How do I determine learning needs of diverse student groups?

Getting started


  • What are my responsibilities in terms of addressing my students' needs?
  • How do I cope with the broad range of differences between my students?
  • What support is out there for me?

What do we mean by diversity?

Diversity literally means 'difference' and in the educational context diversity relates to the differences between Faculty and other staff, between students, and between teachers and students. The reasons for differences are numerous and may include personality, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and so on.

The 'diversity agenda' in education sets out to address issues that lead to inequalities in practice. It has its roots in the legal framework that underpins the provision of equal opportunities and which acknowledges that our social identity impacts on life experiences and opportunities. Equality aims to create a fairer society, where all can participate and have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Part of this involves identifying patterns of experience based on group identity, and challenging processes which limit individuals' potential life chances. The diversity agenda also relates to a wider aspiration to widen participation in education as a whole, reflecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The broad 'diversity agenda' includes consideration of issues relating to gender, race/ethnicity, culture, age, domestic circumstances, prior educational achievement/attainment, sexuality and sensory, psychological or physical disability/impairment. In New Zealand, the specific cultural needs and legal rights of Māori and Pasifika students need to be taken into account.

Teachers need to be aware of the diversity issues that relate to quality teaching practice, benefits for community, law, equal opportunities, human rights, and education. In order to address diversity principles and approaches, teachers also need to know how to design, deliver and evaluate learning opportunities to help meet the needs of a diverse student body.

One of the ways in which teachers can determine the learning needs of diverse student groups is by thinking about how different students learn. Here, we do not just mean how student learn in terms of individual learning styles. We are referring to students' learning patterns and preferences relate to their earlier and current educational and cultural backgrounds. 

For example:

  • Different cultures have different perceptions/understandings of the role of teachers and other students with expectations differing accordingly.
  • Students who hold very strong views about race, politics, religion or sexuality may find it difficult to cope with an objective, open discussion or with students who hold opposing views. This may cause potential conflict in the classroom.
  • Other students, because of their domestic circumstances, may find it difficult to study full time or at evenings and weekends.
  • A student with a cognitive impairment such as dyslexia may need additional support with assessments and need to use learning technologies.
  • Students for whom English is a second language might struggle with academic writing around abstract concepts or in engaging in large group discussions.

How can teachers meet the needs of such diverse groups?

In this video, Marcus Henning discusses how teachers can help to address diversity in the classroom or clinical environment and meet students' different learning needs.

Click to play the video.

For more information and ideas about meeting students' learning needs, see also How do I plan my teaching? and How can I provide academic support and guidance to students?


Satisfactory performance in addressing diversity might be evidenced by showing an awareness of the learning needs of diverse student groups. This page has provided you with basic information to help you to think about diversity within your student group

  • If you decide to address diversity/deepen your understanding of how to deal with diversity, you might want to start an ePortfolio record to maintain a record of what you do and to record the impact of your actions.
Satisfactory performance might also be evidenced by showing an ability to communicate effectively with diverse students. Merit might be evidenced by showing that you have contributed to an inclusive learning environment.

Taking it further

Journal Articles

Patricia, G., Biren, A. N., & Gretchen, E. L. (2004). The Benefits of Diversity in Education for Democratic Citizenship. Journal of Social Issues, 60(1), 17-34.
The Positive benefits of diversity are demonstrated in a study comparing students in a curricular diversity program with students in a matched control group (n=174), and in a longitudinal survey of University of Michigan students (n=1670).
Thistlethwaite, J. E., & Ewart, B. R. (2003). Valuing Diversity: Helping Medical Students Explore their Attitudes and Beliefs. Medical Teacher, 25(3), 277-281.
The General Medical Council of the United Kingdom has defined a set of standards for doctors dealing with patients, includingrespectingthediversityoflifestylesandbeliefsofpatients. These have been incorporated into the Personal and Professional Development (PPD) course unit of the undergraduate medical curriculum at Leeds University. The objectives of PPD include helping students understand how age, gender, culture, sexuality and disability affect how events are experienced or perceived. In 2002 seminars were run on valuing diversity to encourage students to develop insight into and reflect on their own attitudes to diversity. The sessions were evaluated and assessed by means of student feedback and as part of a written PPD exercise. Students rated the sessions highly and appeared to learn a great deal about diversity including approaches to communication and breaking down stereotypes.

New Zealand

Human Rights Commission

The Commission works for a fair, safe and just society, where diversity is valued and human rights are respected.

Human Rights in New Zealand Today
This article from the Human Rights Commission looks at the rights of disabled people (Ngā tika o te hunga haua).

New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000
The act can be downloaded as a PDF document.

New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993

The Act is aimed at stamping out discrimination in the work place. It seeks to do this by making employers responsible for any acts of discrimination in the work place whether carried out by employers or employees.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is an agreement between the Māori people and the New Zealand Government. Māori are a tribal people indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand who make up approximately 16% of the total population. The Treaty was signed on the 6th of February 1840 at Waitangi in the far north of New Zealand. It was signed by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown and is a starting place of discussion for Māori and Government. Use the links to learn more about the Treaty and its place in both New Zealand history and modern day society.


Online Resources

Glossary/Terminology of Terms Used in the Disability Sector

This page is designed to explain the meanings of some of the words, terms, names, acronyms and abbreviations used in the disability sector.

London Deanery, Diversity, Equal Opportunities and Human Rights

This module offers you the opportunity to consider your role in relation to equality and diversity and explore the key principles involved. 

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How do I determine learning needs of diverse groups?

“A teaching philosophy can help you to reflect on how and why you teach. If you don’t have a teaching philosophy, you might want to consider writing one. You can take a look at What makes a good teacher? to get started. If you already have a teaching philosophy, you might want to reflect on how the work that you are doing here fits with that philosophy”.