Research Training Group

Heterogeneity: effective learning settings and professionalism in schools

  • Objectives: Co-construction of teaching units by teams of teachers and scientists, evaluation of effectiveness and dissemination in networks.

  • Research questions: Effectiveness and feasibility of strategies of internal differentiation that can be implemented in the context of regular classroom instruction.

  • Cooperation partners: Regional school development networks, IQES online and University of Education Freiburg

  • Principal Investigators: Prof. Dr. Timo Leuders, Jun.-Prof. Dr. Katharina Loibl, Jun.-Prof. Dr. Marita Friesen

  • Duration: 06/2019 – 05/2022

  • Project type: Research Training Group


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There are a large number of strategies for the dealing with heterogeneity in teaching (cf. Klieme & Warwas, 2011). In addition to external differentiation through appropriate school and course structures and highly individualized instruction with the dissolution of class structures, strategies of internal differentiation that can be implemented within the framework of regular class instruction continue to be of great interest. Practitioners and researchers alike are interested in formats of differentiated instruction that can feasibly be implemented in the classroom and at the same time are effective for learning (“effective learning settings”). Research in subject matter education and educational psychology has been developing strategies for this purpose for many years and has empirically tested their effectiveness. These strategies point toward how learners with different prerequisites can best be supported (“adaptive learning settings”). As a rule, learners with less favourable learning conditions (prior knowledge, self-regulation, language, etc.) benefit from stronger structuring or various forms of instructional support (“prompting, scaffolding”, etc.), while conversely such measures have disadvantages for learners with more favourable learning conditions. Such findings are also plausible against the background of practical experience, but more concrete ideas (formats, materials) are needed as to how they can be used for implementation in the respective subject lessons.

This is where the HeLPS project comes in and pursues the following goals:

  • Development of concrete teaching units taking into account the current state of research
  • Co-construction, i.e. joint development of the teaching units by teams of teachers and researchers to increase feasibility and effectiveness
  • Building on the expert advice and professional development provided by the school districts, school regions and the Zentrum für Schulqualität und Lehrerbildung (ZSL, state center for school quality and teacher education)
  • Support through professional digital platforms for school and teaching quality development (IQES online, IQES Learning Compass)
  • Research on the effectiveness and dissemination in the networks


Learning content in the area: Human-Nature-Technology

Learning content in the area: Mathematics

Subproject 1: Experimentation in swimming and sinking

To the overview of all subprojects

There are different strategies for dealing with heterogeneity in the classroom (Klieme & Warwas, 2011). In addition to forms of external differentiation through school structures and highly individualized teaching, strategies of internal differentiation that can be implemented within the framework of regular classroom teaching are of great interest in order to be able to meet the individual needs of students with different levels of prior knowledge.
Particularly in the case of experimentation in science education at elementary schools, differentiation seems appropriate due to the heterogeneous learning prerequisites of the students. Practice and research alike are interested in formats of differentiated instruction that can feasibly be implemented and are at the same time effective in terms of learning outcomes (“effective learning settings”).
Teaching-learning research has been developing strategies for this for many years and has empirically tested their effectiveness. In this context, there are indications of how learners with different prerequisites can be supported in different ways (“adaptive learning settings”). For example, the “expertise reversal effect” states that learners with less favourable learning prerequisites (for example, in terms of language or cognitive ability) benefit from learning supports, but that conversely such measures are disadvantageous for learners with more favourable learning prerequisites (Kalyuga et al., 2003).
The aim of the project is to develop differentiating learning materials for experimentation on the topic of “swimming and sinking”. For this purpose, comics are created, either containing or not containing concrete learning supports in the form of visualizations. The project investigates the extent to which students’ learning gains depend on their prior knowledge and the chosen learning material (learning supports versus no learning supports). The expected results of the project will thus provide important information about the effect of the developed adaptive learning settings in the teaching of primary science education.

Subproject 2: Linguistically supported development of non-fiction texts in history lessons

In the context of the discussion about so-called language-sensitive teaching, language learning in history lessons has increasingly become the focus of research in history education research. Corresponding studies deal, for example, with language features of subject-specific texts or with writing processes in history lessons. The area of subject-specific reading skills training, which is the focus of this doctoral project, is still underexposed in didactic research in Germany. Anglo-American research is more advanced, but shows a lack of quantitative effectiveness studies. Sub-project 2 aims to develop and evaluate a differentiated reading strategy training for the subject of history. The aim is to make a practice-relevant contribution to the empirically-based development of language-sensitive history teaching. The effectiveness of the adaptive teaching setting, in which language support in text work is systematically varied according to learning and language requirements, is tested in an experimental study with several test time points using standardized methods.

Subproject 3: Adaptive learning in consumer education in the field of fashion and accessories

To the overview of all subprojects

Within the framework of the sub-project, an adaptive learning environment for consumer education in the field of fashion and accessories is to be developed for the school subject “Everyday Culture, Nutrition, Social Issues” (AES) (secondary level 1, Baden-Württemberg) on the basis of research, empirically examined for effectiveness and a transfer into practice is to be initiated. Two studies will investigate the differential effects as well as the impact of the adaptive learning environment in the classroom (Leuders & Loibl, 2019).

A reflective approach to decision-making situations is an elementary component of “assessment competence” (Eggert & Bögeholz, 2006) and plays a central role within the subject AES (Ministerium für Kultus, Jugend und Sport Baden-Württemberg, 2016). It can be assumed that learners in the ninth year of secondary school include aspects of sustainability and quality in their purchasing decisions to varying degrees, and that the individual consumption orientations of the students, in the sense of heterogeneous learning conditions, have an impact on their decision-making behaviour (Lange, 2004; Lange, Choi, Yoo & Adamczyk, 2005). Within the framework of ATI research, the aim is to react appropriately to this and to adapt consumption-related learning tasks in such a way that they correspond to the two different consumption orientations according to Lange (2004) of students and adequately support the heterogeneous starting situations. In the concrete, adaptive learning environment, an elaborated station work on the consumer product “sneakers” is to support the learners in making well-founded and systematic decisions on different options for action in complex, consumption-related situations.

Subproject 4: Adaptive promotion of operational understanding with the help of external representations

Research on the learning effectiveness of concrete learning settings often shows high variance in terms of effectiveness and – given the heterogeneity in the classroom – differential effects, i.e. one group of students benefits from the learning setting studied, another less so. Against the background of this state of research, the present project develops an adaptive learning environment based on assumptions about theory-based ATI effects (aptitude-treatment-interaction, Cronbach & Snow 1969) and empirically validates the ATI assumptions. In this research project, the learning object of operation comprehension is considered as a basic mathematical competence.

Studies show that a substantial proportion of students enter lower secondary school with fundamental gaps in basic mathematical skills. In particular, operational understanding is not sufficiently developed in the area of multiplication and division (Schulz et al. 2017; Ehlert et al. 2013), although this is curricularly completed by 4th grade and plays an elementary role for further learning (Baroody et al. 2006). A central aspect of operational understanding is considered to be the ability to translate situations (real, verbally described, figuratively given) into a mathematical (symbolic) term and vice versa (Schulz et al. 2019). If – as planned in the present study – a textual task is to be mathematized, mathematics didactic research generally proceeds from two main steps: first, the understanding of the described situation and the construction of a situation model. This is a mental representation of the content that integrates inferences and other relevant experiences. The next step is then mathematization, i.e. the translation of the situation model into a mathematical form (Verschaffel et al. 2000, 169). This transition from the situation described in the written task to the mathematical model (e.g., calculation) is described as the activation and application of “basic ideas” (Prediger 2008; Vom Hofe & Blum 2016).

Lack of operational understanding in text tasks suggests inappropriate or faulty mental representations. In this case, illustrative graphical representations (e.g. point fields) can support the task processing, provided that the translation between text, representation and calculation is successful. They represent an intermediate stage between concrete actions and abstract ideas that take place only in the mind (Lorenz 2019). Point patterns are thus already simplified situation models for the mathematical structure. They promote basic ideas about multiplication and division and flexible arithmetic as students switch back and forth between the dot pictures and matching calculations. Thus, these representations provide very good opportunities to illustrate the principle of multiplication (and division as its inverse), to build conceptual understanding of these operations, and also to clarify the computational laws associated with it (Schulz 2017; Barmby et al. 2009; Hurst & Hurrell 2016; Young-Loveridge 2005; Izsák 2004).

However, various studies also show that students differ in the way they use representations and that these differences, in turn, can have a major effect on learning outcomes. Accordingly, some students require different or more extensive instruction in order to be able to use external representations – such as point fields – profitably (Schnotz et al. 1994; Maichle 1994; Peeck 1994).

The aim of the project is to investigate these differential effects and to test whether an adaptive learning setting using graphical representations to promote operational understanding for multiplication and division is superior to a non-adaptive one.

Subproject 5: Adaptive support for exploratory work in arithmetic

Exploring and investigating mathematical structures takes on (at least) two roles in mathematics education:

  1. As a learning goal: It is considered a learning goal for many content areas and all grades of mathematics instruction in terms of process competence.
  2. As a learning principle: reflecting on mathematical structures promotes the development of conceptual understanding (especially in arithmetic) better than working on unrelated tasks.

Not all learners are able to deal with the openness of the tasks that arise in exploratory work to the same extent: For some, particular challenges emerge. There is reason to believe that various factors such as self-regulatory abilities, self-concept, self-efficacy, and prior knowledge play an important role in this process, but their interplay is not fully understood. The heterogeneity is to be absorbed by a differentiating teaching concept, whereby the differentiation is designed in adequate scaffolding measures.

In two main studies, both of which are based on a (quasi-)experimental setting, and a pilot study, a teaching concept for the exploratory acquisition of knowledge in the learning domain “divisors and multiples” is investigated:

  • Pilot study: The influence of various factors such as self-regulation, self-concept, self-efficacy, prior achievement in mathematics, etc. on knowledge gain is investigated and the heterogeneity variable “handling of exploratory tasks” (hereafter referred to as HV) is defined from this.
  • ATI study: In the first study, the generally evidenced differential impact of scaffolding in the classroom context is tested using the aptitude-treatment-interaction (ATI) research strategy. Specifically, this involves reviewing,
    • whether exploratory work in the subject matter without scaffolding shows positive effects on high ability learners regarding the HV, but rather small effects on low ability learners regarding the HV, and
    • whether exploratory work in the mentioned learning object with scaffolding measures produces positive effects on learners with low skills regarding the HV, but rather low effects on those with high skills regarding the HV.
  • ALS study: In the second sub-study, the effectiveness of an adaptive learning environment (ALS) is tested in comparison to a non-adaptive learning environment. This learning environment will be derived from the ATI study and optimized based on its results and process data.

Subproject 6: Solving text problems with the help of sketches

To the overview of all subprojects

Solving text tasks causes difficulties for many students: Learners achieve lower solution rates when solving text tasks than in comparable context-free tasks (e.g. Hohn 2012). In order to understand the realistic situation underlying a text task, a situation model appropriate to the task/situation is needed (cf. Mayer & Hegarty, 1996; Verschaffel et al., 2000). The formation of a situation model that fits the task can be supported by sketches (cf. e.g. Franke & Ruwisch, 2010). Influences on solution success include knowledge about characteristics of helpful sketches (Rellensmann et al., 2017). This is where the present research project comes in: students are supported in the analysis of sketches. From this, learners build up their knowledge of features of helpful sketches, which they then increasingly learn to apply in sketches they produce themselves. The heterogeneity of the learners has to be taken into account – the aim of the project is to develop an adaptive training for solving text problems with the help of sketches in order to increase the solution rates.

Subproject 7: (Further) developing conceptual knowledge of fractions in adaptive language-sensitive mathematics teaching

To the overview of all subprojects

Language is central to learning success in mathematics, this has been shown many times. In particular, for the acquisition of conceptual knowledge, i.e., the construction of understanding, language emerges as a central heterogeneity dimension (Prediger et al., 2015). The fact that linguistically weaker students have specific weaknesses in this area is not surprising, since conceptual knowledge is predominantly taught linguistically in school. Linguistically weaker learners therefore need language-related support or scaffolding (Gibbons & Cummins, 2009), in order to build conceptual knowledge. Empirical findings confirm that word and sentence level support, as well as holistic discourse stimuli (describing, explaining, justifying), promote the acquisition of conceptual knowledge by linguistically weaker learners (Wessel et al., 2020). The extent to which such scaffolding affects linguistically stronger learners is not sufficiently clear. It is assumed that linguistically stronger learners experience smaller or even negative effects because cognitive resources are unnecessarily tied up. In the project, this research desideratum is addressed using the example of fractions. In concrete terms, a language-sensitive learning environment on fractions will be developed and evaluated in language-heterogeneous learning groups under controlled conditions in an ecologically valid teaching situation.

Subproject 8: Medial affinities as conditional factors of the acquisition of literary
competence (MABEL)

The PhD project MABEL investigates whether and how students’ media affinities can be harnessed for the acquisition of literary competence (cf. Boelmann 2017, Boelmann and König 2020). Thematically, the implementation takes place on the topic of fairy tales in grade 5, which is anchored in the national curriculum and is realized in two teaching projects: one is based on work with a computer game, the other on reading texts.

The research project will be conducted as an ATI study, focusing on the interaction between learners’ aptitudes (individual learning affinity for media) and treatments (reading text-based vs. digital-interaction-based with computer games) (cf. Cronbach and Snow 1969, Snow 1991). The construct media affinity draws on research findings in media socialization (cf. Krämer 2013, Hurrelmann 2020), motivation (cf. Seel 2003, Bak 2019), and self-concept (cf. Goy, Valtrin, and Hußmann 2017). It is expected that especially weak and most vulnerable students, whose learning setting is similar to their media affinity, will benefit from the media adaptation of the lessons.