Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 4: Student Diversity

I’ll tell you this: There are some people, and then there are others.
--Anna Maude Harris

Anna Harris was my grandmother as well as a schoolteacher from about 1910 to 1930. Her comment, which she used to make about her students, makes a good theme for this chapter—and even for teaching in general. Students do differ in a multitude of ways, both individually and because of memberships in families, communities or cultural groups. Sometimes the differences can make classroom-style teaching more challenging, but other times, as Anna Harris implied, they simply enrich classroom life. To teach students well, we need to understand the important ways that they differ among themselves, and when or how the differences really matter for their education. This chapter offers some of that understanding and suggests how you might use it in order to make learning effective and enjoyable for everyone, including yourself.

For convenience I will make a major distinction between individual differences and group differences among students. As the term implies, individual differences are qualities that are unique; just one person has them at a time. Variation in hair color, for example, is an individual difference; even though some people have nearly the same hair color, no two people are exactly the same. Group differences are qualities shared by members of an identifiable group or community, but not shared by everyone in society. An example is gender role: for better or for worse, one portion of society (the males) is perceived differently and expected to behave a bit differently than another portion of society (the females). Notice that distinguishing between individual and group differences is sometimes convenient, but it is always a bit arbitrary. Individuals with similar, but nonetheless unique qualities sometimes group themselves together for certain purposes, and groups unusually contain a lot of individual diversity within them. If you happen to enjoy playing soccer and have some talent for it (an individual quality), for example, you are more likely than usual to end up as a member of a soccer team or club (a group defined by members’ desire and ability to play soccer). But though everyone on the team may fit a “soccer player’s profile” at some level, the team will probably also contain individuals with varying levels of skill and of motivation. The group, by its very nature, may tend to “hide” these signs of individuality.

To begin, then, I look at several differences normally considered to be individually rather than group based. This discussion will necessarily be incomplete, however, simply because individual differences so numerous and important in teaching that parts of the topic are also contained in later chapters (see also, for example, Chapter 5, "Students with Special Educational Needs" or Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 about assessment of learning). Later sections of the chapter deal with three important forms of group diversity: gender differences, cultural differences, and language differences.

Individual Styles of Learning and ThinkingEdit

All of us, including our students, have preferred ways of learning. Teachers often call these differences learning styles, though this term may imply more consistency across situations than is really the case. One student may like to make diagrams to help remember a reading assignment, whereas another student may prefer to write a sketchy outline instead. Yet in many cases the students could in principle reverse the strategies and still learn the material: if coaxed (or perhaps required), the diagram-maker could takes notes for a change and the note-taker could draw diagrams. Both might still learn using the alternate style, even if neither felt as comfortable as with the strategies they prefer.

This reality suggests that a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach may be a teacher’s best response to students’ learning styles. Or to put it another way: it is good to support students’ preferred learning strategies where possible and appropriate, but neither necessary nor desirable to do so all of the time (Loo, 2004; Stahl, 2002)[1][2]. Most of all, it is neither necessary nor possible to classify or label students according to seemingly fixed learning styles and then allow them to learn only according to those styles. A student may prefer to hear new material rather than see it; he may prefer for you to explain something orally, for example, rather than to see it demonstrated in a video. But he may nonetheless tolerate or sometimes even prefer to see it demonstrated. In the long run, in fact, he may learn it best by encountering the material in both ways, regardless of his habitual preferences.

That said, there is evidence that individuals, including students, do differ in how they habitually think. These differences are more specific than learning styles or preferences, and psychologists sometimes call them cognitive styles, meaning typical ways of perceiving and remembering information, and typical ways of solving problems and making decisions (Zhang & Sternberg, 2006)[3]. In a style of thinking called field dependence, for example, individuals perceive patterns as a whole rather than focus on the parts of the pattern separately. In a complementary tendency, called field independence, individuals are more inclined to analyze overall patterns into their parts. Cognitive research from the 1940s to the present has found field dependence/independence differences to be somewhat stable for any given person across situations, though not completely so (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977; Zhang & Sternberg, 2005)[4][5]. Someone who is field dependent (perceives globally or “wholistically”) in one situation, that is, tends to a modest extent to perceive things globally or wholistically in other situations. Field dependence and independence can be important understanding students because the styles affect students’ behaviors and preferences in school and classrooms. Field dependent persons tend to work better in groups, it seems, and to prefer “open-ended” fields of study like literature and history. Field independent persons, on the other hand, tend to work better alone and to prefer highly analytic studies like math and science. The differences are only a tendency, however, and there are a lot of students who contradict the trends. As with the broader notion of learning styles, the cognitive styles of field dependence and independence are useful for tailoring instruction to particular students, but their guidance is only approximate. They neither can nor should be used to “lock” students to particular modes of learning or to replace students’ own expressed preferences and choices about curriculum.

Another cognitive style is impulsivity as compared to reflectivity. As the names imply, an impulsive cognitive style is one in which a person reacts quickly, but as a result makes comparatively more errors. A reflective style is the opposite: the person reacts more slowly and therefore makes fewer errors. As you might expect, the reflective style would seem better suited to many academic demands of school. Research has found that this is indeed the case for academic skills that clearly benefit from reflection, such as mathematical problem solving or certain reading tasks (Evans, 2004)[6]. Some classroom or school-related skills, however, may actually develop better if a student is relatively impulsive. Being a good partner in a cooperative learning group, for example, may depend partly on responding spontaneously (i.e. just a bit “impulsively”) to others’ suggestions; and being an effective member of an athletic team may depend on not taking time to reflect carefully on every move that you or your team mates make.

There are two major ways to use knowledge of students’ cognitive styles (Pritchard, 2005)[7]. The first and the more obvious is to build on students’ existing style strengths and preferences. A student who is field independent and reflective, for example, can be encouraged to explore tasks and activities that are relatively analytic and that require relatively independent work. One who is field dependent and impulsive, on the other hand, can be encouraged and supported to try tasks and activities that are more social or spontaneous. But a second, less obvious way to use knowledge of cognitive styles is to encourage more balance in cognitive styles for students who need it. A student who lacks field independence, for example, my need explicit help in organizing and analyzing key academic tasks (like organizing a lab report in a science class). One who is already highly reflective may need encouragement to try ideas spontaneously, as in a creative writing lesson.

Multiple IntelligencesEdit

For nearly a century, educators and psychologists have debated the nature of intelligence, and more specifically whether intelligence is just one broad ability or can take more than one form. Many classical definitions of the concept have tended to define intelligence as a single broad ability that allows a person to solve or complete many sorts of tasks, or at least many academic tasks like reading, knowledge of vocabulary, and the solving of logical problems (Garlick, 2002)[8]. There is research evidence of such a global ability, and the idea of general intelligence often fits with society’s everyday beliefs about intelligence. Partly for these reasons, an entire mini-industry has grown up around publishing tests of intelligence, academic ability, and academic achievement. Since these tests affect the work of teachers, I return to discussing them later in this book, in Chapters 10 and 11.

But there are also problems with defining intelligence as one general ability (and the problems, too, are discussed in Chapters 10 and 11). One way of summing up the problems is to say that conceiving of intelligence as something general tends to put it beyond teachers’ influence. When viewed as a single, all-purpose ability, students either have a lot of intelligence or they do not, and strengthening their intelligence becomes a major challenge, or perhaps even an impossible one (Gottfredson, 2004; Lubinski, 2004)[9][10]. This conclusion is troubling to some educators, especially in recent years as testing school achievement has become more common and as students have become more diverse.

But alternate views of intelligence also exist that portray intelligence as having multiple forms, whether the forms are subparts of a single broader ability or are multiple “intelligences” in their own right. For various reasons such this perspective has gained in popularity among teachers in recent years, probably because it reflects many teachers’ beliefs that students cannot simply be rated along a single scale of ability, but are fundamentally diverse (Kohn, 2004)[11].

One of the most prominent of these models is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983, 2003)[12][13]. Gardner proposes that there are eight different forms of intelligence, each of which functions independently of the others. (The eight intelligences are summarized in Table 4-1.) Each person has a mix of all eight abilities—more of one but less of another—that helps to constitute that person’s individual cognitive profile. Since most tasks—including most tasks in classrooms— require several forms of intelligence and can be completed in more than one way, it is possible for people with various profiles of talents to succeed on a task equally well. In writing an essay, for example, a student with high interpersonal intelligence but rather average verbal intelligence might use his or her interpersonal strength to get a lot of help and advice from classmates and the teacher. A student with the opposite profile might work well alone, but without the benefit of help from others. Both students might end up with essays that are good, but good for different reasons.

As evidence for the possibility of multiple intelligences, Gardner cites descriptions of individuals with exceptional talent in one form of intelligence (for example, in playing the piano) but who are neither above nor below average in other areas. He also cites descriptions of individuals with brain damage, some of whom lose one particular form of intelligence (like the ability to talk) but retain other forms. In the opinion of many psychologists, however, the evidence for multiple intelligences is not strong enough to give up the “classical” view of general intelligence. Part of the problem is that the evidence for multiple intelligences relies primarily on anecdotes—examples or descriptions of particular individuals who illustrate the model—rather than on more widespread information or data (Eisner, 2004)[14].

Nonetheless, whatever the status of the research evidence, the model itself can be useful as a way for teachers to think about their work. Multiple intelligences suggest the importance of diversifying instruction in order to honor and to respond to diversity in students’ talents and abilities. Viewed like this, whether Gardner’s classification scheme is actually accurate is probably less important than the fact there is (or may be) more than one way to be “smart.” In the end, as with cognitive and learning styles, it may not be important to label students’ talents or intellectual strengths. It may be more important simply to provide important learning and knowledge in several modes or styles ways that draw on more than one possible form of intelligence or skill. A good example of this principle is your own development in learning to teach. It is well and good to read books about teaching (like this one, perhaps), but it is even better to read books and talk with classmates and educators about teaching and get actual experience in classrooms. The combination both invites and requires a wide range of your talents and usually proves more effective than any single type of activity, whatever your profile of cognitive styles or intellectual abilities happens to be.

Gender differences in the classroomEdit

Gender roles are the patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and expectations associated with a particular sex—with being either male or female. For clarity, psychologists sometimes distinguish gender differences, which are related to social roles, from sex differences, which are related only to physiology and anatomy. (read more...)

Differences in cultural expectations and learning stylesEdit

A culture is the system of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that constitute the distinctive way of life of a people. Although sometimes the term is also used to refer specifically to the artistic, intellectual and other “high-brow” aspects of life, I use it here more broadly to refer to everything that characterizes a way of life—baseball games as well as symphony concerts, and McDonald’s as well as expensive restaurants. (read more...)

Bilingualism: language differences in the classroom
Balanced or fluent bilingualism
Unbalanced bilingualism
Language loss
Cultural differences in language use
Cultural differences in attitudes and beliefs

Accommodating diversity in practiceEdit

Briefly, then, here is what this chapter said: Students differ in a multitude of ways, both individually and as groups. Individually, for example, students have preferred learning styles as well as preferred cognitive or thinking styles. They also have unique cognitive profiles, intelligence or competence that affect how and what they learn most successfully.

In addition to individual diversity, students tend to differ according to behaviors associated with gender, although there are many individual exceptions. Motor abilities as well as motivation and experience with athletics gradually differentiate boys and girls, especially when they reach high school and begin high school. Socially, boys tend to adopt relationships that are more active and wide-ranging than do girls. Academically, girls tend to be a bit more motivated and to receive slightly higher marks in school. Teachers sometimes contribute to gender role differences—perhaps without intending—by paying attention to boys more frequently and more publicly in class, and by distributing praise and criticism in ways differentiated by sex.

Students also differ according to cultures, language, and ethnic groups of their families. Many students are bilingual, with educational consequences that depend on their fluency in each of their two languages. If they have more difficulty with English, then programs that add their first language together with English have proved to be helpful. If they have more difficulty with their first language, they are risk for language loss, and the consequences are also negative even if more hidden from teachers’ views.

In addition to language differences as such, students differ according to how they use language—in taking turns at speaking, in eye contact, social distance, wait time, and the use of questions. Some of these differences stem from cultural differences about self-identity, with non-Anglo culturally sometimes (but not always) supporting a more interdependent view of the self than Anglo culture or the schools. Differences in attitudes and in use of language have several consequences for teachers. In particular—where appropriate—they should consider using cooperative activities, avoid highlighting individuals’ accomplishments or failures, and be patient about students’ learning to be punctual.

Hopefully, therefore, we (KelvinLeeSeifert, Rosemary Sutton and other contributors) have persuaded you—if you ever really needed persuading—that students are indeed diverse. The question that follows from this point is what to do about the diversity. We partially answered that question by making a number of teaching-related suggestions throughout this chapter. But there is obviously more to be said about accommodating diversity—about actually working with students’ differences and making them a resource rather than a burden or challenge. In the rest of this book therefore we offer more suggestions, not only about knowing how different one student can be from another, but also about diversifying teaching to acknowledge this fact. Differences among students are inevitably a challenge during all phases of teaching, from planning instruction, to implementing lessons and activities, to assessing students’ learning after lessons or activities are all finished. In the next chapter, we illustrate this reality by describing how students with disabilities can be included in classroom life—one of the more telling examples of accommodating to diversity.


  1. Loo, R. (2004). Kolb’s learning styles and learning preferences: Is there a linkage? Educational psychology, 24(1), 99-108
  2. Stahl, S. (2002). Different strokes for different folks? In L. Abbeduto (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing on controversial issues in educational psychology (pp. 98-107). Guilford, CT: McGraw Hill
  3. Zhang, L. & Sternberg, R. (2006). The nature of intellectual styles. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
  4. Witkin, H., Moore, C., Goodenough, D., & Cox, R. (1977). Field-dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications. Review of Educational Research, 47, 1-64
  5. Zhang, L. & Sternberg, R. (2005). Three-fold model of intellectual styles. Educational Psychology Review, 17(1)
  6. Evans, C. (2004). Exploring the relationship between cognitive style and teaching style. Educational psychology, 24(4), 509-530
  7. Pritchard, A. (2005). Ways of learning: Learning theories and learning styles in the classroom. London, UK: David Fulton
  8. Garlick, K. (2002). Understanding the nature of the general factor of intelligence. Psychological review, 109(1), 116-136
  9. Gottfredson, L. (2004). Intelligence: Is it the epidemiologists’ elusive “fundamental cause” of social class inequalities in health? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 174-199
  10. Lubinski, D. (2004). 100 years after Spearman’s "‘General Intelligence,’ Objectively Determined and Measured”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(1), 96-111
  11. Kohn, A. (2004). Test today, privatize tomorrow. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(8), 568-577
  12. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books
  13. Gardner, H. (2003, April 21). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL
  14. Eisner, E. (2004). Multiple intelligences: Its tensions and possibilities. Teachers College Record, 106(1),
Last modified on 16 June 2009, at 03:48