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Groups Can Engage Students at Different Levels

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Like many instructors and teaching assistants, I deal with students who have diverse levels of prior knowledge―both within a particular discipline (e.g. freshman versus senior science majors) and across disciplines (e.g. science majors versus humanities majors). The situation is problematic and makes it challenging to design effective assignments and conduct class discussions. I’d like to suggest two techniques for dealing with such a situation.

The first technique entails assigning questions which promote discussion and student interaction. Open-ended questions, questions that allow for novel interpretation and have no clear-cut “yes” or “no” answer are best. For instance, “In what ways is the character of Dorian Gray affected by his interaction with Lord Henry?” “Does Wilde’s novel emphasize style over substance?” Even questions with straightforward answers can work if they necessitate a deep engagement with the issue at hand before an answer can be attained. For example, “Are different articulations of Einstein’s Principle of Relativity all logically equivalent?” “Is the fact that absolute motion cannot appear in the laws of physics a consequence of the principle, or this assumed by it?”

Next, split the class up into small groups of four to six students according to their levels of prior knowledge. You can assign “experts” to assemble into groups of their own and the “non-experts” into groups with their peers. This way of forming groups one ensures that those with a greater level of knowledge do not become overly dominant in the discussion.  An alternative is to assign one or two “experts” to work with “non-experts” while the group undertakes an exercise requiring some skill or method the instructor wishes the students to internalize. For example, in my Morality and Medicine class I ask students to explicitly identify the premises meant to support some conclusion, say, that abortion is or is not morally permissible, and to appraise both whether they think the conclusion follows from the premises (validity of the argument) and whether the premises are true (soundness of the argument).The idea here is that the “expert” will take charge and guide the “non-experts” along, and in this manner the latter can benefit from the knowledge of the former.

As instructors we want to maximize our efforts to serve all of our students. I have found these techniques helpful in dealing with diverse levels of prior knowledge.

Elay Shech is a part-time instructor and teaching assistant in the University of Pittsburgh’s History and Philosophy of Science department.

photo credit: lumaxart via photopin cc


MARCH 2014

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