Overview of Article:
The journal article “The Application of Differentiated Instruction in Postsecondary Environments: Benefits, Challenges, and Future Directions” by Santangelo and Tomlinson discusses the results of a self-study that examined the effects of differentiated instruction in a graduate level course. In this course, called Education and Psychology of Exceptional Learners, the students were very diverse in terms of interests, readiness, and learning profiles. The goal of the study was to answer the following questions:
- How does differentiated instruction impact the students’ progress in terms of the course objectives?
- What do the students think about differentiated instruction?
- What specific strategies and conditions need to be in place in order to achieve positive outcomes?
One of the most important findings from this study was that differentiated instruction is possible and achievable in the postsecondary setting, as it has mainly been studies in the elementary and secondary education levels. Santangelo and Tomlinson also found that the integrity of the course was not compromised, even though all 25 students had an individualized framework of the course. Although differentiating instruction is time consuming and tedious, all of the students in the course were able to “find meaning and relevance in the course content and activities,” and those concepts are the ultimate goal of teaching (Santangelo & Tomlinson, 2009). Students were able to find the class meaningful because the instructor took each students’ interests, goals, experiences, and needs into consideration when differentiating the instruction. Lastly, assessments were individualized, which provided the students with the opportunity to showcase their learning and understanding through methods that were best suited for them and their learning experiences.
As educators, we know how important the content is for our students to know, especially at the postsecondary level. At this point, students primarily take classes that teach them skills and provide them with knowledge that they will be using in their future careers and lives. However, the issue many students face is having the same type of structure in every single classroom while in college. Up until this point, these students have been in classrooms that incorporated various teaching styles, activities, and strategies in order to help them learn the content in meaningful ways. Now why is it that this stops at the postsecondary level?
According to Santangelo and Tomlinson, the number of adult learners in postsecondary schools is increasing, as is the number of students with disabilities; as of 2005, 11.4% of undergraduates were comprised of students with disabilities and this number continues to rise (2009). Everyone knows that we are all different, so why are all students taught the same way? Students have different interests, needs, experiences, learning styles, and abilities. I have seen firsthand with my students a wide range of abilities and learning styles and what works for one student may not necessarily work for the rest of the class. It is important for us to be able to individualize instruction so that students find meaning in what they are learning, as this leads to intrinsic motivation, which is very strong in adult learners. Some students have a more difficult time with material, so they may need to slow down or have additional resources provided. On the other end of the spectrum, some students may feel as though they are not getting anything out of the class because they are not being challenged enough. By providing these types of students with more challenging material, we are increasing their engagement and interest, which helps to enrich the curriculum for them.
In the Developmental Mathematics Program, there is a large range of abilities and students are diverse in terms of their socioeconomic statuses, race, prior mathematical knowledge, learning styles, and intrinsic motivation levels. The students who take Developmental Mathematics are those who did not pass the Mathematics Placement Exam prior to attending the university. Because some of the students did not take the exam seriously, they are also in this mix of students, along with those who actually struggle with math. Therefore, there is a large range of abilities in this program.
In terms of curriculum, it is constantly being revised to meet the needs of the students and what they will need in their future math classes and future careers. At this point, it is not so much the curriculum that needs to be differentiated, but the way it is presented can be. A traditional higher education classroom typically has a lecture style that runs the entire class time. Although this method can be useful at times, it is not suitable for every student. By differentiating the way we hold our lessons and present the material, we can help meet the needs of the students by incorporating activities, assignments, projects, and assessments that are specially designed for our students, which can help engage them. Because of its wide range of students, the Developmental Mathematics Program can greatly benefit from training on how to differentiate instruction to fit the needs of individual students. Many of the teachers in the program do not have educational backgrounds, so it would be difficult for them to be able to incorporate it without any background knowledge or theory on the practice without professional development.
Santangelo, T. & Tomlinson, C. A. (2009). The application of differentiated instruction in postsecondary environments: Benefits, challenges, and future directions. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(3), 307-323. Retrieved from http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE366.pdf