It’s a truism that there are few aspects of education that everyone can agree on. It seems likely, however, that most people would agree that the prospect of better outcomes without additional expenditure is a pretty good bargain. This is where differentiated instruction comes in.

Differentiation is not a new idea. It’s been around since at least the days of the one-room schoolhouse, and has found a very happy home in systems like the Montessori method, where children are encouraged to acquire KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) at their own pace and with the guidance of a teacher or teachers. But the introduction of electronic tools has made the first half of the equation — assessment — easier (for an example of the frustration that poorly-designed assessment tools create, click here; the guilty are not named). Rather than physically monitoring a student’s progress, teachers can monitor at leisure after the student completes computer-based activities. (And some programs offer differentiated instruction themselves; more on this below.)

As John McCarthy points out, individual assessment along with differentiated instruction is an all-around winner: personalizing instruction can improve the learning experience (students are no longer bored or lost), increase test scores (as students are challenged at their level), and is relatively simply to implement. He writes, “you can find DI infused within any program or system that collects data on student achievement or growth, evaluates and diagnoses what gaps or enrichments those students need, and then designs and implements a plan to meet those needs.”

One place you won’t find much differentiation is in the traditional collegiate lecture. The lecture has been under increasing scrutiny lately, although there is little sign of its disappearance. Indeed, with increasing budgetary pressures, classes tend to grow larger, and this in turn means that only lectures are practical. Methods of mixing lectures with differentiated assessment, such as blended learning, are thus becoming increasingly popular.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.