Individual Differences

How Do Students Differ? 
Here is the position of the different theories with regards to individual differences among students and the role these differences play in learning.

In addition to the text here, a summary of the theorists' views on individual differences is available as a PowerPoint file or as a pdf. Click on either to download. 

Ausubel believes that individual learning is based upon what the individual already knows; the key individual difference variable is one’s cognitive structure or a mental map of existing knowledge. The key component in Ausubel’s theory is meaningful learning. He believes that the individual is able to acquire more knowledge if the new information is meaningful thereby facilitating subsumption into the existing cognitive structure. Ausubel would support pretesting to determine exactly what a student knows. New information would not be introduced without ensuring the new knowledge could be tightly linked and connected to the students existing cognitive structure. He would use elaborate multiple choice, visuals, pictures, sequencing, grouping, and sorting activities to determine the organization of the learner’s cognitive structure. Ausubel would group students who have related knowledge and differentiate direct instruction. Instruction should be systematic, direct, and explicit with the learner being told exactly what is expected. He favored individual intermittent practice that provides opportunities for the learner to make more connections and anchor concepts meaningfully into the cognitive structure. If instruction does not take individual differences into account by considering what the learner already knows, instruction will result in rote, temporary, and arbitrarily anchored connections that will soon be lost. 

Bandura’s theory of learning relies heavily on the concepts of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and modeling. Each of these components is largely influenced by individual differences between learners. Self-efficacy describes how an individual feels about his or her capabilities to accomplish a particular task. Bandura notes that self-efficacy influences an individual’s choices, amount of effort, persistence, and esteem. Self-efficacy is a purely individual concept. Within a classroom of students, it is likely that there are as many different levels of efficacy for a specific learning as there are students. These differing levels have a complex influence on how best to conduct instruction.

Bandura also notes the importance of modeling. Modeling is learning vicariously through watching others and seeing them receive rewards or punishment. Modeling is largely influenced by individual differences. In order for modeling to be effective, a learner must find the model competent, powerful and/or prestigious, and relevant. For modeling to be effective, the rewards a model receives must be relevant to the learner. This value is determined by the individual. The determination of a model’s overall effectiveness is determined solely by the individual learner.

Self-regulation is important for learning. Self-regulation is the ability an individual has to make choices concerning in which behaviors he or she will participate. Through self-regulation the learner can decide not to do something that he or she was directly reinforced for or something that he or she learned through modeling. There are three steps of the self-regulation process: 1. Self-monitoring 2. Judging performance 3. Self-response. Each of the steps in this process is conducted at the individual level. An individual’s ability to successfully conduct the self-regulation process greatly influences success in learning.

Bandura believes that instruction should be altered to account for individual differences. Instruction must be based on modeling, self-regulation, and self-efficacy. Instructors should develop environments that create and encourage self-efficacy within individual learners, which is most effectively done by direct encouragement of students and providing opportunities for students to experience mastery or success in particular learning tasks. Self-efficacy can also be influenced through positive modeling in which students observe others experiencing success at a particular academic task. Instruction on self-regulation includes the introduction of strategies, how to use them, and what the benefits are of self-regulated learning. 

Individuals differ in what type of prior knowledge they bring to a learning task. Each individual has a cognitive structure built from prior learning experiences, which differs from any other learner. The instructor should adjust instruction to fit the learner’s current state of understanding. Bruner believes that every individual has the ability to acquire knowledge. The key to reaching each individual with knowledge is instruction. Bruner thinks that any student learns best through a process of discovery.

Bruner classifies an individual’s cognitive ability using three stages: enactive (use of manipulatives), iconic (use of visual images), and symbolic (use of language and reasoning). Unlike Piaget, Bruner sees these stages as developing and accumulating during the learner’s educational process and does not link the stages necessarily to age or physical development. This aspect of Bruner’s theory demonstrates an individual difference, which is the rate at which learners move through these stages. Children should be provided with study materials, tools, and activities that are matched to and capitalize on their developing individual cognitive abilities. Bruner would alter curriculum and instruction based on an individual learner’s interests. In this vein, Bruner would allow the individual students to change topics, rebuild and revisit the curriculum while simultaneously varying learning mode (enactive, iconic and symbolic) and pace to meet an individual learner’s needs.

Each individual constructs a world through representation of his or her experiences with it. Education is concerned with assisting each individual in developing or constructing a world. The personalization of knowledge, i.e. making it meaningful and useful in regards to the learner’s thinking, attitudes, and feelings, creates interest in learning. If instruction does not heed the individual’s particular position, i.e. their prior knowledge, schema, or mental models they bring to the learning environment, then learning will not occur successfully for that individual. 

According to Gagne, the level of pre-requisite skills acquired by students may differ by student; therefore, instruction must meet the needs of the individual learner. Gagne determined that a set of ordered intellectual skills made up an instructional plan for teaching a particular concept. Mastery of lower level skills would promote deeper understanding and acquisition of more complex intellectual skills. Even though Gagne’s learning hierarchy presents a fixed learning sequence, all students may not have attained mastery of lower level perquisite skills creating multiple entry points where different students may enter into the learning sequence. These multiple entry points require the teacher to assess students’ abilities and skills to determine each student’s position within the learning hierarchy in order to tailor instruction by the learning tasks. Unless instruction begins at each student’s individual level, the student will not acquire the skills necessary skill to solve complex problems related to the learning. A variety of instructional activities would then be developed to ensure mastery of the sequenced prerequisite skills required for the learning goal, permitting students to work at their own pace. 

Skinner would propose that individual differences among students come from the fact that each student comes from different environments in which their learning behavior has been shaped and reinforced in various ways. Therefore, what may be considered a positive reinforcer for one student (or group of students) may not promote positive learning behavior for others. This change in behavior is the point at which learning occurs. Advanced student learning occurs through the shaping process, in which the teacher reinforces successive approximations in individual student behavior towards the desired learning outcome. If teachers do not adjust their instruction to individual student needs, then the steps that the student makes towards the instructional goal cannot be reinforced; thus, shaping (and learning) cannot occur. Teachers must diagnose the current level of behavior of the student and create an environment that allows for various rates of progression to fit the needs of the individual learner. The idea to begin each learner at a point where they can produce desired responses and be reinforced for those responses. Teachers must monitor each student closely and provide immediate feedback for each student’s progress. Given the constraints and reality of the classroom, it is difficult for one teacher to monitor and reinforce the progress of a class thirty or so individual learners. As an alternative, Skinner proposes the use of computer-assisted instruction (CAI), in which computers present the information and provide immediate feedback to the individual learner. 

Vygotsky believes that the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the prime determinant of individual differences and development among students. He defines the Zone of Proximal Development as the discrepancy between the child's capacity to solve problems independently and the child's ability to solve problems with assistance. Vygotsky maintains that social interaction with a more knowledgeable person is critical for cognitive development. This interaction helps the child attain a higher level of development than can be achieved alone. The adult should scaffold instruction by adjusting the level of his or her assistance in response to the child’s performance. If these adjustments are not made then the student will not attain a higher level of cognitive development. Vygotsky also believes that individual differences can be attributed to culture. He states that students first make learning connections on the social level with their environment and other people; then, learning connections are manifested at the individual level. Since culture plays an essential role in cognitive development, it should be incorporated during instruction. Out of school experiences should be related to school experiences for optimal learning to take place. Although Vygotsky acknowledges the relevance of individual differences, he does not believe that we should focus on a child’s individual differences in isolation. Instead, educators should focus more on the student’s potential by facilitating problem solving in a social context.