Inhomogenous classroom.
February 23, 2011 1:26 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever been in a (college-level) class with students very different in abilities ? What did the instructor do right / wrong? Also, what are good tips on keeping people engaged when teaching them on a block schedule (8*45mins training a day)?

I'll be teaching a highly diverse group of 20 students- grad students, freshmen, someone who needs special accomodations (difficult in this case, but I have help). It'll be some computer science/electronics skill, some have background in one of the fields.

Most (but not all of them) are not doing it for the credit, but because it's very useful in my field of research. They should be pretty motivated, because this is during their holidays.

I've decided upon a mix between lab and lecture, and will be using at least half of the time for experimenting/programming. There will be groups of three to four students (but I have the hardware to split it into duos..), main part of classroom asssessment will be a project.

I'm pretty nervous about this class - the evals are important, and there will be somebody sitting in the lessons (but I don't know when).

Please give me tips on how to make this not frustrating for my students (neither too boring or too difficult)?

On a related note, I'm going to teach 8hrs of the same group in a row. Which is very hard on me - but also very hard on them. We've got generous breaks and coffee - do you know any not-silly tips to make them wake up again?
posted by mathemagician to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is in teaching humanities subjects, so YMMV. This is going to sound really touchy-feely, but something that really helped me was to think that my job is to help my students develop and formalize critical thinking and writing skills that they already have, so it's my task to 'get them in touch' with that side of themselves. I'm not sure if that applies in your case, but it did help when faced with a roomful of very different students with differing abilities.

In terms of practical tactics, I'm a big, big fan of doing some kind of routine class warmup. Again, it sounds touchy feely, but it really worked to gently ease everyone into class mode and get people on the same page. At the beginning of semester I had my class split into groups, and then id ask them to bring a story from a newspaper or similar related to the course. At the start of each class I'd ask them to break into their groups, share their stories, and pick the best one to share with the whole class. This did two things: first, it gave them permission to relax and talk with classmates for a set period of time, second, it turned their attention to the course content, third, the group provided a 'buffer' in case they forgot to bring a news story. The whole exercise took 15 minutes and really changed the energy in the room.

I also think its important to keep activities moving and changing to accommodate different learning styles and personalities. Some students despise speaking in a large group, so I do small group activities and make sure I give them a chance to make comments, ask questions etc in that group. Others perversely enjoy a well-written and presented lectue, others prefer to be practical. Think in blocks of 15 minutes - a lecture component might be two or three blocks, a practical exercise four blocks, a short group discussion one block. This will also help prevent fatigue and wandering attention; if a task or exercise is boring to some, thats okay because you'll be moving on soon.

I also think it helps to be a bit light-hearted but absolutely in control. This means: you know exactly where you want the class to go, you're crystal clear about assessment tasks, and, most importantly, about policies concerning attendance, extensions, plagiarism etc. I also try to be clear about what students can expect from me in terms of contactability - ie, i respond to emails by the end of a working day, but not on weekends and not at night etc. Students find vagueness and unpredictability maddening.
posted by nerdfish at 1:51 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's great that you are doing a mix of lab and lecture. Pepper the lectures with exercises for the students to work out on their own. That will make the 8x45 much easier on you, and easier for them to keep focused.

The lab exercises can also be somewhat open ended. Especially for the programming part, you can include a sentence such as "design the most elegant solution you can" in order to provide an extra challenge to the students with prior experience.

Acknowledge the diversity of backgrounds out loud. This helps put the whole group on the same page about what you are trying to do.

Have the students with more experience explain to novices.

Since you have the hardware, divide them into pairs, not groups of 3-4. In your case the larger groups run the risk of one of the more experienced persons doing the whole exercise and the others just looking on.

Have a few "bonus' exercises that students can choose to do in order to avoid boredom.

Go to each pair/group during the lab time and talk to them individually. If novices are too shy to ask during lecture, that will give them a chance to ask you directly.

Good luck!
posted by copperbleu at 3:06 AM on February 23, 2011

The majority of my classes for the first two and a half years of college were comprised of students with wildly diverse levels of ability. Generally speaking I was of the "knows what she's doing" subsection, though not always.

The best classes I had were ones where the professor made sure that every student had a way to learn the material in a manner they found comfortable. So, a combination of lectures and labs, but buoyed with lots of available reading material, suggested (NOT required) homework sets, suggested independent study topics, group and individual work. Eventually some method clicked for everybody in the class, as long as they applied themselves. Especially if the professor explained early on that experimentation in learning methods was encouraged.

Also, in the quality classes there always seemed to be a way for students who ran into roadblocks to get discreet individual assistance from a peer. One class was small enough that we had an email list and we were encouraged to contact each other for homework help; another class was a lecture class but the professor kept a running list of willing tutors.

The classes that were awful were the sort that only allowed us to learn in one or two ways, or that forced us into busywork instead of allowing independent exploration of the topic.
posted by Mizu at 3:19 AM on February 23, 2011

I had a Microbial Ecology class in grad school that had very mixed levels. It was about 1/3 grad students and 1/3 senior level bio majors and 1/3 lower level undergrads with only a few courses in biology. The professor encouraged us to form groups of 4 that each had a grad student. We grad students then became the leaders and teachers in our groups as well as learning the material ourselves. It actually worked pretty well for the most part and honestly grad students usually need more practice in teaching than they get in grad school.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:46 AM on February 23, 2011

as copperblue mentions, have the most capable students paired in a mentoring role with lower level students. In classes with such a huge range, it can be hard to reach everyone in the class. In general, I tend to aim at the middle of the range, throwing in enough extra information to keep the upper level interested, and enough review and interaction to keep the lower level up to speed.

While in some cases, upper level students object to the method, it benefits them as well. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn, and having them in a mentoring role will further cement their knowledge of the topic.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:17 AM on February 23, 2011

I spent a good chunk of classes like these learning exactly how annoying it is to do all the work and get half the credit. Except the one calculus class where the prof, after the first midterm, divided us into teams with (roughly) one A student, one B student, and one C student. In that class I got to learn how much it stinks to be graded based on my classmate's failure to work (I went from an A to a low B in three weeks, and that class set me on the path to changing my major out of the sciences.)

Please, do not force people to teach in a class when they are there to learn.
posted by SMPA at 5:58 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Please, do not force people to teach in a class when they are there to learn.

This. Your students didn't sign on to be teachers. It's nice if the more experienced/capable ones volunteer to help the struggling ones, but a "forced mentorship" just adds another layer of work on to the usual class and homework.

Many of the times that I've been forced to mentor/teach other students, I grew to hate my mentor-ee and the teacher. Looking back, it wasn't fair to the strugglers to have a "student teacher" who didn't quite know how to teach them, got impatient and snippy when they said, "I still don't get it - can you explain again?" for the fifth time, and blew them off with a quick email because she had homework and a part-time job and it wasn't HER job to teach the class, anyway. Meanwhile I was thinking "why doesn't this person GET IT after my explaining it several times? Do I have to babysit? What a burden and a nuisance. I'm not going to answer their calls/emails/ puppy-dog eyes after class."

The strugglers and/or newbies who really need help and tutoring should get someone who has signed on to be a tutor - advanced students looking for extra credit, those who are tutoring for money, or tutoring arranged by the administration.

However, having small-group discussions before or during class is a great idea. Give them an actual jumping-off discussion point, not just "break up in to small groups and discuss the material." This will help them get started rather than just sitting and staring at one another and going " what should we talk about? Who is going to break the ice and speak first?"

In the groups, make it about discussion, not tutoring. Circulate among the groups and help them process, help the shy students speak up. One of the things I've learned both in my masters-level group process classes and working with groups is that you can't just put people in groups and expect everything to just work. People have to get to know one another.

Make your class a "safe space." Be sure people feel OK with speaking up and asking questions without feeling stupid.

Then, in your lecture, try to have plenty of opportunities for question and discussion. As much as you can, don't make "lecture" be about "sitting there paying attention in silence." There's a reason for the cliche of people nodding off or surfing the Web in lectures and meetings. It also helps a lot for you to make sure the shyer or newer students can discuss and pose questions without eyerolling or shouting-down by the more experienced folks. Saying things like "We've heard from Michelle and Jim on Topic X, and they raise good points. Anyone who hasn't raised their hand, do you want to say something?" Even if it's just "I agree with Jim, he makes a great point about X" counts as speaking up, voicing an opinion, and participating in the material.

YOU are the teacher. Don't expect the bright and/or knowledgeable people to pick up YOUR job. Teach the class, arrange for voluntary tutoring if needed, make sure everyone is included.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:31 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm with SMPA (and, on preview, Rosie M. Banks) -- teaching is certainly an important skill and can help you solidify and deepen your understanding of the fundamentals, but it is not an acceptable substitute for learning new material when that's what students expect from the class.

I spent most of my life being forced to be the group "leader", a.k.a. the one who did all the work while no one else cared or learned anything. Unless the "leader" students know what they're taking on from the beginning and are getting separately evaluated on their teaching/leadership, being the only one in the group who knows what's going on is always going to be frustrating at best.

I'm in a seminar right now where there are hugely different levels of preparation for the material (from "I'm a Ph.D. student in this particular research area" to "I've never taken an intro class in this field and am not totally sure what it is"). The disparity is so great that the students in the other group could spend all semester doing nothing but learning material from the course topic and still not be anywhere near caught up to where my groupmates and I were at the beginning. We do work in ability-based groups, but the groups are formed such that the well-prepared students work together on one project and the students who are new to the material work together on a different project. Crucially, the expectations for the project outcomes are tailored to the abilities of the different groups. No one thinks this is unfair because the unprepared students are relieved to not be overwhelmed and the prepared students are grateful not to be stuck teaching an introduction to the topic when they thought they'd be learning something new.

The best way to make a heterogeneous class "neither too boring or too difficult", in my opinion, is what I believe educators call "differentiation". It's ok to have different expectations for different students, and to give them different levels of work to do. Of course, this doesn't solve the problem of who your lecture should be aimed at -- maybe this will need to be a mix of parts that will be boring for some students and parts that will be way over other students' heads. But as a student, I would be forgiving of this so long as when it came to the coursework, I was challenged to live up to my abilities in a team with students working at a similar level.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:39 AM on February 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I haven't found any good solution. The biggest problem I have is getting the weaker students to admit what they don't know or don't understand so I tell them that part of their grade is based on participation and that there are 2 ways to participate--one is by asking questions or attempting to solve problems on the board, even when you're not sure of what your doing, and the other is by knowing your stuff and being able to explain it to the class. I often will make "aside" comments meant only to be understood by the advanced students like movies for kids do when they want to keep the adults entertained. And I always put a "challenging" extra credit question on exams to engage those who otherwise find the questions too easy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:43 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been in a number of classes with both grad students and undergrads (mostly combined 400 & 500 level classes) where the professor has assigned additional material to the graduate students: extra problems, a paper on a specific topic, etc. As a grad student in these classes, I liked having the more research oriented material to think about in addition to the main topic, which based on my background wasn't very hard on its own.
posted by chiefthe at 7:11 AM on February 23, 2011

Forgot to add another "con" to the "make the more advanced students be mentors" thing: You don't want the beginning students' progress to hinge on the luck of the mentor draw. Someone might luck into a student mentor who is a good explainer, endlessly patient, and has plenty of time to devote to mentoring.

Someone else might get a mentor who is grumpy, impatient, and so swamped with other classes or duties that s/he ignores, blows off, or gets actively pissy at his or her protege. Then the protege will either give up, or resort to increasingly desperate and stalky "Help me HELP MEEEEE!" calls, emails or texts without getting any real help or tutoring. Either way, the beginning student doesn't get the help s/he needs.

You don't want a bad forced-mentoring experience on either side to poison the well for future classes. There is word of mouth, and word of and tha intarwebs. All it takes is the rumor that "Mathemagician forces people into helping him/her teach the class and that sucks" and you'll find people not wanting to take your class unless they HAVE to; and if it's a required class they will start off on the defensive and make your job harder.

Now as far as accommodations for students with disabilities - this is where you lean on the disabilities services office for suggestions and guidelines. They're trained, they have experience with accommodations, it's their job to help you. Working with the Disabilities Services office for accommodations might give you insights into how to structure and help your class in general.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:25 AM on February 23, 2011

Your subject area is a challenging one with regard to mixing people with different skills and abilities. I, too, would stay away from setting up a mentoring situation in the classroom; if I were placed in the position of mentor in this situation, I think I would feel put upon. Maybe a way to unite people in your classroom might be to talk about how your subject matter fits into everyday experiences - could you design exercises that are based on real life, so they are interesting to folks with all different kinds of experience? Problem-based learning might work well here.

Also, in my experience, I have highly resented those "icebreaker" type exercises - activities in which you're supposed to coast around the room doing things like finding out stuff about other people so you can check it off some kind of human bingo list. Instead, I always preferred it when the activity we did after a break was stimulating, but part of the normal curriculum (i.e. not a specific warm-up activity). Good after-break content might include activities such as a hands-on exercise - in your case (computers/electronics), maybe taking apart or putting together something? A programming problem to solve with a prize at the end?

I also heart Obscure Reference's idea to incorporate participation into the curriculum. Part of my Master's & PhD research involved evaluation of classroom dynamics (in social sciences, but still), and throughout my research, I had people tell me that they really felt strongly about the unbalanced levels of participation in the classroom.

Re: doing well on evals - smile; make the work relatable to everyday life - if possible, incorporate current events and pop culture into course content; pepper your syllabus with every possible eventuality so that you don't have to argue with students later on; and be really clear on the nature of your college's expectations with regard to posting content in advance onto school virtual sites (it still shocks me that students often seem to expect full powerpoints in advance of the class - I hate it, but it seems to be what is expected at some schools - I purposefully make my powerpoints simple and tell students that the powerpoints don't contain full nutritional value).

Best of luck to you!
posted by analog at 7:53 AM on February 23, 2011

To piggyback off of what Analog said about icebreakers: If yo do one, and it involves going around the room sharing stories, keep a timer and be strict about keeping within, say, five minutes each. I've been through icebreakers which were supposed to be "just for 20 minutes" and because people yammered and rambled on and on, and the instructor or group leader didn't enforce time limits, took an hour. Inevitably, people fidgeted, looked at their watches, packed up and left the classroom pleading a dentist's appointment, and paid no attention to what their classmates were saying, and certainly weren't "getting to know them."

If you are going to do an icebreaker, keep it short and sweet.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:52 AM on February 23, 2011

Oh, seconding giving some people harder work. I took a 600-level Tolstoy class with undergraduate Russian majors, undergraduates who had a few entry-level Russian language classes, and most of the grad students who taught entry-level Russian language and literature classes (in other words, virtually everyone I knew in the entire department; the chair taught the class.)

The only shared requirement was that everyone read War and Peace - the grad students did it in Russian, and also had to finish Anna Karenina; the undergrads did WaP in English and finished whatever we could of AK. Undergraduate Russian majors I think had to write one paper in Russian; the grad students had very long papers in Russian, and the non-majors had shorter papers, all in English. It worked really well, and everyone got over the "I take classes from you in the morning and with you in the evening" issue better than I thought they would.
posted by SMPA at 10:05 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

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