PULSE: A Differentiated Instructional Classification and Support Tool

by DJ Cunningham


Differentiated instruction is an approach used in education that provides different students with different teaching strategies, materials, and styles to meet the individual needs of learners. Pulse, a learning inventory tool developed by LEARNstyle aims to increase teacher’s efficiencies to implement Differentiated Instruction.


Learnstyle logoLEARNstyle, based in Toronto, Ontario, was launched in 2008 as a company offering training on the use of innovative learning strategies in academic settings by DJ and Rick Cunningham.

DJ Cunningham, LEARNstyle’s Chief Executive Officer, has a significant learning disability, which created consistent academic experiences embedded with negative perceptions, trauma, and the development of coping/avoidance mechanisms. In his final year of high school, a guidance counsellor suggested DJ join the army. DJ not only joined, but excelled in the Canadian Forces. He came to understand that he learned differently, but that his unique learning style did not need to be a barrier to his success. In reflecting on how the army was different from his previous learning experiences, DJ realized that the army presented information in four (4) distinct formats with addressed the particular needs of each of the learning styles.

DJ’s success in the army gave him the courage to attend University. DJ used his new understanding of himself as a learner, to identify where his strengths and weaknesses lay and to seek tools and strategies to support his areas of need. Through his experience in the Canadian Forces and at Trent University, DJ recognized the impact of differentiated instruction, the significant support offered by technology, and the importance of self-advocacy in achieving independence and academic success.

DJ is passionate and dedicated to helping others find similar success. LEARNstyle’s mission is to equip students so that they may overcome barriers to learning through the use of assistive technology. Not surprisingly, LEARNstyle holds as a core premise that all students learn differently. As such, a key element of the company’s training protocol is to get to know the learners’ interests and observe and evaluate their individual learning tendencies.

LEARNstyle was challenged by one of their school boards to bring their experience in understanding and addressing the learning style of each unique student they train, to all students.  DJ saw this as an opportunity to form a basis to positively impact students through differentiated instruction while also applying the principle of universal design – that what is necessary for some is good for all.

“For the classroom teacher, who is responsible for meeting the learning needs of his or her students, effective instruction begins with an understanding of the needs of the learners, both collectively as a classroom unit and as individual students” (Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction, 2005, pp. 31).

Differentiated Instruction

Karen Hume, a well-known Canadian educator and author of Start Where They Are: Differentiating for Success with the Young Adolescent explains that “differentiated instruction is effective instruction that is responsive to the diverse learning needs and preferences of individual learners” (Hume, 2008). She offers a framework which includes knowledge of students as a key element of differentiated instruction and references the model of Carol Tomlinson, a pioneer in the field, which identifies three key aspects educators should seek to know about each learner, namely their readiness, interests and learning preferences (Hume, 2008).

According to Hume, “learning preferences include both an individual’s learning style and intelligences” (Hume, 2008). The concept of learning styles dates back several decades. Carl Jung’s work (Jung, 1954-1990) has been viewed as a beginning in the understanding of the many ways that learners absorb and retain information. Jung’s work and the many subsequent theories give teachers lenses through which to view their students. Although these theories possess unique characteristics, they share a common factor: learners retain information longer and can apply it in different contexts when information is presented to them in a variety of ways.

repeating pattern of four Learnstyle icons that each represent a different learning style

Teaching to sensory preferences benefits students – studies have shown that children achieve statistically higher scores when taught with instructional resources that match their preferred modality. In addition, when children were taught “initially through their preferred modality and then were reinforced through their secondary or tertiary modality, their scores increased even more” (Dunn, Beaudry and Klavas, 1989).

Learning Styles Evaluations

Learning style experts Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini report in Education Update, “In our experience, learning-style assessments have proven to be wonderful tools for promoting conversations about learning, building teacher’s and students’ metacognitive capacities, increasing student engagement, and helping teachers find hooks into content for struggling students.” They go on to say that they “also found benefits for differentiation: teachers who assess their own and students’ styles are typically more willing and able to implement a wide variety of instructional strategies in their classrooms.”

Determining Learning Styles and Preferences

Inventories are common tools used to determine learning styles and preferences. Currently there exist many different inventory tests that all present the user with multiple choice questions. Users are asked to consider a theoretical situation, with which they may or may not be familiar, and are presented with a defined number of responses. They are then asked to choose which option best represents how they think they would behave. Typically, users tabulate their own score.  The clarity of next steps and, the meaningfulness of the results to the user, can vary greatly between different tools.

Inventory tools for determining learning style also vary in their approaches. Some inventories are based on theories that look at the type of learner, while others focus more on the senses students prefer to use when taking in new information.

Inventory tools are commonly available in paper and pencil or online formats. For the teacher, this can present the additional challenge of tabulating all the results to compile a class profile. Educators must be able to link data to complementary teaching and learning strategies to maximize its usefulness in the classroom.


Identifying room for improvement in current assessment strategies, LEARNstyle desired to find a new approach to bring the methods of evaluating learning styles to all students and teachers in a meaningful and practical way.

Technology was a natural choice. Gamification, and a growing interest in its application for learning, drew LEARNstyle’s attention. In a 2011 report on the K-12 Education market by MaRS Discovery District, the use of gamification to increase student engagement was identified as a significant trend in education (Avile et al., 2011).

DJ assembled a team of educators and a web game development company to address this goal. Together they designed PULSE.

Pulse logo


PULSE stands for Personal Use Learning Styles Evaluation and is a web-based, gamified inventory and resource tool designed to support both students and teachers in a process of discovering, understanding and utilizing preferred learning styles.  PULSE collects, analyzes and organizes student game responses, provides real-time, individual and class learning style profiles. These profiles are then matched with teaching/learning strategies to facilitate differentiated instruction and offer personalized support for each learner. Teachers may view learner results at the individual, class, and school level or create custom groups.

The teaching and learning strategies in PULSE have been sourced from the Ontario Curriculum Unit Planner, which is a resource produced by the Ontario Ministry of Education to support teachers in the implementation of the elementary and secondary curriculum. Other resources consulted included Reaching all by Creating Tribes Learning Communities by Jeanne Gibbs (2006).

PULSE was pre-tested by over 4,000 elementary, secondary and post-secondary students, and is currently available in several boards in Ontario. The analysis of the learning styles often surprises students and teachers as they become aware of the range of approaches in their classrooms.


Teachers like Jack Cunningham, a teacher with the Halton District School Board, see the value of PULSE for students as a self-advocacy tool.  In his classroom, the students play the 16 games and then independently review their own profiles. As a class, they check out the learning style videos included in the student results profile. Jack uses the learning style videos as a precursor to a class discussion about what that might look like in the classroom. Each teaching and learning strategy contained in PULSE, is accompanied by a short describer video. Jack has his students watch the top 3 suggestions for their unique profile and links this to a discussion about the types of assignments for which the strategies could be used. Students are encouraged to login to PULSE when they get an assignment and find a strategy that will help as they complete their work (teacher reviews of PULSE).

PULSE – as a Differentiated Instruction (DI) support tool

With innovative technologies, like PULSE, to support differentiated instruction, LEARNstyle hopes to make it easy for teachers to present information in a variety of ways and to help all learners better understand the ways in which they may learn differently.

When referring to a need for diverse teaching practices, Silver and Perini stated, “Our 35 years in schools tell us that a learning styles framework, linked to a repertoire of research-based strategies, is the single best tool for accomplishing this goal” (Varlas, 2010).

The future of LEARNstyle is to continue to strive to break down the barriers to learning, provide the tools and strategies for students to self-advocate and to normalize the use of assistive technology as “necessary for some but good for all.”


DJ Cunningham (LEARNstyle’s Chief Executive Officer, MaRS Educhangemaker and Entrepreneur in Residence, Trent University Young Leader Award and Contact North Game Changer) has directly experienced and benefitted from the impacts that technology can have on self-esteem, advocacy and self-efficacy skills. You can follow DJ and LEARNstyle on Twitter (@learn_style, @PULSElearnstyle, @djcunningham), LinkedIn (Learn Style Ltd), and YouTube (LEARNstyle LearnTube)


Avila, J. & Wilson, J. (2011). K-12 Education: Opportunities and Strategies for Ontario Entrepreneurs. Toronto, ON: MaRS Discovery District Publication.

Dunn, R., Beaudry, J.S., & Klavas, A. (1989). Survey of research on learning styles. Educational Leadership, 46, 50-58.

Gibbs, J. (2006). Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities.  Cloverdale, CA: Centersource Systems, LLC.

Hume, K. (2008). Start where they are: Differentiating for success with the young adolescent. Toronto, ON: Pearson Education Canada.

Jung, C.G. (1954-1990). The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. G.A. Adler, M. Fordham, H. Read, and W. McGuire (Eds.), R.F.C. Hull (Translator). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Varlas, L. (2010). Responding to the research: Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini address learning styles. Education Update, 52(5), 6-7.

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Published January 2016