Differential Learning—teaching students with different learning pace and styles

Classrooms are composed of students with varied learning profiles, diverse grasping abilities and different interests. Teachers have to come up with an approach which accommodates this diversity while imparting lessons. The approach is known as differentiated instruction and it is critical for creating a collaborative learning atmosphere and for achieving really meaningful learning outcomes.

The phenomenon of learning is an aggregate of content (what is being learnt), learning process (how it is being learnt), outcome (how students reflect the learning) and the learning environment. Differential learning aims at each of these components and tailors them to meet the needs of every child.  

To accommodate diverse abilities of students, some techniques are proven to be effective, they are as follows:

1. Regulate the pace of learning

Student-centered instruction can be introduced with the help of various curriculum solutions and innovative use of technology. It is effective only if it matches the average pace of learning of the class. The teacher has to understand at what pace the students are most receptive and adopt that.  At least in some lesson plans ,students can have a say how many assignments they want to finish in a given class.

2. Give elective assignments to high achievers

When the pace is regulated to match that of the ones who are grasping the concepts relatively slow, the faster students tend to feel the tedium. While it is good to hope that the slow learners will pick up the pace as they advance with the lessons, it is an intelligent decision to give something extra for the ones who crave for it. There is a technique called Compacting curriculum where the needs of the students can be pre-assessed to know which students can skip specific chapters or require far less time to learn them. Accordingly, group projects or research assignments can be given to these specific students and theseexcersices can benefit the entire class.

3.Give choice and empower students

Choice can be provided to students so that they can decide on how they learn. They may want to learn individually or in small groups or may be in pairs. At least for some assignments such choices can be accommodated.

The choice can also be exercised by the students regarding the content or what they learn. For example in social sciences, they may choose from a set of topics that they want to research on and learn in groups. Later on, there can be larger group discussion wherein all these chosen topic can be discussed. This allows students to choose different books, reading material and online material. This technique is definitely empowering.

Choice should be given in assessments. The assessment should be designed giving lot of choices to students so that they can decide which questions they want to answer. This is an important part of promotion of differential learning. 

4. Spontaneously designed assessments

Every class gives an opportunity to the teachers to judge the levels of learning of students. In fact, the assessment is considered to be the most critical part of student-centered instruction. Teachers have to have an insight into the academic journey of the students. The assessments can be designed by the teachers themselves and they are also available ready-made for almost all topics.

After every lesson student, can be given some time to reflect on what they have learned in the class and document it. Then there can be teacher-student conferences for assessing the progress of the student and inputs can be exchanged, feedbacks can be given.

It is also a great technique where the students are told to design questions for each other. The questions are centered on the topic being learnt. Students can design rubrics too. These student-designed rubrics can be used by the teachers and they can add to it by putting in some challenging modules for fast learners.

The test should be designed in a way that they have question types which suit student preferences. They should be composed of multiple choice, short answer, timelines, matching, true or false, graphic organizers to label, and sentences that are partially completed.

In addition to that, students can be encouraged to monitor their own progress by creating visual timelines of their progress. They can be called ‘benchmark timeline’ of weekly tasks.

5. Use of technology

There are several technological aids which can address the needs of both fast and slow learners. For instance Rewordify is a text compactor which customizes reading length to different comprehension abilities. There are a number of such resources adjusted for high, medium, or low levels of lexical comfort. The use of audio lessons is also effective in case of students who find reading complex. 

The learners with different aptitudes can be engaged in writing assignments. For academic writing, the students can be given a word bank of transitions, an essay structure graphic, or sentence frames. Writing revisers which integrate with Google docs can be used. These revisers assess the quality of essays by evaluating the clarity, sentence economy and grammar.

The writing assignments can be made differential by asking the gifted and average writers different set of tasks. Gifted writers can judge the sentence variety, use of active and passive voice etc. while the average ones can use technology more intensively to identify fragmentation, modifiers etc.

Differential learning is something that is not formally practiced in India. With the advent of advance courses in STEM etc., it is becoming important to know the inclination and aptitude of the students before designing lesson plans. It is our strong conviction that differential learning will replace many conventional pedagogical practices that are at the centerstage of the Indian classrooms. 

Vinod Kakumanu

Vinod Kakumanu

Founder & Consultant - School Serv

Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.

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