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Does Differentiated Instruction and Student Choice Affect Retention Rate of Students?

 Patricia A. McCarrin

Coursework for Leadership for Middle Level Science

EDUC 545-631

University of Pennsylvania

 April 7, 2007

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 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:  

America is changing.  Education is free in the United States but not equal.  The money for students is not distributed equitably and high expectations are placed on student achievement.  Poverty still seems to be the number one hindrance to achievement (Teach for America, 2005) and school districts are scrambling to find ways to balance the inequities so that students have an equal chance of achieving success in a job market that requires sophisticated skills.   Currently employers are finding that too many students who graduate from high school and even university are often lacking the basic skills needed to function successfully in higher level positions of today and of the future (National Employers Skills Survey, 2005).  In today’s world this is broadening the socioeconomic gap.  We are no longer a manufacturing country but a service country, a technologically sophisticated country.  Employees are no longer protected in their positions like they might have been 50 years ago and they need to be able to adapt to changing markets.  Because of this realization, schools need to find ways to educate students so the economic gap decreases rather than increases.  All students need to be able to acquire the skills necessary to succeed beyond the current job market.  The one size fits all method of educating students has been found to be deficient (Education, 2005).  There are too many students in the same classroom with varied backgrounds; students with different learning styles, students from other countries, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Schools with diversity are the norm rather than the exception.  As a nation we have decided that “no child should be left behind” so teachers are struggling to find a way, despite inequitable conditions, to educate these diverse learners.  In order to do this differentiated instruction has become the expected method in most school districts.  But does it work?  Does it make a difference?  This study is designed to test if differentiation and choice influences what students learn and retain. 

Research/Theoretical 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 United States (George. 2005).   

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: 

  1. “If abilities, as currently measured account for only small proportions of individual differences in school performance, then one must ask what other kinds of constructs might account for what is not predicted.  Thinking styles provide one such construct.
  2. The pattern of styles that leads to success in a course in a given discipline is not the pattern of styles that leads to success later in a job in that discipline.  As a result, teachers may give the best grades to students who will not be particularly successful in a given field, and derail other students who might be very successful but will never have the chance to prove it because of low grades.
  3. Abilities take into account skills, but not preferences.  Preferences matter for school and job success.  Someone my have creative ability, but not enjoy generating ideas that challenge prevailing points of view. Or someone else might not be very creative, but enjoys coming up with ideas that, despite the individual’s efforts are not very novel or good” (Sternberg and Zhang, 2005, pg.245).

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.

 In addition testing is a key component of today’s school system.  Test scores have not been satisfactory to many that compare the schools in the United States with those in other countries around the world.  The United States is viewed as a super power.  We proclaim to educate all of the masses in spite of race, color, creed or economics but having students in school until the age of 16 is different than “educating” them.  Student achievement based on test scores is not up to par.  Because of this concern President Bush instituted “The No Child Left Behind Act,” which has sent educational systems around the country into a thither.  Schools can no longer use the excuse that students are not achieving based on poverty, language or learning disabilities.  The tests are measuring everyone and they are high stakes.  Funding can be cut from schools that don’t have “Adequate Yearly Progress.”  Tests are used to drive instruction.  “It’s now necessary to construct lesson plans to address individual needs so that no student is unprepared for standardized tests” (McBride, 2004, pg.39).  Students needs have to be met so they can perform well in the standardized tests which can make or break a school district and, depending on the results, send wealthy tax payers fleeing, leaving less balance in schools.   

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.

Demographic Information 

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.   

Unit Goals: 

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: 

  • Whole class instruction
  • Cooperative learning
  • Small group instruction
  • Student Choice
  • Games
  • Internet interaction

Materials List: 

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 labs

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.    

Unit Activities: 

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: 

State Standards

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. 

National Standards

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. 


Class 1

Class 2

Pre-Test Average



Pre-Test Median



Post-Test Average



Post-Test Average – Outlier removed

No outlier


Post-Test Median



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. 


Betts G. Fostering Autonomous Learners Through Levels of Differentiation. Roeper Review [serial online]. 2004; 26(4):190-191 

Bush, Gail. Differentiated Instruction. School Library Media Activities Monthly; 2006; 23(3):43-45. 

Cirin Rob, et al. National Employers Skills Survey. Key Findings. 2005. 

( Accessed April 4, 2007. 

Edwards C, Carr S, Siegel W. Influences of Experiences and Training on Effective Teaching Practices to Meet the Needs of Diverse Learners in Schools. Education. 2006; 126 (3): 580-592. Available from: EBSCO MegaFile, Ipswich, MAAccessed January 15, 2007. 

George P. A Rationale for Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom. “Theory Into Practice” (2005); 44(3): 185-193 Available from: EBSCO MegaFile, Ipswich, MAAccessed January 15, 2007. 

Henry, C. No One Size Fits All, Universal design strives to teach students with different learning syles. Education. 2005;83(43):96-98. 

Holloway J. Preparing Teachers for Differentiated Instruction. “Educational Leadership” (2000) 

Hunter R. Mastery Teaching.  California: Corwin Press, 2004 

Lister, Dena and Ansalone, George. Utili 

Marzano, Robert J. Transforming Classroom Grading. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  2000. 

McAdamis, S. A District Plan for Acceleration and Enrichment. Gifted Child Today Magazine. 1967: 23(3):20. Available from: EBSCO MegaFile, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 15, 2007. 

McBride B. Data-Driven Instructional Methods: ‘One Strategy Fits All’ Doesn’t Work in Real Classrooms. The Journal.  2004; 31(11):38-39.  Available from: EBSCO MegaFile, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 15, 2007. 

Smith, Abigail. Results from a Survey of Teach For America Corps Members. Equity Within Reach. Insights from the Front Lines of America’s Achievement Gap. Teach for America. 2005 ( Accessed April, 4, 2007. 

Sternberg, Robert J. & Li-fang Zhang.  Styles of Thinking as a Basis of Differentiated Instruction. Theory Into Practice. 2005; 44 (3): 245-253.  

Tomlinson C. Differentiation in Practice. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003. 

Tomlinson C. Differentiated Instruction. Theory Into Practice. 2005;44(3): 183-184.

Tomlinson C. Grading and Differentiation: Paradox or Good Practice. Theory Into Practice. 2005; 44(3): 262-269. 

Tomlinson C. The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999 

Tomlinson C.  Fullfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom. Virginia: Association for Supervision of Curriculum and Development,  2003 

Tomlinson C. Sharing Responsibility for Differentiating Instruction. Roeper Review. 2004; 26(4): 188-189. Available from: EBSCO MegaFile, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 15, 2007. 

Day 1 

Class 1 – Pre-Test  

Class 2 – Pre-Test 

Day 2 

Class 1 – Students were assigned to read pages 23 to 31 in textbook

Prentice Hall, Science Explorer.

  • Activate prior knowledge pg. 23
  • Read Intro Aloud pg. 23-24
  • Partner Read
  • HW – None

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:

  • Cell Theory
  • Differences between a plant and animal cell
  • Cell organelles
  • Function of organelles

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

Day 3 

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.

Choose Homework 

Day 4 

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

Choose Homework 

Day 5 

Class 1 – Complete organelle in computer lab

Homework – Packet 1-2 Enrich (See Appendix) 

Class 2 – Same as class 1

Choose Homework 

Day 6 

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) 

Day 7  

Class 1 - Students work in packet (see appendix) 1-1 

Class 2 – Free Choice 

Day 8  

Class 1 - Students make jello model of cell  

Class 2 – Same as class 1 

Day 9 

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 

Day 10 

Class 1 – Students work on analogy posters 

Class 2 – Students continue work on culminating project

Homework – work on project 

Day 11   

Class 1 - Students watch movie on cell and its parts 

Class 2 – Same as 1

Homework – work on project 

Day 12 

Class 1 – present posters 

Class 2 – present culminating projects  

Day 13  

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