Strategies for teaching diverse learners

Preschool kids jumping in classroom.

Image source: Adobe Stock/michaeljung.

By Chitra Mittha

Posted on 07-12-2021

The term “diverse learners” covers a broad range of abilities, communities, backgrounds, and learning styles.

Modern approaches to accommodating diversity in the classroom are shifting from teaching to the average student to more inclusive methods that afford equitable learning opportunities for all students. This does not mean tailoring lessons to each individual student, but rather exposing all students to a variety of materials, activities, and assessments. A range of technologies provide useful support for teaching diverse student populations, from initial engagement and information gathering to creating active and adaptive lessons and leveraging flexible eLearning tools.

What are diverse learners?

Student populations in any age group contain learners with a wide variety of different characteristics, including academic ability, physical ability, language, gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic factors, and personal experiences. Discussions about teaching strategies sometimes try to name and categorize diverse groups, such as English learners, Gifted or Talented, Special Needs, or ethnicity. You may also see references to different learning styles, such as visual, auditory, and tactile. These categories can be useful for identifying some important accommodations, but they can distract from the broader point that effective teaching strategies must include all students, not just a few with different learning abilities.

Effective teaching strategies for accommodating diverse learners

Some terms that you will often hear when discussing support for diverse learners are Differentiated Instruction, Inclusive Pedagogy, and Universal Design for Learning. These and other teaching strategies are representative of the shift in approach towards providing learning opportunities for all.

An essential part of these strategies is building profiles for each student, not just those with IEPs, to make it easier to plan lessons, meet individual needs, and assess student progress. It is important to design accommodations that do not make some feel like second class citizens. For example, if some students need note-taking assistance, making notes available to all students benefits everyone without singling out those in need.

Inclusive teaching is not meant to be resource intensive and does not require tailoring lessons to each individual student. Instead, the emphasis is on teaching in a variety of ways and exposing all students to a mix of materials, activities, and assessments that promote participation and engagement. Techniques that help one type of learners are of value to others, as most students do not have a single learning style.

How technology can be applied to support diverse student populations

Digitization, adaptive learning, and educational technologies can significantly reduce the workload and resources required for effectively teaching a diverse student population.

Build student profiles
Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and similar learning profiles provide useful information but can take a long time to compile through multiple interactions with students and parents. Digitizing this process is a terrific way to speed it up and make the information more readily accessible to teachers. Using Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Sign and online meetings can reduce this process from an average of more than 30 days to less than one week, making this crucial information about a student’s needs and abilities available sooner. Staff can use these digital tools to easily create and securely send out forms that are pre-filled with existing data, reducing duplication and repetitive paperwork. Automated workflows ensure that forms follow the school’s approved process, effortlessly keeping all stakeholders involved.

Providing teachers with binders full of student IEPs can be an ineffective method of communicating student information, forcing teachers to wade through multiple pages of unnecessary and sometimes confidential information to find the key data they need. Instead, With Adobe Acrobat, teachers can combine multiple digital IEPS plans into one searchable PDF, providing each teacher with a quick cheat sheet about the students in their class. Not only does this provide a more usable format for teachers, but it also takes less effort than photocopying and collating multiple sheets for each class.

Use active and adaptive learning
Another technology that is helping teachers support diverse groups is active and adaptive learning. These tools, such as Adobe Captivate, make it faster and easier to create personalized, modular, and customizable learning experiences. Instead of a strictly linear flow through a lesson, adaptive learning enables dynamic flows for each student or group, based on their prior knowledge and skill levels. Shared projects help get you started with downloadable materials that you can use in directly in your class or to provide inspiration for your own adaptive lessons. And tools like Adobe Acrobat have accessibility features built-in, to ensure that any classroom materials you create can be read and used by all students.

An essential part of adaptive learning is designing tests that evaluate understanding and expose key conceptual gaps to provide feedback and guidance for the next module. For example, in a multiple-choice math test, the incorrect answers are not randomly chosen but selected based on common conceptual misunderstandings. Results from tests provide students and teachers with more useful information on areas of weakness than a percentage correct. In another case, a university course allowed students to repeatedly take the weekly online tests until they passed, regenerating questions after every third attempt. Analyzing the results gave the professors a much clearer picture of the students’ knowledge and skill gaps and enabled them to adjust their teaching and enlist additional supports, long before any student was at risk of failing.

Leverage educational technologies
A wide variety of education-specific tools and even popular cloud-based applications enable faster customization of lesson materials, varied assessments, and engaging activities for all subjects and age ranges. These tools help teachers address all sorts of differentiation and customization needs, ranging from classroom aids and reference materials to supplementary tutorials, virtual learning environments, and multimedia enhancements. One of the big benefits of educational technologies (EdTech) is the wealth of shared resources online. Resource sharing sites, such as the Adobe Education Exchange, make it much easier for teachers to go where others have gone before.

Learning games are one example of EdTech that facilitates differentiated instruction and assessment, with different learning paths, immediate feedback, and supportive repetition. Trying to solve a problem several times with different approaches is very accepted in modern gaming, and since many students are familiar with different types of video games, they can find this approach less intimidating than a typical marked test or project. They can also facilitate group assessments with tasks that can only be completed by several students working together.

Greater diversity enables greater results

Teaching a diverse student body with several types of differentiated and inclusive instruction has been shown to help all students, not just a particular group or subset. Students gain flexibility and often report increased engagement, enjoyment, and motivation when exposed to a richer variety of materials and activities. Technology plays a key role in helping to reduce the cost, time, and resources required to support and teach diverse students, in large part by making it much easier to share and leverage a large set of online tools and content.

Get in touch with Adobe to learn more about how their education-focused solutions can help you support your school’s diverse student population.

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