Research corner

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
Each week, we highlight education research conducted by teachers. This week, Dave Friend, a physics teacher at Maricourt Catholic High School in Liverpool, explains how he used self-differentiation to teach a mixed-ability class.


Differentiation is a catch-all term that covers a multitude of approaches. In his Year 11 GCSE physics lessons, Dave Friend decided to see how self-selecting differentiation would affect not just results but also how well his 15- and 16-year-old students were able to analyse their own ability level.


Some higher-ability students in the class were already working on slimmed-down A-level questions, while others were aiming for a C in GCSE practice questions. Friend conducted a survey to gauge how challenged his students felt in the subject, and the results confirmed a class divide. Seven students wanted to be more challenged, seven were adequately challenged and four felt over-challenged. To teach physics at the best level for each student, Friend wanted them to select an ability level that they felt was demanding but not uncomfortably beyond their ability.


Friend began by asking students what would make a lesson challenging. They said that working at a higher level, using past papers and problem-solving would challenge them more. Friend devised a series of lessons in which students completed the same tasks but could choose from a range of support options. These options were structured as a ladder: the bottom rung represented a lot of help and the top rung was for very limited assistance. Students could choose different levels of support for different questions within the same task. This support came in the form of hints, clues and intermediate answers that students could use to check their progress.

The results

After the lessons were completed, each student was asked to compare the level of challenge they had experienced with the level they had hoped for. Almost all (15 out of 16 students) believed that their level of challenge was perfect for them. Most (14 out of 16) enjoyed taking responsibility for problem-solving. Feedback was highly positive: students welcomed having answers to fall back on and competed to see who could use the fewest hints.

The impact

Once students had become accustomed to the support framework, there was a clear improvement in the key scientific skills of problem-solving, identifying theories and deriving equations. Overall, Friend's class enjoyed using the framework. It helped them to gain skills and increase their understanding of physics, as well as preparing them for the independent learning style necessary to pursue the subject at A-level.

To find out more about the project, email Dave Friend at or follow him on Twitter at @mrFriendPhysics

To share your research findings, email

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today