Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I love teaching during the summer semester. The classes are usually smaller, the pace is a bit easier (no back to back meetings!), and students even seem less stressed, even though many of them are still working full time as well as taking classes.

The one challenge that becomes more prominent in these summer classes, however, is how to teach to students at different levels of ability, interest in the subject, and preparedness. Summer classes seem to have a way of dividing up the usual mix of students until you are left with mainly two distinct types: (a) those who are repeating the course because of a failing grade the first time around, and (b) those who are incredibly ambitious and using the summer to help them fast-track by finishing up their requirements.

These two sets of students seem different in many ways. The first group tends to struggle, which is made all the more difficult given that they've seen this material before and still can't get a handle on it. The latter students often pick everything up with ease, and you worry they are becoming bored. Sometimes I feel like the only thing they have in common is that everyone wants to get out of class, and be done with the credit, as soon as possible.

How do you teach to these seemingly disparate groups of students in the same class? How do you help support the struggling students while at the same time not losing the attention of the others?

Gosh, I wish I knew.

But I guess since this is a blog about teaching I should at least take a shot at it. I think the secret is motivation. When you ask students why they are taking a class, well at least for the classes I teach, a majority of students will say that it is a requirement for their major, or fulfills a general education requirement. Few of them ever exclaim "I have a burning desire to delve into the complexities of developmental theory and research!" But some will mention some personal interest in the subject - in my classes, I will always get a few folks who are parents, or about to become parents, so child development is particularly interesting, or at least relevant, to them. Then I try to design assignments and bring in examples that relate to how the course material applies to the real world. I also try to stir the pot a bit, and bring up controversial topics that can start discussions. If I can find something - anything - to draw those students in, they seem to get hooked and come along for the ride.

Case in point - last semester I had three African-American football players in my class. You could tell they didn't want to be there (although that may have been aggravated by the fact that they had 5 am practices before my class). After the first exam, it became clear that although they were there physically, that was about the limit of it. Then I showed a video in class, that I chose specially for them. It was of an African-American teen athlete discussing his dating life (we were doing a unit on adolescence). Luckily, my bet paid off, and they seemed to be able to relate to the video. And although the teen in the video didn't talk like the rest of the mainly Caucasian middle-class kids in the other videos on the subject (or like many of the other students in class), he was obviously an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Suddenly, my football players came alive, and although I can't thank this one video for everything (there was also a lot of support from me and their coach, and a lot of hard work on their parts), all three of them did quite a turn-around, and one of them wrote one of the best papers in class at the end of the term.

I didn't ask these students what in particular helped them, what inspired the change, but I like to think that part of it was I made an attempt to figure out who they were. I took them seriously, didn't write them off, and tried to find ways to motivate them to learn the material.

Motivation is going to be different for every student, and sometimes I can't quite figure out what makes a student tick. I think some of them are so focused on grades (both those who aren't getting them, and those who are excelling) that tapping into what interests them about the material is difficult. But every semester I feel like I've reached a few more, and that keeps me going.

Photo by crd!

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