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Hannah Martin 110172956

Research Proposal

What Happens to Student Engagement Levels When I Use

a Differentiated Approach to Teaching?
Hannah Martin
Key words: differentiation, differentiated instruction, engagement, affective, behavioural,
cognitive, diversity, inclusive education, learning environment
Homogenous teaching practices fail to address the increasing need for inclusive pedagogy
based on a commitment to diversity in school classrooms. From seeing the implementation
of these inadequate practices first hand, it is clear that they are unsuccessful at engaging
students at their own learning levels and do not provide them with a range of opportunities
to demonstrate their learning in ways they feel comfortable with. Differentiation is an
approach to teaching which considers the individual academic, social, cultural and
personal needs of students (Alavinia & Farhady 2012, Edwards, Carr & Siegel 2006,
Tomlinson 2000) In this context, learning experiences are built to be more meaningful,
constructive and engaging for all students at all levels. The advantage here is that when
students are engaged and motivated to learn, their sense of autonomy and responsibility
for their own learning increases. Although differentiation is widely acknowledged as an
effective response to diversity, especially in regards to engaging all students, there is little
empirical evidence to suggest reliable links between these two things (Belliveau-Brown
1993). The growing pressure on educators time in an age of standardised testing also
means that differentiation is more often that not ineffectively implemented. This means that
many students are missing out on the opportunity to use their differences to express
progression and development in their learning.
This research will attempt to understand how restructuring teaching practices to
encompass a differentiated approach is advantageous to student engagement levels.
More specifically, careful attention will be placed on taking a whole curriculum approach to
differentiation rather than focusing on specific subject areas. As an effective educator, it is
important to provide all students with the opportunity to interact with and construct
meaning from all areas of the curriculum. This not only demonstrates equitable teaching
practices but also affords educators with the opportunity to know students well and to
structure learning experiences accordingly.

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Aims and Focus

This research aims to develop a broad understanding of how a differentiated approach to
teaching makes a difference to student learning. In regards to improving personal teaching
practice, this research will focus on the ways differentiated instruction contributes to
knowing students and their needs well. In order to determine this, a particular emphasis
will be placed on how this is realised through student engagement levels in the classroom.
Therefore, this research has a three-fold approach which can be best represented by the
following three questions:
1. What impact does a differentiated approach to teaching have on student learning
compared to traditional teaching practices?
This question draws on the evidence that differentiation does make some difference when
learning experiences are tailored to individual needs. It also assumes that traditional
teaching practices no longer fulfil the requirements of a diverse classroom and a different
approach is needed. Importantly, differentiation here is envisioned as an approach to
teaching rather than just a collection of strategies to be implemented at the right time. This
means that a holistic approach to teaching is essential for successful research.
2. How are engagement levels affected by a differentiated approach to teaching at three
levels - affective, behavioural and cognitive? (Belliveau-Brown 1993)
Although there is not a large indication of the links between engagement and
differentiation, this question assumes that there is in fact a significant link. It has been
shown that an increase in student achievement levels, motivation and interest are all
reliable indicators of the success of differentiation. This question therefore narrows the
scope of these positive indicators (and other potential indicators) and focuses on
observable student behaviours of engagement and improvement in engagement levels.
3. How do differentiation and engagement levels work together to provide meaningful,
equitable, constructive, personal and useful learning experiences for students?
This question considers all the aspects of the overarching research question. It determines
the overall aim of this research which explores the ways in which differentiation makes a
difference to student learning with particular reference to student engagement levels (as a
observable indicator of success). Ultimately, this question is intended to address the
effectiveness of differentiation in a classroom setting in terms of providing for a democratic
This research is intended to be exploratory in nature as a differentiated approach to
teaching may take some time to develop. Overall, it is expected that adopting a
differentiated approach will indeed engage students at a deeper level and contribute to
more meaningful learning experiences. In terms of personal teaching practice, this
research is intended to support the hypothesis that knowing students and their academic,
social and personal needs contributes significantly to academic success, personal pride in
work and motivation at school.

Underpinning Literature

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Tomlinson (2005), who is considered to be an expert on differentiation, suggests that the

time has come for educators to change their approach to teaching in order to effectively
reach all students with engaging learning experiences. This is because diversity within
school classrooms is increasing exponentially and one-size-fits-all teaching practices no
longer provide for a good education for all students at all levels.
According to Muthomi, Mbugua (2014) and Tieso (2001) teaching practices which
endeavour to implement a differentiated approach not only result in higher achievement
levels for students (when compared to a traditional teaching approach) but also enable
students to produce higher quality work beyond what is expected of them. This points to
two important considerations of this research - Firstly, differentiation has shown to be
effective and affective for students in regards to tailored learning experiences and
therefore is an appropriate and timely choice for improving personal teaching practice.
Secondly, students are capable of more than what teachers assume of them. Cunningham
(2015) and Harris (2012) determine that deficit discourses affected and informed by
teacher perception contribute significantly to the proper implementation of differentiation.
In regards to this research, differentiation provides a means by which all students are
given an opportunity to demonstrate their own learning in a variety of ways and processes.
Engagement is seen to be an essential construct to success at school (Belliveau-Brown
1993, Logan, Bakeman and Keefe 1997, Smith 2006) in regards to individual expression,
taking responsibility for learning and constructing meaningful connections which effect
future learning. Based on this widely held belief and observed results, Lam, Jimerson,
Wong, Kikas, Shin, Veiga, et al (2014) conducted an large international study which
focused on how to measure student engagement levels. It was seen that the categories of
affective engagement - the way students feel about learning
behavioural engagement - the effort and perseverance of students in their school work
cognitive engagement - cognitive strategies students use to develop their learning
were appropriate in determining the way in which engagement levels affect school
success. Further, Belliveau-Browns (1993) smaller qualitative study suggested that when
differentiated instruction was used, these three categories of engagement were affected in
some way.
Overall it is clear that both differentiation and engagement are needed for an academically
successful, heterogenic-centered (Blozowich & Trohoski 2001, Endepohls-Ulpe &
Thmmes 2014, Hodge 1997, Tomlinson 1999) and individual-supportive classroom.
There is however, little empirical and exploratory evidence linking these two important
considerations. This research endeavours to establish a significant relationship between
these two things in order to inform personal teaching practices.
Methods and Analysis

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The methodological choice for this research falls under the category of action research.
This type of research involves self-reflection which is based on improving educational
practice in relation to ones own approach to pedagogical practices (Brady, Milroy, Prosser
& Hattam 2006). The nature of a differentiated approach to teaching requires a complete
shift in ones philosophical approach to teaching and is therefore a good foundation for
action research with a view to keep improving and developing holistic teaching practice
(Brady, Milroy, Prosser & Hattam 2006).
This research is intended to be flexible and adaptable in order to work with any school
year level however, primary school classrooms will be the target sample. Ultimately, this
research demands a mixed-method approach whereby both qualitative and quantitative
methods are combined to produce a reliable and accurate result (Cohen, Manion, Morrison
& Richard 2011). This is an important part of the research process as quantitative results
only allow for a measurable result which can be skewed by outliers or bias. For example,
some students may be engaged with their work but not demonstrate any engaged
behaviours due to introversion, shyness or other factors. In order to combat this outlier,
qualitative journal entires, reflections and responses to guided questions are required to
make sense of all student engagement levels. Further, both confirmatory and exploratory
methods are paramount to this research as they have the potential to both confirm the
already documented success of differentiated instruction and also provide a means by
which empirical evidence can collected and assessed. From the literature, this was a
notable gap and needed to be further explored in order to create reliable links between
differentiation and engagement in the classroom. This research will be conducted over a
five week period in order to fit in with the Professional Experience Placement three.
However, it is important to note that action research is an ongoing process of reflection,
trial and error and a commitment to improving practice (Brady, Milroy, Prosser & Hattam
2006). A specific method for this research is presented below which endeavours to
emulate this cyclic process over the five week period:
Week One:
Observation of the current classroom environment will be carried out in relation to three
1. Differentiation implementation test (using Tomlinsons Categories of Differentiation
2005 - see Appendix One)
2. Engagement levels checklist - affective, behavioural and cognitive (see Appendix Two)
3. Qualitative written student feedback on lessons
These three considerations will allow for a thorough examination of current teaching
practices and whether or not they follow traditional teaching practices or differentiated
practices. It will also allow for student feedback on how they find current learning
experiences, whether or not they can take responsibility for their learning and their overall
approach to learning at school. Further, these first observations will form a good
foundation for the progression of research and will serve to start the process of getting to
know students at a personal level.

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Week Two:
In order to combat improper implementation of differentiation, this stage of the research
will require a more concerted effort to get to know the specific academic, social and
personal needs of students. This will be ascertained by two means:
1. Interview with Mentor Teacher regarding students (eg. learning styles, confidence
levels, preferred subjects etc.)
2. Student work samples over a broad range of subjects
A differentiated approach to teaching will not deliberately implemented in this week so that
a better comparison can be made between teaching practice over the course of the
research. It will be important to record and reflect on personal teaching practice at this
stage through the use of a journal. This will ensure that constant observation of students is
taking place and that any notes collected reflect the knowledge of the mentor teacher as
he/she will know the students the best at this stage. In particular, careful notes will be
made in relation to student interaction, involvement, motivation and attitudes in response
to personal teaching practices.
Week Three:
Having constructed a broad picture of the individual needs of students, this stage of the
research will involve putting differentiated instruction into place. This may be easier said
than done as it requires a whole shift in ones approach to teaching practice. Indeed,
Valianda and Koutselini (2009) are adamant that focussing on specific strategies to enable
differentiation is not enough. There must be a shift in ones mind in order to establish good
differentiated teaching practices based on a commitment to diversity and individual
interaction with students. In order to begin this shift, Tomlinsons Categories of
Differentiation (2005) will be used to inform teaching practices, strategies and
individualised instruction (see Appendix One). This tool provides a framework for
differentiation by splitting teaching practice into four areas - content, process, product and
learning environments. It is important to note that a whole curriculum approach is needed
for this research and so this tool will be used within all subject areas and lesson planning
processes. In order to record the results of implementing differentiation across the
curriculum, four types of observation will be considered:
1. Engagement levels checklist - affective, behavioural and cognitive (see Appendix Two)
2. Qualitative student feedback on lessons
3. Mentor teacher feedback on personal teaching practice and student engagement
levels (eg. any changes, what was useful, what could have been left out, engaged all
students etc.)
4. Student work samples
Notably, these processes mirror the first week of preliminary observations and correlate
with the second week of observations. This is intended to provide a means by which
previous teaching practices can be compared to the proper implementation of
differentiated instruction. A personal journal will also continue to be valuable at this stage
in order to reflect on the quality of ones own differentiated teaching practice, interaction
with students and mentor feedback.

Hannah Martin 110172956

Week Four:
This stage of the research will involve continuing the process of week three in order to
provide longevity to the results. By extending the previous process, it is also more likely
that a personal philosophy of differentiated teaching practices will be established. It will
also be important to continue to make use of self-reflective journal entries and open
conversation with the mentor teacher in order to improve practice. This may result in
targeted action for individual students in order to satisfy the equitable teaching aim of
differentiated instruction.
Week Five:
As indicated by the literature, student achievement results, pride and motivation are all
successful indicators which demonstrate the success of differentiated instruction.
Importantly however, this research is focused on observable behaviours, affects and
cognitive involvement in relation to engagement levels within the classroom. In order to
obtain a more empirically informed result, this stage of the research will involve setting an
assessment which includes all aspects of differentiation. The nature of the assessment will
give students the ability to choose in regards to topic, process and presentation. In
keeping with a holistic approach to the curriculum, the assessment will endeavour to
include a number of subject areas and skills. For example, students might choose to focus
on space and include scientific measurements of distance from the earth. They then might
choose to present this information on a poster or create a 3-D model to demonstrate their
learning. Also students might choose to work in pairs or individually. This assessment will
need to be constructed alongside the research process in order to be relevant to the
curriculum that is taught at this stage in the school year. The four previous types of
observation will still be used (eg. engagement levels checklist, qualitative student
feedback, mentor teacher feedback and student work samples) to assess the success of a
differentiated approach to teaching. Further, the grading of this assignment will be
informed by five guiding questions suggested by Tomlinson (2000) which will help to
guarantee that grading is appropriate for all students at all levels (see Appendix Three). An
overall journal reflection of the five week research process will also be needed at this
Assessment of data
The use of checklists will enable trends to be observed within the classroom. These trends
will be unearthed by collating results into percentages. In relation to the engagement
checklist, percentages will be split up by the three categories of engagement observation affective, behavioural and cognitive. Separate collation of preliminary results (week one)
and current results (week three, four and five) will allow for a simple before and after
comparison of engagement levels. A high percentage will establish the success of
differentiation in meeting the individual needs of students and keeping students engaged
in the classroom. These results will also be supported by thematic content analysis of
personal journal entires and notes, student feedback and mentor teacher feedback.

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Outcomes and Possible Impact

From this research, it is likely that two possible outcomes will emerge.
Firstly, in response to the stated hypothesis, it will be seen that differentiation does
make a difference to student learning and contributes significantly to the construction of
meaningful learning experiences. This type of tailored instruction which is informed by a
deep knowledge of individual student needs, means that priority needs to be placed on
making an effort and putting in the relevant time to establish this knowledge. It is more
than likely that this will require a commitment to get to know students outside of payed
hours. It will also mean that personal observational skills will need to be developed in order
to correctly assess student readiness, learning level, strengths and weaknesses. On a
more personal level, the positive impact of differentiation and its use in the classroom
means being able to confront ones own personal biases, assumptions and unfair
expectations that may be placed on students. The ability to be self-reflective in this context
allows for equitable teaching practices where all students have the option to benefit from
the proper implementation of differentiation.
Secondly, it will likely be seen that engagement levels increase across the board
when differentiation is implemented. Although this is not strongly supported by the
literature, it is clear that individualised instruction and choice affords students the ability to
take responsibility for their own learning and be actively involved in the learning process.
In terms of personal teaching practice, these types of results work to confirm that
differentiation is needed to be an effective educator. In order to provide relevant and
meaningful curriculum, it is not good enough to have a half-hearted approach to teaching
content and skills. Ultimately, if there is the potential for student engagement levels to be
improved, teaching practice needs to reflect this.
Overall, it will be seen that in order to improve personal teaching practice a better
knowledge of differentiation needs to be gained. This will require collaboration with peers
and mentors who have started to implement or have already implemented differentiation in
their classrooms. On a practical level, these predicted outcomes may be further extended
by directly asking students what may or may not be helpful for them in their learning and
adapting learning experiences to suit.

Alavinia, P & Farhady, S 2012, Teaching Vocabulary through Differentiated
Instruction: Insights from Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles, Modern Journal

of Language Teaching Methods, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 73-90

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Belliveau-Brown, S 1993, Motivating High School Students to Learn: The Relationship

Between Differentiated Instruction and Student Engagement in Learning, PhD thesis,
University of New Brunswick, Canada.

Brady, K, Milroy, P, Prosser & Hattam, R 2006, Teacher-as-Researcher: Teacher

Resource Booklet, Redesigning Pedagogies in the North Project: School of Education.

Blozowich, D & Trohoski, C 2001, Differentiated instruction in heterogeneouslygrouped sixth-grade classrooms, PhD thesis, Immaculata College, United States.

Cohen L, Manion, L & Morrison, K 2011, Research methods in education, 7th ed,
Routledge Falmer, London.

Cunningham, C 2015, Differentiation Revealed: A multiple-methods qualitative study

on the implementation of differentiated instruction in a mixed-ability elementary
classroom, PhD thesis, University of Arkansas: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,
United States.

Edwards, C, Carr, S & Siegel W 2006, Influences of Experiences and Training on

Effective Teaching Practices to meet the needs of Diverse Leaners in Schools,

Education, Vol. 126, No. 3, pp. 580-592.

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Endepohls-Ulpe, M & Thmmes, N 2014, Chances and Limitations of Implementing

Measures of Differentiation for Gifted Children in Primary Schools: The Teachers Part,
Turkish Journal of Giftedness and Education, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 24-36

Harris, D 2012, 'Varying teacher expectations and standards: curriculum differentiation

in the age of standards-based reform, Education and urban society, Vol. 44, No. 2,
pp. 128-150

Hodge, P, 1997, An analysis of the impact of a prescribed staff development

program in differentiated instruction on student achievement and attitudes of
teachers and parents toward that instruction, Unpublished EdD thesis, University of
Alabama, United States.

Lam, S, Jimerson, S, Wong, B, Kikas, E, Shin, H, Veiga, FH et al 2014, 'Understanding

and measuring student engagement in school: The results of an international study from
12 countries, School Psychology Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 213-232.
Logan, K, Bakeman, R & Keefe, E 1997, Effects of Instructional Variables on Engaged
Behaviour of Students with Disabilities in General Education Classrooms, Exceptional

Children, Vol. 63, No. 4, pp. 481-497

Muthomi, M & Mbugua, Z 2014, Effectiveness of Differentiated Instruction on

Secondary School Students Achievement in Mathematics, International Journal of

Applied Science and Technology, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 116-122


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Smith, S 2006, The relationship between student literacy diversity, instructional

differentiation and academic engagement in inclusive primary classrooms, PhD thesis,
University of Newcastle, Sydney.

Tieso, C 2001, Curriculum: Broad brushstrokes or paint-by-numbers?, The Teacher

Educator, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 199-213

Tomlinson, C 1999, Mapping a Route Toward Differentiated Instruction, Personalised

Learning, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 12-16

Tomlinson, C 2000, Reconcilable Differences? Standards Based Teaching and

Differentiation, Educational Leadership, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 6-11

Tomlinson, C & Strickland, A 2005, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for

Differentiating Curriculum, Grades 9-12, Association for Supervision and Curriculum

Development, United States.

Valianda, S & Koutselini, M 2009, Application and Evaluation of Differentiation

Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms, PhD thesis, University of Cyprus, Cyprus.


Differentiation Implementation Test
Adapted from Tomlinsons Categories of Differentiation (2005)

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Reading Partners, Think-Pair-Share,
Highlighted Texts

Games, Learning circles, Learning


Learning Environment
Choice in assessment presentation, student Different table groupings, stand up desks,
created rubric
outside lesson

Engagement Levels Checklist
Heavily adapted from Lam, Jimerson, Wong, Kikas, Shin, Veiga et al (2014) and informed
by studies conducted by Belliveau-Brown (1993) and Smith (2006).


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This checklist is intended to be used for an individual student or for a group of students.
Affective Engagement
Eg. Wants to be in the classroom, generally happy
Eg. Attentive, concentrating, keen to complete work that is
Behavioural Engagement
Eg. raises hand, ask questions, discusses task with peers
On Task
Eg. Academic/task talk, persists when it is difficult,
concentrating on work, eyes on work
Cognitive Engagement
Eg. relates task to real life situations, thinks of examples in
own life that could relate to the task, relates task to
previous knowledge in subject

Synthesis & Analysis

Eg. displays problem solving skills, picks up important
points (rather than just reading something over), tries to
understand how things fit together

Assignment Grading - Guiding Questions
Adapted from Tomlinson (2000)


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1. How do learners benefit from a grading system that reminds everyone that students
with disabilities or who speak English as a second language do not perform as well as
students without disabilities or for whom English is their native tongue?
2. What do I gain by telling my most able learners that they are "excellent" on the basis of
a standard that requires modest effort, calls for no intellectual risk, necessitates no
persistence, and demands that they develop few academic coping skills?
3. In what ways do my current grading practices motivate struggling or advanced learners
to persist in the face of difficulty?
4. Is there an opportunity for struggling learners to encounter excellence in my current
grading practices?
5. Is there an opportunity for advanced learners to encounter struggle in my current
grading practices?
6. How can I ensure that I provide an equitable grading system which recognises
difference and diversity while still maintaining expected standards?