Working with Different Levels of Academic Preparation

Most classes include students of varying levels of academic preparation. At first, it may seem an insurmountable task to make class time worthwhile for both academically-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. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • 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. After an attendance quiz, sort solutions by common mistakes, and address those mistakes by email or in the next class.

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

Planning Lectures
Once 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 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. To resolve these issues, 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.

Providing Extra Resources
No matter what level class is conducted at, at least initially you will have multiple levels of student backgrounds 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 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.

 

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