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February 19, 2015

teaching@pitt: Teaching diverse students


The question, “How am I supposed to teach when my students are learning at different levels?” is a common one for faculty. In many courses, students exhibit a wide range of backgrounds, preparatory coursework, motivations and knowledge.

Considerations about how best to challenge individual students at appropriate levels, how much time to spend on particular topics and skills, and what degree of mastery of specific skills to expect from students can complicate course planning. Faculty face challenges in their efforts to ensure that all students have the best possible chance for success in the course. Concerns include:

  • Slower students getting left behind.
  • Faster students getting bored or impatient.
  • Over-participation by advanced students and little input from others.
  • Students being “left out” during group activities.
  • Students feeling intimidated.
  • Students worrying that they do not belong in the class.

On the other hand, identifying and addressing individual differences and planning strategies for a differentiated classroom can provide a richer learning experience for all students. More advanced students may make important contributions to the course and to their classmates’ learning. Less advanced students may call attention to an instructor’s blind spots. An instructor teaching in such a class has opportunities to advance his or her pedagogical skill set, improving communication and facilitation skills.

Strategies for effective differentiated instruction include:

• Create a classroom learning environment that is simultaneously comfortable and challenging. Tell students that you are aware they have different levels of facility with the course material, and that this is to be expected. Let them know that you are invested in their success and will help to facilitate individual mastery of the learning objectives.

• Identify the levels of your students’ learning. Conduct a pre-assessment or informal classroom assessment. For example, at the conclusion of a class session, ask the students to respond in writing to a targeted question that they should be able to answer based upon that class session. This activity will provide you with a more accurate picture of your students’ mastery of the class objectives.

• Help students to identify their own levels of skill and knowledge. As students recognize and address their own blind spots and areas for improvement, you can help them focus their efforts on tasks and resources that bring them closer to mastery of learning objectives. Students with similar areas for improvement can work together or on their own to come closer to the level of other students in the course.

• Incorporate optional elements into the course. For more advanced students, these elements might include additional readings or media, advanced seminar sessions or assignments. Less advanced students may take advantage of optional background or “fundamentals” readings, practice problems and review sessions or materials. You may consider recording some optional lectures (using lecture capture platforms like Panopto, free for Pitt faculty) and putting these on the CourseWeb site. Provide time during your office hours for more individual attention for both advanced and less-advanced students.

• Incorporate brief, in-class writing activities. Rather than simply posing questions to the class at large, allow students to reflect first on paper for a minute or two, then call on students to share what they have written down. (You also may want to give them the opportunity to “pass,” if you are concerned that “cold-calling” could be detrimental to the learning environment.) This practice can allow students who might have excellent contributions, but do not think as quickly as other students, to contribute when they otherwise might not.

• Group less-advanced students together with more-advanced students, and design group activities that require students to teach one another. This strategy takes some planning, as it requires guidelines from you about the specific expectations for teaching one another. It may be a matter of assigning specific, different tasks that contribute to the same larger project.

• Group similarly skilled students together. Modify the assignment slightly, with more complex or demanding objectives for more skilled groups. Care should be taken, however, to avoid emphasizing that one group is superior to the other.

• Include more student-driven assignments. Identify the skills to be developed, but permit students to choose their own topics. Have individual discussions with students about whether the topic and assignment they have proposed will provide the appropriate level of challenge.

While the planning for differentiated instruction may pose a challenge to the instructor, students in a well-structured differentiated classroom have an excellent chance of success. Effective strategies either tailor, or allow students to tailor, engagement with course material to individual needs, enabling students to draw upon their particular strengths and interests.


Lauren R. Herckis is CIDDE’s coordinator of TA Services. Joel Brady is a CIDDE faculty teaching consultant.