How can I adapt my teaching to differences between higher education students?

Students differ in terms of interests, prior knowledge and skills, and learning preferences to a great extent. As a consequence, students have different levels of motivation, attitudes about teaching, and responses to specific instructional practices. How can you address these differences in your teaching?

Students in higher education differ in (Felder & Brent, 2005):

  1. Learning preferences

Some students are comfortable with theories and abstractions; others feel much more at home with facts and observable phenomena; some prefer collaborative learning and others value individual learning; some prefer verbal explanations and others prefer visual representations.

  1. Approaches to learning and orientations to studying

Students tend to approach their courses in three ways:

  1. Students who have an orientation to reproduction tend to adopt a superficial approach, relying on memorisation and making little or no effort to understand the material being taught.
  2. Students who have an orientation towards meaning tend to adopt a deep approach; probing questions and exploring the (conceptual) limits.
  3. Students who have an orientation towards achievement might adopt both a surface or deep approach, doing whatever is necessary to get the highest grade they can.

Getting started

Firstly, try to get to know your students. A straightforward way is being aware of verbal and non-verbal feedback from your students. Students might complain about the level of the course content, express demotivation, show procrastination or work in a superficial manner. This may indicate that students either need more instruction or need to be guided towards an orientation that promotes meaning. Another approach would be to discuss the differences and resulting preferences. Some students may feel uncomfortable expressing their needs and aims. Online tools give students the opportunity to be more honest in their responses as they can stay anonymous to their peers.

Secondly, adapt to students’ need in terms of the content, the learning activities, the level and/or educational tools or challenge students to go the extra mile. Some example are:

  • Learning activities: Taking differences in learning preferences into account, alternate between individual and group work, concrete and conceptual exercises and written or visual explanations. For (small) group work, alternate between group arrangements based on prior knowledge or learning preferences and between homogenous and heterogeneous groups.
  • The level: To adapt to or challenge students, try to create more time to provide personalised feedback. A well-known method is flipping the classroom in which students watch lectures at home so that the face-to-face time in class can be used for students’ questions and collaborative work.
  • The content: Let students decide what (sub)topic they want explore further; working from and thereby developing their individual talents stimulates students’ sense of autonomy.


How can I stimulate students’ independent learning by using ‘constructive friction’?

We aim to design education in such a way, that students take responsibility for their own learning. However, not all students are used to take responsibility for their own learning; not all students know how to do so; and not all students appreciate education wherein they are expected to take the lead.

Consequently, as a lecturer, you may need to help students ‘learn how to learn’. Letting students experience friction by not meeting their initial needs can be a way to do so.

Getting started

Taking responsibility for own learning is conceptualised as students’ self-regulated or self-directed learning in the literature. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how different interplays between a teacher’s and a student’s regulation of the learning process can have different outcomes:

  • Congruence occurs when the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning is compatible. Typical examples are strong regulation of learning in a first course, as students are not (yet) used to the regulation expected in the educational setting and loose teacher regulation in a master thesis, when students are expected to be able to take the lead.
  • Friction occurs when teaching and learning are not compatible. A typical example is when students are expected to manage group work themselves, but struggle to do so without teacher support and/or deadlines. Yet, (destructive) friction also occurs when lecturers provide too much guidance and support and fail to call upon students’ skills and knowledge.

Interplays between teacher and student regulation of the learning process

Degree of student regulation Degree of teacher regulation
Strong Shared Loose
High Destructive friction Destructive friction Congruence
Intermediate Destructive friction Congruence Constructive friction
Low Congruence Constructive friction Destructive friction

Adapted from Vermunt & Verloop, 1997, p.270

Friction can be unpleasant to start with, however it could also provide an important boost to learning when friction is used in a constructive manner; that is, when students are challenged to develop their competences and expertise.  By providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating ‘constructive friction’), lecturers can give students the opportunity to develop in ways that they did not expect they were capable of doing on their own (cf. ‘out of a comfort zone’).

You can create constructive friction to promote independent learning at different levels:

  • in lesson/lecture, for instance by asking students to prepare and present part of the content themselves
  • in an assignment, for instance by inviting students to design and complete part of the assessment (of the process/group work)
  • in a program (line), for instance by having students plan their curriculum, including when and where they will conduct an internship/thesis/capstone


Vermunt, J. D., & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and instruction, 9(3), 257-280.

This article describes teaching activities that elicit the most often used cognitive, affective and metacognitive learning activities, differentiated for teacher, shared and student-regulated learning processes.

Flexible learning pathways

Students have diverse backgrounds, skills, talents and needs To satisfy their interests and meet their personal ambitions for future careers, education should meet students’ demand for personalisation of the curriculum and learning routes. ICLON recognizes the importance of an enriched curriculum that offers multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to learning, choice through enhanced curricular pathways and a variety of opportunities to gain international experience including work placements, study/research abroad and attracting international staff.


  • Students develop the skills to help fulfill their ambitions;
  • Facilitating more personalised learning experiences;
  • Programmes offer the opportunity to students to develop a wide range of talents.


What are the key aspects?

In order to achieve personalisation of the curriculum, and engage and motivate students, it is important to actively engage them in their future career path based on their interests and ambitions. This can be done by offering them choice in modules, differentiation methods in teaching and learning, interdisciplinary minors or extracurricular opportunities.

When giving students freedom in the choice of modules, it is important that they get help with their module choices and producing a rational study pathway. For example, do the chosen modules complement each other and will they form a comprehensive body of knowledge, or a programme of transdisciplinary subjects? For students, choosing an individual study pathway is an important decision that will impact on a future career. Lack of appropriate information and guidance, could lead to poor choices, which can lead to disengagement and in the worst-case scenario even drop out. Consequently it is important to provide comprehensive  information that is easily accessible (information days, Honours track, orientation module, websites, student one-stop services). Students should also have the opportunity to get personal advice on their study trajectory from both the academic (study advisors) and career perspective (career service)

Besides offering students choice in modules and extracurricular opportunities, we should also consider differentiated learning and instruction approaches to give students choice in the pace, place and mode of their learning. For example, when teaching a group of students with different needs and talents, we should consider giving students the opportunity of employing a variety of talents in assignments and learning new skills in a safe environment. (see also Teaching for active learning). Differentiation requires lecturers to tailor their practices to their students’ profiles and requires flexibility in terms of design, content, assessment and the grouping of students.

Flexible learning focuses on giving students choice in the pace, place and mode of their study, and all three aspects can be delivered through appropriate pedagogical practice. Examples of pedagogical practice are Problem Based Learning and Project Based learning. Availability of technology can encourage flexible approaches to the delivery and assessment of learning. Pace typically focuses on different delivery schedules, e.g. faster or slower completion of the module/course. Place is concerned with the physical location, which could be at home or in a classroom. Mode covers learning technologies, which provide new and flexible approaches through the wide range of ICT products, including virtual reality applications. (see Application of Technology in Teaching and Learning)

How do you know you are on the right track?


Making progress comprises (re-)designing education as well as keeping track of results. But how can you know that you are making progress? Summarizing the general process of educational design and specific models for curriculum re-design we propose the following three-step approach:

Step 1. Reformulate the (university’s) objectives into questions concerning the current situation (today) and  the desired situation in the future

Step 2. Make the answers to the questions measurable

Step 3. Use the answers as input for further (re-)design

For example:

1) How do students develop the skills to fulfil their ambitions today and in the futureExamples of measurable answers: (%) skills in the curriculum/co-curricular/extra-curricular

2) How do teachers and educational programmes facilitate personalised learning experiences today and in the futureExamples of measurable answers: with the support of (x)tutors/mentors/councillors for students; by offering (%) EC in the curriculum for individual learning trajectories;

3) To what extent do programmes offer the opportunity for students to develop a wide range of talents today and in future? Examples of measurable answers: (%) curriculum for students to fill independently; (#) skills trainings offered;  (x) co- and extra-curricular options

Further reading


Flexible Pedagogies: preparing for the future,

This short publication focuses on how e-learning can support flexible pedagogies. It also explains  how technology could enable new choices for learners.

Example: individual track (Honours College FSW)

Individual track in Honours College FSW

Open to: All bachelor students of Leiden University

When meeting the entry criteria for the Honours College, students may compose their own individual programme. Under supervision of the Faculty Honours coordinator students plan an  Individual pathway. There is a great deal of freedom and flexibility and students have the opportunity to organise internships, trips abroad, attend master’s courses, etc.  However, to guarantee quality the proposed track must be approved by the Examination Board.

All students have the opportunity to take an Honours Class of 5 ECTS as part of the Honours College or as an extra-curricular module. In the video lecturers and students explain the benefits of an honours class.


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).