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Individual Differences

Students come in all shapes and sizes. Even though college students are thought to be a select group of individuals, there is still a great deal of diversity among them in terms of intelligence, motivation, aptitude, cognitive styles, personality and learning styles.

The question then becomes: how do instructors meet the needs of all of their students when their students all have individual differences?

One answer is to deliver the content of your course in multiple ways. According to Wilbert McKeachie in his book Teaching Tips, "Even large universities and large classes can provide for individuality. Couldn't instructors, in a large class, for example, permit some students to gain information from reading in the library rather than from attending lectures? Might not some students be encouraged to do laboratory work, while others gain direct experiences in field settings? Could instructors provide small group discussions for some and computer consoles for others?"

He goes on to say, "At present, no one knows much about which students best achieve which goals with which experiences, but I would bet that the mere presence of several alternatives would result in educational gain."

According to Dunn and Dunn, there are three basic learning styles — auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Some students prefer getting information by listening to lectures or tapes, some prefer seeing information displayed via visuals, and some prefer some kind of movement while they're learning. Most people use a combination of learning styles.

Then there are differences in personality. Some personality types benefit from having a close relationship with their instructors, while others are perfectly content gaining information by themselves. Some students work well in heterogeneous groups, while others thrive in homogeneous groups.

Instructors who use a variety of learning activities in their classes may be able to accommodate some of these individual differences in learning.

Individual differences can enter the picture when it comes time for assessment as well. Some students can do well on exams if they are given more time. Accommodations such as allowing for more time on tests can be made through the Dean of Students' Office of Disabilities on the 8th floor of Young Graduate House. It is the student's responsibility to contact this office to determine appropriate accommodations.

Using mastery grading can be another way instructors can accommodate individual differences in the classroom. In mastery learning, students have more than one chance to "master" the material. This technique speaks to the fact that students learn at different speeds.

For some specific suggestions on how to handle individual differences in your classroom, click on the "Words of Wisdom" link.


  • ED169123 Eric. Current Research on Individual Differences in Learning and Instruction, Shuell, Thomas J.
  • Barnesandnoble.com/.../David-H-Jonassen/3/9780805814125. Handbook of Individual Differences, Learning, and Instruction. Jonassen, David H. and Grabowski, Barbara L.
  • Mckeachie, Wilbert J. (2006) Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th edition.


Words of Wisdom

  • Recognize that your learners process information at different speeds and in different ways. Some like hearing "the big picture" at the start of a lecture — others prefer that you start with details and build up to the "big picture" at the end of the lecture. To accommodate both styles of learners, start your lectures with both the "big picture" and a small piece of the puzzle, like a story, an anecdote or an example.
  • Use multiple learning activities to accommodate students' different learning preferences (e.g., videos, small group work, discussions, labs, recitation sections, having students go to the board and work problems, case studies, think-pair-share, etc.).
  • If possible, give all of your students adequate time to finish your exams.