Dealing with Different Levels of Academic Preparation

Teaching assistants are often faced with classes that include students who have different levels of academic preparation. At first, it may seem an insurmountable task to make class time worthwhile for both sufficiently prepared and under prepared students. This challenge, however, can be addressed with several techniques.

Know Your Students

It is not possible to address various student needs until you know what those needs are. Beyond just knowing students' names, in a diversely prepared classroom, it becomes even more imperative to solicit frequent student feedback beginning with the first day of class. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Talk to other instructors who are teaching your course or have taught prerequisite courses. Build on their knowledge of the students and their techniques to supplement your own teaching strategies.

  • Solicit feedback during class by encouraging student responses and class discussion.

  • Give regular assignments that require students to demonstrate understanding, not just repetition.

  • Give a pretest. This test, given before material is covered may help to set a baseline for what students know and understand, and can help you tailor future class sessions to meet student needs.

  • Administer attendance quizzes. Attendance quizzes are given for 5 minutes at the end of a lecture and do not affect student grades. They serve as a day-to-day litmus test of how successfully students have learned that day's material. Allow students to use their notes. You may ask them to list key concepts from that day's class and define them in their own words, or to summarize that day's assigned reading. In math and science classes, you may ask students to solve a problem representative of what was done in lecture. After an attendance quiz, sort solutions by common mistakes, and address those mistakes by email.

While none of these ideas will work perfectly in every class, you may experiment until you find which feedback techniques work best in your particular setting.

Planning Lectures

After you know the needs of your students, you face a new question: for what level students do you plan the lecture? If you change between easier and more challenging material frequently, you run the risk of confusing your students if they do not recognize that transition between different levels of material. Focusing, however, on just one level of students can alienate parts of the class as well. If a class is tailored to leave absolutely no student behind, students with more advanced preparation will quickly become bored. If a class is tailored to meet the needs of the most advanced students, much of the class will not have the background to understand the lecture and may become frustrated. Therefore, many experienced instructors recommend leading a class so that it is aimed to the middle of classroom preparation. This way, as much of the class as possible understands what is going on. Even for students who have weaker backgrounds in your subject, according to Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching (p.55-59), "Students tend to learn more when a course is conducted just above the level at which they are functioning." In the rest of this article, we will discuss additional ways to continue to level the playing field even when lecture is addressed at a level that is easier for some students and more challenging for others.

Incorporating Variety

Using a wide range of teaching and assessment techniques can have many benefits for a diversely prepared classroom. It may help you to reach a greater cross section of students, and increase the interest level of the class. Further, it may encourage students with their strengths and help them improve on weaknesses.

In 1983, Harvard education professor Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences. He proposed that people learn in a variety of ways. While most classroom activity focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, people may also have spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, natural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence that remains largely unexplored in the classroom. Presenting material in a way that incorporates these other learning abilities may help level the playing field. For example, instead of only asking students to read about a topic (linguistic), you may ask them to find examples of it at play in the natural world (naturalist), or in the business world (interpersonal), or to build a model of it (spatial). Students who have less background in a subject may be very excited by an alternate classroom technique that makes more sense to them. On the other hand, students with stronger background in a subject may have their interest piqued by the variety of presentation and find personal weaknesses to improve on. You can learn more about the theory of multiple intelligences at websites such as http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/mi/index.html and http://www.thomasarmstrong.com/multiple_intelligences.htm .

The theory of multiple intelligences is just a starting point; the variety of ways in which class can be conducted is limited only by your imagination. You may incorporate classroom demonstrations or debates, lecture or group discussion, student presentations or games. The common theme is that, while the level of classroom presentation should aim for the middle of students' background, incorporating variety should level the playing field of student boredom/frustration and involve more students successfully in the class.

Providing Extra Resources

No matter what level class is conducted at, at least initially you will have multiple levels of student background to address. Providing the extra resources needed to address students' needs outside the classroom is important as well.

A first easy step is to be aware of tutoring and learning centers that can assist your students. When students ask for help, having this material readily available from the beginning will enable them to quickly get the help that they need.

You may wish to collect both remedial and enrichment material to assist and to challenge as many students as possible. This may be distributed in several ways. You may choose to assign readings on multiple levels; as Davis suggests, you may include: background reading (to review or acquire skills or knowledge to succeed in class), basic reading, and in-depth reading (to gain further knowledge and understanding of course material) on your syllabus for each course topic. As the semester progresses, you may wish to distribute additional resources through a class website or Sakai page as well.

Final Comments

Although teaching a diversely prepared classroom may at first seem intimidating, it does not have to be an insurmountable task. Make sure that your classroom policies are helpful to all students, and be prepared to provide extra materials, but most of all, be approachable to help students of all backgrounds find and make use of the material they really need.