Does Differentiated Instruction and Student Choice Affect Retention Rate of Students?
Patricia A. McCarrin
Coursework for Leadership for Middle Level Science
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
This Action Research Project (ARP) systematically studies the potential benefits of providing differentiated instruction with student choice. My interest in studying this problem stems from my work as a support teacher for gifted students. Part of my responsibility involves finding effective ways to help teachers differentiate instruction to maximize student achievement.
Two classes participated in the study. The study was conducted over five weeks. A Pre-test, post-test and a post-post test was given to each student to gauge retention. In the first class, instruction was teacher directed and a culminating activity was not required. The second class had autonomy in deciding how the material would be learned. They were also responsible for a culminating activity, demonstrating their knowledge of the concepts. Several assignments were required of both classes. The students that were given free choice in choosing assignments received a four point higher average on the post-post test than the students that had no choice. I found that students that were given free choice along with differentiated instruction retained more information over a longer period of time. This study leads me to conclude that allowing students more freedom to choose how they learn benefits their ability to retain information.
Purpose or Background:
Students come to
school with a variety of learning backgrounds. They have different
strengths and weaknesses that can affect their rate of acquisition and
retention. Teachers have to be aware of “who they are teaching as well as what
they are teaching” (Tomlinson 2003). The challenge teachers’ face is how
to construct lessons so the pace the students move will adjust to the
individuals in their classroom. There are several student factors that might
influence this pacing difference. There are increasing numbers of English
language learners, a growing achievement gap for minority learners, special education
has moved toward inclusion which mandates students spend more and more of their
day in the regular classroom and the needs of the gifted students who can work
at a much quicker pace need to be addressed (Tomlinson 2003). If public
schools fail to meet the challenge of accommodating this population it could
cause the demise of the public school system in the
Differentiated instruction has moved to the forefront as the preferred method of teaching. It is meant to accommodate the diverse population that teachers are finding in their classroom. No longer are students required to adjust to the curriculum because research has shown that many students may not be reaching their potential without the learning adjusting to them. Teachers are challenged to know their students. They must look at them as individuals so they can make learning meaningful (Bush, 2006). They must use methods that tap into the learning styles of their pupils and be flexible and creative in planning lessons.
In moving back to a format that is a modified version of the one room school house students learn to work collaboratively and effectively within a community. Differentiation better prepares students to cope in the real world, promotes tolerance and growth in how people interact with one another. It is an opportunity for students to learn how to value each other’s abilities in a caring, risk free environment if the teacher carefully constructs lessons and gives choices to academically stimulate the student (McAdamis, 1997).
Heterogeneous classrooms that provide differentiated instruction are more stimulating and interesting than classrooms that have a one size fits all approach. Students have a variety of choices and chances to learn from lessons that are carefully planned and designed to address an assortment of learning styles (Tomlinson 2004). There are a couple of models of differentiation. One is the Teacher-Differentiated Curriculum and the other is the Learner-Differentiated Curriculum. The Teacher-Differentiated Curriculum is one where modifications are made for the students. Learning styles are taken into account and modifications are incorporated but the teacher is the dispenser of knowledge. Everything is created by the teacher. In the Learner-Differentiated Curriculum the students are in control of their own learning. This is the ultimate goal. “Teachers are responsible for the in-depth training in necessary skills, concepts, and attitudes for lifelong learning. Facilitation includes the development of organizational skills, learning plans, the pursuit of knowledge, involvement with mentors, and the development of appropriate products, presentations and assessments” (Betts, 2004, pg.191). But teachers according to Sternberg and Zhang (2005) have to pay careful attention to an even finer distinction, thinking style vs. learning style. They believe this distinction is important based on the following three view points:
In light of this argument differentiation is important but so is choice. Choice along with differentiation can motivate a student to pursue information because the process is enjoyable which promotes greater enthusiasm and interest in learning. Teachers, in planning differentiated instruction, should take into account the thinking styles of their students. Are they internal or external? Internal students prefer working independently while external students prefer collaborative work. Are they liberal or conservative? Liberal students like to be creative and go beyond the parameters that are offered. Conservative students are more comfortable working within a given structure or rubric that helps them outline what they need to do (Sternberg and Zhang, 2005). Choice allows students to work in their own comfort zone.
testing is a key component of today’s school system. Test scores have not
been satisfactory to many that compare the schools in the
Differentiation has its challenges, more because it has not been a common practice and “teachers tend to teach the way they are taught” (Edwards, et al. 2006 pg.581). One particular challenge is grading. If students in the classroom are working at different paces and producing different quality work then making grades equitable and fair is a cause of consternation for many who are instituting differentiation. But teachers that are changing their classroom instruction also need to change the focus of their grading system. Students in a differentiated classroom have more control over their learning and are expected to have more “commitment to the learning process” (Tomlinson 2005). Teachers have to think of grading as a two-fold process, giving effective feedback and also as a means to evaluate their own instruction (Marzano 2000). Grading is not a one shot deal. It needs to be on-going with the goal of fine tuning learning and instruction based on clearly defined goals. “Lessons are not about treating everyone alike, but working to ensure that each student has the support he or she need.” to produce an end product that shows mastery of the concepts presented (Tomlinson, 2005). If this can occur the grading barrier will disappear and grading will serve a more useful purpose.
Bringing differentiated instruction to the classroom has its challenges but as you will see in the following study it also has its rewards.
Question: Will students that engage in differentiated instruction and have options for choice retain concepts longer than students that engage in more traditional differentiated instruction?
Rationale for Study: Students are expected to learn basic core information at each grade level. They are expected to draw on this background knowledge as they progress through school and increase the amount of information to show a certain level of competence when they graduate from the system. There is a variety of competence shown on standardized tests due to the many variables that each student brings to school. This study is one attempt to investigate a possible method that would lessen the information gap between the most and least competent of students.
The students that participated in this research project were a group of 6th grade students in a moderate to upper socio-economic class in a suburban school district. There were 46 students in all who participated. In class 1 there were 14 boys and 9 girls. In class 2, the class that had student choice, there were 9 boys and 14 girls. The ethnic makeup of class 1 was 3 Asian Americans and 20 Caucasians; class 2 was 4 Asian Americans and 19 Caucasians. The average age was 11.5.
The students will learn the cell theory, the difference between a plant and animal cell, the names of the parts of the cell, and the function of each part of the cell.
Learning Methods and Strategies:
Pre-Test, Post Test, Post-Post Test
Projector for display of power points
Computer lab with internet access
Textbooks – Prentice Hall Science Explorer: Cells and Heredity
Teacher-created strategy worksheets
Games created by teacher
Prior to introduction of unit but not before the pre-test students spent two days learning to work with microscopes. They looked at slides and read about scientists involved in the cell theory. Throughout the unit both classes conducted an on-going investigation on diffusion. They had placed an egg in vinegar and each day examined it and recorded the results.
All activities took place in 45 minute sessions. The choice class had several teacher-chosen whole class activities. In other classes, they were able to choose the activity they wished to work which included activities such as games and interactive or informative web pages. The choice class chose the activities they preferred to do for homework. The other class was teacher directed whole class activities every day. All were required to complete the same assignments. The class with the culminating project will have three days in class to work on their project and one day to present. The traditional class will all work on the same thing each day. (See Appendix)
In both classes learning styles were addressed through differentiated mediums such as films, labs, text and music.
National and State Learning Standards Assessed by this unit:
3.1.7A – Explain the parts of a simple system and their relationship to each other
3.1.7B - Identify different types of models and their functions
3.1.7 - Describe the effect of making a change in one part of a system on the system as a whole.
3.3.7B - Describe the cell as the basic structural and functional unit of living things.
· Identify the levels of organization from cell to organism.
· Compare life processes at the organism level with life processes at the cell level.
· Explain that cells and organisms have particular structures that underlie their functions.
Life Science: Content Standard C – Students should develop an understanding of the structure and function of living things.
Questions on the test were designed to access students’ background knowledge on cells and cell theory. They format used was specifically designed to not reveal any information that would allow students to guess answers.
The students follow the bell curve for ability. The majority fall in the average to above average group. All of the students were told that this was a study being conducted to determine how students learn material best. All of the students were told that their grade would not be affected if they chose not to participate.
The test that was given all three times was exactly the same and meant to measure information on cell theory, organelles and their function. The results of the pre-test showed that students had very little background knowledge on this subject. The highest score was a 3. The scoring was based on information that the students wrote down to answer the question. One point was given for each piece of correct information.
The results were as follows.
Post-Test Average – Outlier removed
Post-Post Test Average
Post-Post Average – Outlier removed
Post-Post Test Median
This study sought to discover if students would retain concepts for a longer period of time if they were able to learn them in a variety of ways and choose the way they were to learn the information. During the unit the students in both classes seemed enthused and eager to learn. The evidence shows that the students that had differentiation plus free choice scored higher in both the post-test and the post-post test. However there were too many variables affecting the study to be able to rely on the evidence shown by the testing. Two different teachers were teaching the classes. The teacher that taught the class with free choice (class 2) was a guest teacher. The teacher that taught the other class (class 1) was the students’ regular classroom teacher. When the post-test was administered class 2 had ample time to complete it and were encouraged to put down as much as they knew. Class one was told the same but they had about 5 minutes less time to complete it. One class had more homework than the other class even though it was interest based. The students in class 1 took the post-post test three days after class 2. There was no base line for ability.
Further research is needed to verify the findings of this action research and to investigate if differentiation and free choice really do help students retain information for longer periods of time. One future consideration would be to not just measure between the two classes but measure the difference for the individual student. Over a year period alter the lessons between differentiation and choice with traditional methods and compare the scores of individuals rather than the whole class.
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Class 1 – Pre-Test
Class 2 – Pre-Test
Class 1 – Students were assigned to read pages 23 to 31 in textbook
Prentice Hall, Science Explorer.
Class 2 – Students are shown a brief power point about cells and watch a 3 minute clip “The Inner Life of the Cell.” They are told that they will need to learn the following over the next two weeks:
Students are told:
There will be a variety of activities available to them to help them learn the concepts but not everyone has to do the same activity.
Students are given handouts with information on the organelles.
There will be homework but they will choose which homework they do.
Some activities will be as a whole class but other days will be complete choice. There will be a culminating project at the end of the unit of their choice and design that will demonstrate what they learned.
Homework choices were reviewed. Students picked a homework.
Class 1 – Starter: discussion of difference between plant and animal cell
Students study organelles. Rotate around class defining each organelle
Homework - Packet – 1-1 (See Appendix)
Class 2 – Students are given a list of words that they will be expected to know at the end of the unit. Short power point is shown with review of cell theory.
Teacher made games are available for students.
Internet access is available – students are given a list of sites to explore.
Class 1 – Students go to computer lab to work on creating a cell using power point that is creative and contains all of the organelles.
Home work – Packet 1-2 (See Appendix)
Class 2 – Same as class 1
Class 1 – Complete organelle in computer lab
Homework – Packet 1-2 Enrich (See Appendix)
Class 2 – Same as class 1
Class 1 – Organelle Theater – Students work in groups to come up with a skit that demonstrates the function of their organelle.
Class 2 – Free choice (Computers are available)
Class 1 - Students work in packet (see appendix) 1-1
Class 2 – Free Choice
Class 1 - Students make jello model of cell
Class 2 – Same as class 1
Class 1 - Students work on analogies of organelles. They work in groups and cut out pictures from magazines to create a poster to show how their organelle can be compared to something they know.
Class 2 – Students begin work on their culminating project
Homework – work on project
Class 1 – Students work on analogy posters
Class 2 – Students continue work on culminating project
Homework – work on project
Class 1 - Students watch movie on cell and its parts
Class 2 – Same as 1
Homework – work on project
Class 1 – present posters
Class 2 – present culminating projects
Post –Test for both classes
Class two utilized some of the homework they generated in class each day. If a student made a song or poem they had an opportunity to sing it to the class. If they created a riddle on a particular organelle, they were permitted to read it aloud and call on someone to answer and affirm or deny the response. During class two there were “Ding, Ding Moments.” The teacher would say ‘Ding, Ding” and everyone would stop. A question was asked and the person that answered it received a Hershey kiss.
Post – Post Test given to all students three weeks after post – test.
Patty McCarrin - September 30, 2007 Back to e-portfolio