The Appropriate Level of Your Students


Learning Objectives:
At the conclusion of this learning activity, you will be able to:
(1) Gauge students’ level of understanding
(2) Recognize when students are confused
(3) Successfully teach to an audience that is wide-ranging in background and level of understanding

Section 7 discusses the importance of achieving the “right level of challenge” to maximize learner motivation, but this begs the question: How do you know at what level(s) your learners are at? To try to answer that question, this section is going to assume the worst case scenario…a section with learners at notably different levels. We will talk about things you can do before, during, and after the section to enhance the degree to which your teaching matches your learners’ levels of understanding.

Prerequisite: You have to accept that in a section with learners of disparate levels, it is impossible to achieve the perfect level for every student at every moment. Your goal should not be perfection, minimizing confusion while \maximizing the engagement of the best students.

Before You Start Section

Assessing learner level beforehand has to do with determining where your learners are starting.
The professor is undoubtedly teaching to what he/she believes to be the “appropriate level.” You should think of your task as “fine tuning” the pace set by the professor. At the beginning of each section, you want to see to what degree the students were able to process and understand the professor’s lecture, reading material, and assignments. You can ask either directly – “raise your hand if you feel like you totally, completely, 100% understood that reading” or “on a scale of 1-10 how hard was the most recent lecture to follow?” – or indirectly, by testing whether or not students understand the critical concepts (in a large class, you can pose the question as multiple-choice, and determine the number of students who correctly raise their hands; in a smaller class, it’s nice to ask a more cognitively advanced question, as explained in the section on ILOs), asking students to write the answer on a notecard and pass it in so that you can determine what percentage of the class was capable of understanding/applying the critical concept. For either approach, it is helpful if you walk into the room having already thought about the fundamental concepts leading up to your section. Fundamentally, you want to know what your students will need to know to be able to understand your lesson plans – and if they don’t know what you had determined they would need to know, then you’re going to have to modify your lesson plans.

Throughout Section

During section monitoring relates more to the pace and depth of you own teaching.
It comes in two primary forms: 1) asking questions that test your students’ understanding (has the added perk of being active learning!) and 2) watching for telltale signs of confusion or boredom (staring off in space, sudden cessation of participation, doodling, sleeping, etc.) Remember, teachers usually confuse what they teach with what their students learn (e.g., “My students know A, B, and C.” How do you know they know that? “Well, because that’s what I taught them!”), when in reality, knowing what your students know is hard. But it is critical, and efforts to attain this knowledge will pay of in the long-run.

After Section

Post-section feedback can be informal/immediate (“was that too fast, too slow, or just right?”) or can test comprehension. Let this feedback help guide how you approach your next session.

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