CELFS Teaching and Learning Network

Differentiation and Students’ Needs

by Elizabeth Allen

Differentation pictureLast term we had a Teacher Talking session and then a Bite to EAP on differentiation in which various ideas were raised and discussed. These sessions led me to thinking more about how I could differentiate better in my own classes. If differentiation means maximising each and every students’ learning, a starting point must be knowing our students and identifying their individual needs. One way to classify these needs might be to group them into the following four categories: Background (what students already know and what they are familiar with); Ability (what each student’s strengths and weaknesses are); Learning Preferences (how each student learns best); Academic Course Needs (what each student needs to be able to do in their future / current university studies).

In each of these four groups there are a wide range of points that could be investigated and considered. For example, when looking at Background, it would be worth finding out where students are from, what their previous education experience was, if they have ever lived away from home before and if they have ever visited or lived in the UK before. For group 2, Ability, this would encompass students’ strengths and weaknesses in the four key skills as well as grammar and vocabulary, and this would change and develop as a course progresses. Group three, Learning Preferences, could include whether students are predominantly auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, or a mixture; whether they prefer working independently or in groups; whether they like to take a strong, vocal role in class or a quieter one; and if they feel they work best in the morning, afternoon or evening. For the last group, Academic Course Needs, there are a wide range of points to look at, such as the academic subject students are or will be studying; the level of study, e.g. undergraduate or post-graduate, taught or research; the requirements of their academic course; the type of essays they need to write; and the different ways in which they will be assessed. Collectively, information from these four areas should provide a starting point for understanding the needs of each learner in a class, as well as the group as a whole.

Having gathered ideas and information about students and their learning needs, the next step is thinking about how this can help create a more effective learning environment for each one of them, but that is possibly the subject of another post…

What type of information do you find out about your students’ needs? How do you get it?

For more ideas about differentiation, take a look at Geoff Petty’s website.


3 Responses to “Differentiation and Students’ Needs”

  1. Julia Gardos

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth. We tend to judge students’ abilities according to IELTS scores and group them accordingly (in the absence of other pre-arrival information), but this may prove to be misleading in my experience. It is important to observe students closely in the first week or two to see if they are in a suitable level, although stress and culture shock might also impact on their performance.
    Regarding cultural background and differences, I think it’s important not only for the teacher to get to know their students, but also that the students discuss these differences and understand what learning culture their classmates came from. Eg. for Arabic and Chinese students working together, it can be really useful to talk about turn taking, speaking up in class, pair work and group work, polite language to express agreement / disagreement, etc – students may have had totally different expectations in their countries.


    • Elizabeth Allen

      Very good points, Julia. I agree that as well as teachers getting to know their students, it is also very important for students to get to know each other and learn from each other. It terms of stress and culture shock, it can be helpful for students to realise that they aren’t alone and others are facing similar difficulties, and students can often give each other advice on how to cope with these issues. Also, as you say, many students come from very different learning cultures and have certain expectations of the role of the student and the role of the teacher. It is very useful to have an open discussion about these early on in a course so that students have the chance to explore these differences, and increase their understanding of the importance of pair/group work, peer/self elevation etc and other aspects of learning which be may new to them.


  2. steve22peters

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thought I would follow up our face to face conversation here to see how others may view some of the issues coming out of the practice-oriented post you provide and the useful taxonomy you suggest.

    One area I feel is missing here is one which Sarah Benesch addresses in her work on critical EAP and rights analysis as a way to extend needs analysis beyond what might be seen as socialisation. My reading of her work has prompted me to regard identity and engagement in the academic community as central to the challenges facing participants on EAP programmes. Do these academic writers see themselves as have the right to question the work of others who they may view as having greater authority, greater experience, and holding the keys to the gateway to their academic progress?

    Occasionally it comes to the surface in my work. Participants ask questions such as:

    1) “Am I allowed to include my own opinion?”
    2) “How can I say anything about this? I am not a professor.”
    3) “Can I critique this person’s work? Do I have the authority to do this?” or words to that effect.

    My response to this has been to explore, with programme participants, identity and positioning actions carried out by them. To do this, I have introduced diagrams of processes of academic writing and then, using written questions on the document, elicited responses that explore these ways people self-identify, in order to make them explicit. In making them explicit, as a group, we are able to engage with them critically and explore how our responses vary from each others’.

    The questions I use have been along the lines of:
    1) Which of these stages are you familiar with?
    2) In which of these stages do you feel most confident?
    3) In which stages are you an active member of an academic community?

    The fact that participants do not always immediately make sense of the third question is pertinent to the issue at hand. I have found that once it is discussed and explored it leads to rich discussions of the anxieties and sense of agency that individuals feel they have or lack in their ability/ responsibility to engage critically with knowledge construction in their field of study.

    Many thanks Elizabeth for prompting me to relate this to my understanding of participant needs.



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