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Tip #13| Teaching to Different Learning Levels
Spring 2007

We know from experience that no two classes are alike. The community, the interactions, the dynamics of each class change from semester to semester. If we ask ourselves why we can be assured that the answer is “because no two students are alike”. Each semester our students come to class with different experiences and with different skill levels in your content area. These differences necessitate that we constantly make subtle changes to the way we teach a course in order to address them. But teaching to different learning levels can be exhausting and cause stress.

Here are some strategies to help you prepare for next semester’s classes and that may help with the end of this semester.

  • Survey your students. Use a questionnaire or diagnostic test to find out where they are on the first day of class. Include questions that will signal to you whether or not the student has the basic knowledge needed to start your course or have advanced skills or knowledge. This is also a good time to ask if the student has any learning disabilities
  • Acknowledge the different levels. Speak with those students who are either lacking knowledge or have advanced knowledge individually. With those students who are going to need extra help, give them direction for how to “catch up” (which is not always possible), suggest department workshops if they are available, and recommend they work with more knowledgeable students whenever possible. With advanced students, challenge them to go beyond the basic assignment.
  • Keep communication channels open. Let students know they can talk to you, especially lower level. Be approachable and straightforward, check in with them for questions or guidance, and let them know that you are truly aware of what they are doing in your class. This can make the difference between a student “shutting down” or “rising to the task”.
  • Design classroom tasks so that students can respond at a variety of levels. For example, begin a discussion of a piece of art with very concrete questions: What do you see? What is the subject? What are the dominant colors? Then move to questions that require more analysis: Where and when do you think it was done? Why? What do you think the painter was attempting to communicate? And finally, to synthesizing information and evaluating: How does the intent of the piece come through in today’s context? Do you think this is a “timeless piece”?
  • Make students aware of the difficulty of projects they are taking on and guide them accordingly. A student who is struggling with basic skills should take on a project that is unnecessarily complicated. A very advanced student should be encouraged to take more on.
  • Pair strong students with weaker students for quick comprehension check activities during class time. In controlled activities, both types of students benefit. Summary and explanation to another person reinforce and strengthen understanding for stronger students; weaker students benefit from having concepts or procedures explained in another way and in a one-on-one situation where they are more likely to ask questions.

RESOURCES:

Recognizing Different Learning Abilities
Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes 1
Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes 2