Very Varied Backgrounds – Maxwell Hartt

student facesAs students get farther along in their program, they are often streamed by discipline or sub-discipline. This creates an environment where the students know each other well and are entering the class with very similar pre-requisite academic experiences. They’ve taken many of the same classes, from the same instructors and will even have many shared experiences from outside of the classroom. However, when students first begin their post-secondary education, they come from all different types of schools and varied academic backgrounds. Furthermore, the larger introductory classes pool different programs, departments, and even faculties together. This makes for a potentially difficult teaching and learning experience.

How can an instructor best prepare themselves to deliver course content to very varied students? How can one ensure that the material is at the appropriate level when some students are far more advanced then others? How does one even tailor examples, projects, tests and other materials to be relevant and captivating to students with a wide range of academic interests?

I have had the good fortune to teach a class of this sort for the past two years. An introductory, (mainly) first-year statistics class for the entire Environment Faculty. This means that there are students from Geography and Environmental Management, Planning, Knowledge Integration, Environment and Resource Studies, Environment and Business, Geography and Aviation, Geomatics, and International Development. Among the slew of differences these programs boast, entrance pre-requisites is one that looms large. Will a student in Geography and Aviation really want to concentrate on the same examples as one from International Development? Maybe. But in my experience, it has not been the case.

The first year I taught this course, I concentrated on the conceptual material and then simply used easy-to-grasp but not overly provocative or discipline-specific examples. Basically, I shot for the middle ground. Something that everyone could understand but that, perhaps, no one would be writing home about. This strategy worked, but only in the sense that the students comprehended the material (more or less) and could relate somewhat to the examples used to get across the concepts. I wanted more than that. Being a first year student is an exciting time to be discovering new knowledge, sharing with others and beginning to forge your way into academia. I wanted to be able to harness this more.

To do so, I put the material into the hands of the students. The overarching concepts and methods remained the same, however, they controlled the specifics of their work. The course was restructured around a group project (rather than midterms and exams) and the students worked with TAs to develop their own research areas, research questions, hypothesis, and methods. Instantly, there was an overwhelmingly positive response. Attendance at optional tutorials went up, office hours had lines down the hall, I could overhear students excitedly talking about their topics and debating the merits of different approaches. In short, they were excited. And so was I. By giving them the ability to steer their education, it demonstrated my confidence in them, even in first year, to get motivated and engaged in their studies and in their field. It was at times difficult for myself and the TAs to provide topic-specific feedback on their reports, but even this barrier had its benefits as it encouraged them to become ‘experts’ in their chosen topic. They developed the research question, they performed the literature review and then found the sources.

We even took the creative element one step further. We allowed them to create stories for where their data (which was distributed without labels or metadata at random) came from, what the variables were, how it was collected, when it was collected, etc. This proved to be a fun exercise as students debated the potential bias or accuracy of different fictional data collection techniques.

In short, rather than trying to find a safe middle ground, the students streamed themselves and then taught each other. We provided the conceptual and course-specific content and techniques and they filled in the rest. And boy was it exciting.