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Differential Psychology

Differential psychology emphasises the importance of individual qualities, attributes and abilities in the learning process.  Important factors include:

  • abilities;
  • prior knowledge;
  • motivation;
  • personality factors (e.g. effecting the ability to learn);
  • values (associated with learning);
  • learning styles & preferred learning approach.

According to Gibbs (1994), most of these factors assume the existence of stable individual traits, such as ability or learning style, which affect the nature of the outcome.  These operate independently of the context in which learning takes place.  This framework probably represents the most commonly used for teaching and learning, perhaps because it offers a clear indication of what should be taught and how achievement should be assessed. Additionally, it explains differences in the ability to learn, through variations in 'mental ability'.

This particular approach to learning has stimulated much of the interest around the testing movement - whether this is about predicting potential or testing achievement.  Additionally, it provides the rationale for 'didactic' teaching methods - based on the notion that 'learners' should be presented with facts to be learned, remembered and then applied. This approach to learning, therefore, makes assumptions about the learner, in particular: they have no prior knowledge and can acquire knowledge by being told (lacking knowledge but able to learn).

A crucial feature is that individual traits are all important in determining learning outcomes and need to be considered when designing sessions.  Equally important is the notion that the learner's mind represents an 'empty vessel' waiting to be filled upon. This approach to learning is one-way, since teaching is not regarded as a dialogue, rather, a process whereby the expert instructs the learner. When learners are unable to learn effectively, the problem is with the learner (i.e. it is because of their poor ability and/or lack of attention).

This theory of learning has attracted many criticisms, with various writers condemning the 'inert' knowledge, the 'dead weight of facts' and the 'banking model of education' (Gibbs, 1994).

Two particular criticisms include:

  • the lack of research demonstrating that styles and abilities do interact with teaching methods in ways that are practicable and usable;
  • the implication that when learning outcomes are inadequate, it is because the learner is lacking. For example, they are unmotivated, of low ability, don't value learning, etc.

A variation of this approach is the `staff-development' model (Gibbs, 1994), where the focus is on the teacher and on the development of teaching skills. Here, learner inadequacy is located with the teacher, with great emphasis placed on the expertise and skills of the teacher.


  • Gibbs, G. (1994) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford. 
  • Olson, D.R. & Torrance, N. (1996) The Handbook of Education & Human Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell. 
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