Teaching a Mixed Level Disparate Class

What do you do when your class is divided between majors who easily master the material and non-majors who continually struggle? Or when you see that a few students find the material easy, are bored, and yearn to be challenged, while some still just aren't “getting it” despite your best efforts? Where should the level of content in the class be set? Should it be the same for all students, or individually customized?

In almost any course you can have students that come from a multitude of academic backgrounds, divisions (upper vs. lower), preparation, majors and interests. For courses without prerequisites or those that attract students from many disciplines, such as gateway courses, effectively teaching all students can be challenging. At UC Berkeley, many faculty aim lectures at the upper-middle portion of the class, although this varies widely across campus. Regardless of where a course is “aimed,” there are many strategies that can be implemented to help teach a disparate class. The following is a list of considerations that should be made when teaching a class, and guiding practices for implementing your chosen pedagogy:

Do Students Need To Have a Pre-Determined Baseline of Knowledge For Your Course?


An important consideration for each course that you teach is whether you want or need students to have a certain baseline of knowledge, skills or background information for them to be successful in the course. Depending on the type of course and its structure, students with very diverse backgrounds may foster a great collaborative environment with diverse perspectives, but a great discrepancy in background knowledge may be more indicative of some students not having the necessary preparation for the course. Determine if your course necessitates some kind of pre-requisites for students to be adequately prepared for the course. Even if pre-requisites are not required to enroll, as is the case for many Berkeley courses, you can indicate them as suggestions on the syllabus to help students decide if they are ready for the course and have the background necessary to be successful in achieving the course goals.

Guiding Practices

On the first day of class, establish a baseline of knowledge that is required to succeed in your course. This may be in the form of a quiz that informs you about the makeup of your students, or may be in the form of a checklist that you give students to which they can self-assess their preparation for this particular course. For those students who remain in the course and realize they may be lacking in preparation, you can provide additional resources like a supplemental reading list (which could be informed by the results of the quiz) that students can utilize to address any areas of weakness (and will also recognize that they are expected to have previously have attained this knowledge and it will not be covered in class). Advanced supplemental enrichment activities and materials can also be used to engage the top quarter of the class, while the bottom quarter may rely more on instructor office hours and GSIs. See Dr. Azhar’s excellent examples of how he utilizes supplementary materials in his class.  

How Much Variety Can You Provide In Your Teaching and Assessments?


Differential instruction is the pedagogy of providing myriad types of instruction to students with different learning needs. It is not about creating a tailored teaching plan for each student, but reflects an acknowledgement that all of the students in the classroom will not all learn in the same way. Implementing a variety of teaching styles, types of technology, assessment types and levels of both assessment and learning outcomes is a standard, effective teaching methodology. The question is not so much whether to provide this variety, but how much variety is necessary and how much variety will be effective in your particular course. Consider your teaching style, the diversity and needs of your students, and the structure of the course.

Guiding Practices

Provide students with a variety of formative and summative assessments. Providing a variety of types of assessments (participation marks, papers, lab reports, exams, group projects) allows students who excel at one particular type to demonstrate their strength. Providing a variety of question types and multiple levels of assessment (see Bloom’s Taxonomy) allows students to demonstrate their abilities to not only recall and summarize, but also synthesize, analyze and evaluate. Finally, using different methods of actual teaching, whether through active learning, different multimedia and technology and changing between lectures, seminars and group work (whether graded or not) allows you to access all learner types and allows different ways for students to approach or contextualize the driving questions of the course and discipline. As Dr. Smart discusses below, these all tie back into your course design and your course can be set up to provide this variety by employing different levels of learning outcomes.  

 Are You Aware of Your Students' Potentially Disparate Goals?


Note that this consideration is likely more necessary for large, survey classes and less so at the upper division, specialized classes, and is more a consideration for your sanity, as opposed to how you operate your classroom! Especially in freshmen gateway classes, students enroll with a number of goals, ranging from passing the course to fulfill a requirement, to wanting to excel and specialize in this subject for their undergraduate degree. As such, the harsh reality is that students’ goals for themselves in terms of how much they want to learn and understand, and the amount of effort they are willing to put into your class may vary quite a bit.

Guiding Practices

One of the best ways to tackle a class with students who have disparate learning goals is to teach by layering levels of knowledge, and as mentioned previously, to employ multiple levels of assessment (see Bloom’s Taxonomy). This allows students to understand the basics and earn a passing grade in the course, without necessarily understanding all of the complexities which would be required to earn a high grade. If you are not sure what their goals are, ask them! This can be anonymous or just with a general question in class; you may be surprised as to how honest they will be with you!

One of the best ways to tackle your own sanity when teaching this kind of course is to produce one histogram of individual assignment grades for the entire class, and one histogram for only those students who are taking the course for numerical grades and not taking the course on a pass/no pass basis. Any disparity between the partial class and entire class histograms will be a reflection of students with different goals in the class. These distributions of grades give a more accurate picture to both you and your students of how the students are performing in the class in relation to their peer group. Below, Dr. Wallace discusses how he approaches teaching a class composed of students with disparate learning goals.

Can You Leverage Group Work?


When implemented well, group work can unify a disparate class through working in teams of students who each bring a different skill set and knowledge to the group. Team-based learning is most successful when the project is designed specifically to capitalize on the strengths of those participating in the project, and thus the question is, can you develop projects within your class that can be successful within the parameters of your students’ knowledge and backgrounds?

Guiding Practices

Plan and give careful thought as to what your proposed learning outcomes are for your group project. Is it going to be graded? Will everybody in the group get the same grade or will it differ depending on participation and contribution to the project (and will this be self or peer-evaluated)? For an example of how teamwork by students with different knowledge and academic backgrounds can be very successful and an excellent learning opportunity, see Dr. Alexander’s discussion of team projects in her class at the Energy Institute at Haas. For an example of some of the difficulties of implementing group projects, read about Dr. Wallace’s experiences.

Some Specific Examples of How Berkeley Faculty Teaching Mixed Level/Disparate Classes:

Beverly Alexander, Haas School of Business, Energy Institute at Haas

“I believe in setting a high bar and helping students reach it, as well as coaching them through their discomfort until they get there. We are lucky in Cleantech to Market because in some respects no one is prepared for the tasks we ask them to do, and yet all of them are brilliant. So, we throw them all in and help them swim.  We also have more opportunities to coach the students because it is an experiential class.   We force our students to learn outside their comfort zones because everything we do will be awkward for someone in the class.  And the point of placing students in teams is that they have to help each other.  The classes I teach have law students who may not understand PhD level biochemistry, but the PhD biochemists in the class do, so they have to explain it to everyone else. And the MBAs have to remember their Haas core curriculum and help the scientists, engineers, law, and policy students apply those principles too.  That is why we have them sign up to represent each core course. It's also why we repeatedly show them the squiggle charts below to remind them that they will feel confused, lost, and uncomfortable at the start of the semester, and as the team work kicks in and the knowledge gets shared, they will feel ever smarter and more focused as time goes by until finally they become a truly high functioning team.  We also tell them that is exactly what happens on the management committee of an energy company where everyone has to brief everyone else on their specialized issues (e.g., the CFO, COO, CTO, General Counsel all briefing the others in their areas of financial, operational, technical and legal expertise).  And because my co-teacher and I have lived that life, we know what that feels like.  
All of this leads to a feeling of great accomplishment by the end of the semester.  I also think the types of students who are accepted into UC Berkeley expect us to set a very high bar and then give them the tools to reach it. “

Wasim Azhar, Haas School of Business

“I do the following:
1) Pitch upper middle, i.e. slightly below the topmost group since I do want to add considerable value and keep myself and the class challenged as well as build a reputation for the course as being a tough one without it being totally out of the reach of ordinary mortals.
2) Keep the topmost group challenged and excited by (a) giving extra credit work to the class which really only the very best can accomplish (b) using them as resources to add to the class learning through extra research and data gathering and analysis which they share with the class, (c) posting additional articles that really only the topmost can understand and have interest in, and (d) meeting with them outside of class to discuss advanced topics, etc.
3) Help the struggling group at the lower end by (a) extra office hours (b) access online for answering queries and providing clarifications (c) optional review sessions, etc. 

These methods I have used not just in teaching Business Administration, but also in teaching Mathematics and Engineering.”

Mary Ann Smart, Music

“In music courses we're almost always confronted with students at different levels.  I often teach courses for which the ability to read music isn't required; but many of the students will know something about how music works technically, and often there are music majors in the mix as well.  
One way I deal with this is to vary the level of detail in the material we discuss.  I don't exactly do this consciously, but it's become habit.  Any single class will be planned around several different kinds of learning--some broad points that are accessible by just listening to the music a couple of times, with a bit of guidance from me; then also a more complex historical idea or an idea that can be grasped by reading a verbal text carefully (this might be the words to a piece of vocal music, or a historical account about hearing music at some moment in the past); and, finally, some detailed insight into the music that not everyone will follow step-by-step.  My hope is that the most advanced students will grasp this detail and eventually be able to produce similar arguments themselves, while those with less preparation will still be able to get the main idea, even if they don't follow all the steps of how we arrived at it.   Assignments and exam questions are often set up the same way--there's a text or a problem to focus on and a range of possible ways to tackle it.  I might give a grade in the A range to a student who produces a very intricate interpretation using technical knowledge she has gained over several semesters in other courses, but a student who puts together pieces of a broad argument in an imaginative and convincing way could receive the same grade.”

John Wallace, Japanese

“To my mind, this is a question about level of ability among the students, but also a question about the level of commitment among students. When I am thinking about teaching students who can learn but don't want to learn I think about what might inspire them. When teaching students who have different levels of ability either because of learning skills or different backgrounds, I try to create assignments that have a margin at the top for extra work but are doable for all students so they feel they are having success with the course. While it would seem that the less committed students might just as well be given less attention, and to some extent that is what I do, I also have quite a bit of active learning exercises that degrade in quality when students are all fully involved. In those cases the less committed students can have a negative impact on the whole group. Therefore, I first clarify my goal: am I trying to motivate students or am I trying to provide a range of challenges to match the ranges of abilities / backgrounds? Since most of my classes satisfy undergraduate breadth requirements, I have quite a few students who are just fulfilling that requirement sitting next to majors. And, since some of my students have returned from their overseas experiences, or are 1.5 or 2nd generation immigrants from China / Japan / Korea I also have a wide range of backgrounds. So, there are a lot of different things I try but, at the onset, I first clarify my goal(s) so I can hopefully match better the solution to the problem.”