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November 2018

Ask A REL Question:

What is the evidence on the importance of differentiated instruction to meet the needs of visual learners in grades K-8?


Thank you for the question you submitted to our REL Reference Desk regarding differentiated instruction for visual learners. We have prepared the following memo with research references to help answer your question. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. The references are selected from the most commonly used research resources and may not be comprehensive. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Other relevant studies may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

  1. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., & Marsh, E.J. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
    From the summary: “Many students are being left behind by an educational system that some people believe is in crisis. Improving educational outcomes will require efforts on many fronts, but a central premise of this monograph is that one part of a solution involves helping students to better regulate their learning through the use of effective learning techniques. Fortunately, cognitive and educational psychologists have been developing and evaluating easy-to-use learning techniques that could help students achieve their learning goals. In this monograph, we discuss 10 learning techniques in detail and offer recommendations about their relative utility. We selected techniques that were expected to be relatively easy to use and hence could be adopted by many students. Also, some techniques (e.g., highlighting and rereading) were selected because students report relying heavily on them, which makes it especially important to examine how well they work. The techniques include elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice…To foreshadow our final recommendations, the techniques vary widely with respect to their generalizability and promise for improving student learning. Practice testing and distributed practice received high utility assessments because they benefit learners of different ages and abilities and have been shown to boost students’ performance across many criterion tasks and even in educational contexts. Elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice received moderate utility assessments. The benefits of these techniques do generalize across some variables, yet despite their promise, they fell short of a high utility assessment because the evidence for their efficacy is limited. For instance, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation have not been adequately evaluated in educational contexts, and the benefits of interleaving have just begun to be systematically explored, so the ultimate effectiveness of these techniques is currently unknown. Nevertheless, the techniques that received moderate- utility ratings show enough promise for us to recommend their use in appropriate situations, which we describe in detail within the review of each technique.”

  2. Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K.A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6-17.
    From the abstract: “The concept of learning styles has tremendous logical and intuitive appeal, and educators' desire to focus on learning styles is understandable. Recently, a growing emphasis on differentiated instruction may have further increased teachers' tendency to look at learning styles as an instructionally relevant variable when individualizing instruction in increasingly heterogeneous classrooms. We discuss the overlapping concepts of individualized instruction and differentiated instruction, briefly review the evidence base for learning styles, and argue that instruction should indeed be individualized and differentiated. We conclude that there is insufficient evidence, however, to support learning styles as an instructionally useful concept when planning and delivering appropriately individualized and differentiated instruction.”
  3. Lauria, J. (2010). Differentiation through learning style responsive strategies. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(1), 24-29.
    From the abstract: “Many children are in dire need of differentiated instruction to support their unique learning needs. Differentiated instruction seeks to maximize each student's growth by recognizing that students have different ways of learning, different interests, different ways of responding to instruction, and preferred ways of learning or expressing themselves. Learners would benefit from being taught to use individualized learning-style homework and study strategies to help them succeed. With homework and study strategies differentiated to meet individual learning styles, elementary and middle school students are empowered to teach themselves. In this article, the author describes the learning-style model and discusses the advantages of diverse instructional strategies based on the learning-style preferences of students of all ages. She offers some steps for practitioners interested in exploring methods of helping students to discover their individual learning-style strengths and preferences.”
  4. Nagro, S.A., Hooks, S.D., & Fraser, D.W. (2016). Whole group response strategies to promote student engagement in inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 48(5), 243-249. and
    From the abstract: “Students with learning disabilities are often educated in inclusive classrooms alongside their typically developing peers. Although differentiated small- group instruction is ideal for students with learning disabilities, whole-group instruction continues to be the predominant instructional model in inclusive classrooms. This can create major challenges for teachers as they aim to actively engage all students, including students with learning disabilities. There are variations of whole-group response strategies, however, that teachers can use to accommodate a range of individual student needs. Collecting formative assessment data during whole-group instruction also can inform instructional decision making.”
  5. Tomlinson, C. (2004). The möbius effect: addressing learner variance in schools. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(6), 516-24.
    From the abstract: “Currently, educators separate out from typical students those whose learning needs vary from the norm. The norming and sorting process may earmark students as "different" without providing markedly unique instruction and without producing robust academic outcomes. An alternative to fragmentation for some students is the creation of classrooms in which human differences are valued and provided for, yet few teachers (including specialists) seem currently to have the skill or will to develop these sorts of settings. Educators need to examine the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches to addressing the learning needs that exist among people.”
  6. Walet, J. (2011). Differentiating for struggling readers and writers: improving motivation and metacognition through multisensory methods & explicit strategy instruction. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, Spring/Summer, 83-91.
    From the abstract: “This paper examines the issue of struggling readers and writers, and offers suggestions to help teachers increase struggling students' motivation and metacognition. Suggestions include multisensory methods that make use of the visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning pathways, as well as explicit strategy instruction to improve students' ability to self-regulate and apply learning strategies.”


Search Strings. Differentiated learning and visual learning OR individualized instruction and learning styles OR individualized instruction and visual learning OR cognitive style and differentiation OR differentiated learning and multisensory learning

Searched Databases and Resources.

  • ERIC
  • Academic Databases (e.g., EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, ProQuest, Google Scholar)
  • Commercial search engines (e.g., Google)
  • Institute of Education Sciences Resources

Reference Search and Selection Criteria. The following factors are considered when selecting references:

  • Date of Publication: Priority is given to references published in the past 10 years.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: ERIC, other academic databases, Institute of Education Sciences Resources, and other resources including general internet searches
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study types, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, as well as to correlational designs, descriptive analyses, mixed methods and literature reviews. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality.

REL Mid-Atlantic serves the education needs of Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

This Ask A REL was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0006 by Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic administered by Mathematica Policy Research. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.