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“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”– Albert Einstein

What is Differential Learning?

Differential education modifies teaching strategies, materials, and pace according to the significant differences in students' interests, learning styles, abilities, and previous experiences. Differential learning is fundamental in current education practices. Especially in Alberta, education boards focus on the importance of making learning accessible to all students. This page will discuss issues, strategies, and implications of differential learning and it's effect on assessment in the classroom.

1. Learning Styles

Differential learning based on learning styles is a relatively new approach. Everyone has a mix of learning styles but some people have a more dominant style than others. Some people use some styles depending on the circumstances.
There are seven learning styles:memstyles.jpg
  • Visual (Spatial)- prefer using pictures, images and spatial understanding
  • Aural (Auditory-musical)- prefer using sound and music
  • Verbal (Linguistic)- prefer using words, both in speech and written
  • Physical (Kinesthetic)- prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch
  • Logical (Mathematical)- prefer using logic and reasoning systems
  • Social (Interpersonal)- prefer to learn in groups or with other people
  • Solitary (Intrapersonal)- prefer to work alone and use self-study

Thinking Styles

Thinking styles are similar to learning styles only they describe the way a student organizes and information and solves problems. There are four general thinking styles:
  • Concrete Random Thinkers- creative, intuitive, self-motivated, see the big picture and not details
  • Concrete Sequential Thinkers- like order, step-by-step instruction, concrete materials, attention to details and appreciate structure
  • Abstract Random Thinkers-guided by emotion and interest, busy and unstructured, seek active environments, discuss ideas and interact with others
  • Abstract Sequential Thinkers- enjoy theory and abstract thoughts knowledge and facts, independent investigation and research, prefer to work alone
Individuals differ in the strengths of learning preferences and styles. Some can switch easily between styles and others are much less flexible. One of the most important things to remember when differentiating for learning is that the primary goal of these profiles is to find out about how students learn best, not to label them.
How a Teacher's Learning Style Affects the Classroom
To learn more about learning styles, here is an article that discusses how the teacher's learning style affects their teaching style in the classroom.

2. What is Effective Differential Instruction?

No student is the same and every student learners differently. Effective differential instruction uses a variety of teaching styles to address and engage as many students as possible. Listed below are several aspects which make up effective differential instruction:
  1. Teachers need to first get to know their students. Finding out the student's interests/hobbies, what type of teaching strategies work best for each student, and finding out whether each student works better in groups or on their own is valuable information . For example, if the students are interested in baseball, use baseball statistics in your math lessons. Incorporating student’s interests into your lessons is a great way to grab their attention.
  2. Teachers should give the students choices. Involving students as planners or organizers of the lesson is a way of giving the students a choice. Students are more likely to do something when they are given choices, rather than when they are simply ordered to do something.
  3. Teachers should become very familiar with the curriculum. When a teacher knows the curriculum, it is easier to find ways to incorporate student’s hobbies and interests into the class lessons. Lessons, in addition to being interesting, should also be relevant and have a connection to the real world.
  4. Teachers should also allow students to work with one another. Some students learn better on their own, while others learn better in groups. Differential instruction should always adapt and incorporate as many learning styles as possible. Peer tutoring and collaboration, when monitored properly, is an effective way for students to learn from one another.

3. Inclusive Education and Differentiated Assessment

Every students wants to feel included in education, both in and out of the classroom. As teachers, what we can do in the classroom is to integrate all students and their learning styles into our lesson plans. Every teacher will have students with challenges and they must have inclusive education so that every student receives the fair and honest education they deserve. The environment created must support all students and help them achieve their personal goals. Incorporating differential learning in a classroom will benefit the coded children the most, due to their unique situation. A student that is coded needs other way to learn, so the differentiated leaning will help them adapt to the classroom and the lesson.

There are many ways that teachers can find inclusion in their lessons:
1. Heavy and constant amount of scaffolding. (That is when the teacher gives examples, advice and assistance early in t he lesson and then gradually lets the student complete the work on their own).
2. A constant deliverance of assessment for learning (formative) will help
the students know exactly where they are and what areas need improvement. A student who is in some way challenged will need the formative assessment in order to keep up to date with the other students, and therefore feel included.

As well, other tools include, but are not limited to, self assessment, peer teaching, flexible group size work, and easy to understand graphic organizers. These techniques are in greater detail in Chapter 8: Students with Disabilities, to learn more just click on the link Alberta Learning: Making a Difference

“We need to be clear that diversity is an essential part of the human condition and needs to be anticipated and celebrated.”– Dr. Dave Edyburn, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

4. Differentiated Assessment - Putting It Into Practise

4.1 Differentiating Assessment for learning

  • Formative Assessment: Formal and informal processes teachers and students use to gather evidence for the purpose of improving learning. In other words checking for understanding while still in the process of learning.
Using formative assessment is fundamental in differentiated learning; it allows teachers to assess student’s need for differentiation.Assessment for learning often has 4 important characteristics: informal, focused on learning, high response, and fosters metacognition. Example strategies of Formative Assessment include: ‘exit slips’, ‘post a point’, response cards, class discussion, and peer review.
Using formative assessment requires planning. 5 steps for effective planning:
  1. Determine the Purpose: why do you need to collect the information? To set up groups, pacing activities, or determining times for assessment.
  2. Establish a Focus: You can focus on learner outcomes or sequential learning. Are you checking for understanding of a complete topic or understanding of a step in the process of understanding the topic?
  3. Choose and use a Strategy: Make sure the strategy you choose aligns with the purpose of collecting the information. Pick strategies that the students will enjoy. Determine when the information is needed. Decide how much time can be used to carry it out. Decide how students could demonstrate understanding. Vary the strategies used.
  4. Record the results: you don’t necessarily have to write down the results, however you must recognize when you receive a result in order to use it to design differentiation, track student progress, or improve future instruction.
  5. Interpret results and take action: What is the point of formative assessment if the results are not used? Take a look back at your original purpose for the assessment and decide how the results could affect your teaching for the better.
Formative assessment can occur on an individual level as well as on a class wide scale. Not only can educators use formative assessment to improve their teaching, individually students can reflect on results of formative assessment to better their learning experience and knowledge intake. It is important to focus on meta-cognition, strategic questioning, varied assessment activities, student choice, and feedback, when trying to individualize assessment for student need. Also, it is good to remember that the classroom is a learning community so working with the members of that community(the students) is a helpful practice.

4.2 The Role of Summative Assessment in Differentiation

  • Summative assessment: Assessment information used to provide evidence of student achievement for the purpose of making a judgment about student competence or program effectiveness. OR The process of collecting and interpreting information to judge student achievement against predetermined criteria for the purposes of grading and reporting.
Differentiating Summative Assessment
Some key points to ensure success in using differentiated assessment.
  • Be Realistic.
  • Create opportunities for students to experience a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning.
  • Consider what types and variety of assessment tools and strategies are best suited to the learning outcomes being addressed.
  • Ensure students are equipped to deal with the choices they are offered.
  • Add to student repertoires of products and strategies.
  • Consider your own comfort level with various strategies and tools.
  • Address both strengths and challenges.

4.3 Examples of Specific Strategies for Implementing Differentiated Assessment

  • Flexible learning groupscsi-cooperative.jpg
Teachers can develop learning groups based on ability, readiness, learning style, or interests. By varying how you group your student learning
groups you expose your students to different learning styles, discussion, and supports.
  • Develop Learner Profiles
When attempting to differentiate assessment in your classroom the first step is getting to know your students. If you know their strengths, challenges, and interests you will be better equipped to understand the areas you should focus on for each student individually. You will also be able to understand how to engage students in their own learning process.
  • Give choice in assignments
Giving students choice in their assignments allows students to enjoy their learning process and take ownership of the activities they are doing in the classroom.

5. Resources