Author: W. Huitt
First developed: October, 1995
Last modified: June, 1997
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In general, there are three different approaches for dealing with individual differences among students. First, you can develop events of instruction that take into account individual differences. This is the approach used by Bernice McCarthy, developer of the 4MAT system. The second is to provide some sort of grouping in order to reduce or accommodate the variability with respect to student background, achievement, ability or some other characteristic. Third, you can modify the conditions within which instruction is taking place. This is the approach used in mastery learning.
Modifying Events of Instruction
One strategy for dealing with individual differences is to develop or modify the events of instruction so that they specifically address individual differences. This is exemplified by the 4MAT system developed by Bernice McCarthy. The 4MAT system is a direct instruction approach to teaching that utilizes research on brain lateralization dominance and learning style to identify specific instructional events that will be attractive to a specific type of student. The 4MAT system seems to have considerable face validity, although there is not the a widespread research base to support it.
There are four major approaches to grouping: between-class ability grouping (often referred to as leveling or tracking), within-class ability grouping, cooperative learning, and individualized instruction.
Between-class Ability Grouping
With respect to between-class ability grouping, research does not support this strategy in terms of learning for all students. Students assigned to the top level (perhaps the top 10 to 15%) seem to benefit from this type of grouping, but middle- and lower-ability students do not.
Although between-class grouping or leveling is still a popular practice in American education, some school systems are opting to eliminate it. You might ask the question "Why do we use an educational practice that only benefits a small number of students but is detrimental for most?" The answer probably lies more within the realm of politics and expediency and therefore most likely will need to be dealt with on those terms. The goal of appropriate sorting of students for possible careers has long been advocated by prominent researchers and politicians.
The major problem with between-class ability grouping may lie more with the method of grouping than with the concept itself. For the most part, ability groups are determined by a composite score on a standardized test of basic skills or on the subtest scores for reading/language arts and mathematics. However, student knowledge and aptitude may not be uniform across all areas of the content being studied. Perhaps multiple regroupings based on specific prerequisite skills might provide a different picture of the viability for between-class grouping.
Another problem that research has found with between-class grouping is that teacher expectations and the quality of instruction are often lower for lower-track groups. In general, teachers of higher-ability students value independence while teachers of lower-ability students value conformity. Researchers have observed the same teachers in both lower- and upper-level groups and have observed a measurable difference in the performance in these classes. Teachers are generally not as well organized and they use different strategies for questioning when they have entire classrooms composed of lower-ability students.
A final problem with between-class grouping is that students may begin to lower their own expectations when they are placed in a lower-level class. This in turn impacts there achievement which in turn impacts their self-concepts with respect to academic achievement (particularly in that specific class) which consequently negatively impacts the teacher's expectations and so on. It is this cyclical nature of the impact of ability-grouping that may be most detrimental.
Within-class Ability Grouping
On the whole, research tends to support within-class ability grouping as beneficial to the learning of most students. It seems to be more flexible and, consequently, less stigmatizing. However, this research is based on a small sample of classes (mostly mathematics) and, therefore, needs considerable additional research. In addition, the specific method seems to be important. The ability-grouped active teaching (AGAT) discussed by Slavin (1994, pp. 319, 323) is an example of an effective method. In general, if within-class ability grouping is going to be considered, the teacher may want to have only two groups since it will make the grouping process easier to manage.
Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy in which students are placed in heterogeneous groups. In my opinion, cooperative learning is one of the best researched educational innovations of the last two decades. When implemented properly, it can have dramatic effects on student achievement.
While individualized instruction is logically the best way to deal with individual differences, in practice it is very difficult to accomplish. One innovation that may change that is computer-assisted instruction (CAI). On the whole, CAI has not yet delivered on its promise to revolutionize teaching and instruction. However, my expectations are that with the more powerful computers now available at reasonable prices we will begin to see an impact on achievement in the near future.
A third strategy for dealing with individual differences among students is to change the system within which instruction is provided. This is the strategy used by mastery learning. In mastery learning, the teaching environment is structured so that students develop mastery of prerequisite skills before they begin a new lesson. In practice, mastery learning has not demonstrated any superiority over traditional instruction when it is implemented on an individual classroom basis. However, it has been shown to dramatically improve student achievement when it is successfully implemented on a school- or district-wide basis.