the bottom of this page).
Fellow students ('peers') can also be used in differentiation strategies. In the literature, this is referred to as 'peer-assisted learning' or 'PAL'. The bottom line is that tutors and tutees are appointed to support each other in learning. The peers who are called upon to help other, often weaker, students, are not necessarily the strongest students. It is important to strike a good balance between students who help and students who are helped.
Want to know more about PAL and grouping types (heterogeneous and homogeneous) or get a specific example? Check out the full-length Teaching Tip (link at the bottom of this page).
The 'flipped classroom' is a much talked-about way of dealing with differences between students. This strategy is characterised by the time that is allotted for students to acquire, analyse and assess knowledge by themselves, by means of (technology-assisted) preparation at home. The lecturer provides learning materials for students to process independently prior to a lesson. The flipped classroom as a differentiation strategy is especially useful for students with a different learning status and/or a different work pace.
Offering freedom of choice
By offering the students freedom of choice, differentiation in the learning product can be ensured (i.e. the way students demonstrate the extent to which they have achieved the competences). This allows for a better match with the interests of students, which fuels their motivation. For example, students, individually or in groups, can be given freedom of choice in how they present their assignments: by making a PowerPoint presentation, a video, a poster, etc. This differentiation approach can be taken even further by giving students the opportunity to suggest the options to choose from. It is then up to the lecturer to assess the viability of the suggested options. Regardless of the extent of the freedom of choice given to students, it is important to be clear about the assessment criteria. Students need to know what is expected of them by means of specific objectives with a clear link to the desired results.
Formative assessment is a form of assessment that monitors student learning. It identifies each student's strengths and weaknesses and provides insights to adjust teaching and learning activities along the way. Research clearly shows that it is important to use formative assessment, not only to help the students achieve the predefined competences, but also to help lecturers ensure the quality of their education.
For students to learn from formative assessment, feedback is crucial. Useful feedback not only gives students insight into where they stand at a given moment ('feed back'), but it also says something about the level they need to attain ('feed up') and how they can attain it ('feed forward').
For more info and specific examples, read the full-length Teaching Tip!