How can we facilitate differentiation of learning without spending more time on teaching?

Differentiation refers to a teaching approach that is employed to instruct a diverse group of students, with different  learning needs and talents. In traditional step-by-step teaching approaches, in which all students receive bits of instruction at the same time, the more advanced students may get bored and other students may not be able to keep up.

By applying a differentiation approach to teaching, students will be given a challenging (end) assignment and are allowed to work in their own pace towards completion. How can this be done?  One way of facilitating a more individual approach to learning is by offering the student help and support at the moment the student needs it. This approach is also called scaffolding. It may seem time-consuming for lecturers, however, there are simple strategies to avoid differentiating teaching  from taking more time.

The starting point is to redesign an existing course and fit all the face-to-face teaching within the same timeframe. This will require extra time to start with, as it will take time and effort to redesign a course. Once designed, tried and tested, it should not involve more teaching time than before, but will have the advantage of more engaged students, better retention rates and better assessment results.

Getting started

Step 1: Redesign your course

  • Review al lectures and seminars (workgroup sessions) in your course and break them up into small chunks of content and skills instructions.
  • Decide which chunks can be offered on Blackboard and which need to be delivered face-to-face.
  • Pre-record Blackboard instructions and distribute the face-to-face instructions over the same amount of lectures as before.
  • List the prerequisite skills that are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on the major assignment(s) and publish them.

Step 2: Teaching approach

  • Brief the students with the major assignment(s) (the one(s) they are going to be assessed on at the end of the course), so they know what they are aiming for. In doing so, the student is activated in drawing upon prior knowledge and skills and build upon it. This approach works as a motivational device.
  • Publish the prerequisite skills that are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on the assignment. They will quickly identify knowledge and skills gaps. (self-assessment)
  • Let the students know at what moments they can get instructions or help (e.g. office hours or by email).
  • Be clear about expectations: give the students responsibility for the organisation of work and to attend the sessions they need.
  • Practise the skills and knowledge needed for the assignment at a lower-level at the start of the course. This could be a task that needs to be completed in one day. This way the students get a better understanding of what is required of them.

With this approach, the students can choose what kind of help they need. Instructions on Blackboard allow the students to revisit certain instructions on demand.

Additionally, students could be asked to work in small study groups so that they can support each other in the learning process (you may or may not want to assess group work).