January 8, 2004, by Teaching at Nottingham

How can you accommodate diversity in a large group?

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Wyn Morgan: “It’s a question of trying to find a balance between scaring the ones who’ve never done it before and not boring the ones who’ve got some experience with it. I think you have to remember what you’re trying to achieve in that particular class in terms of content or knowledge or whatever it is you’re actually trying to achieve and you have to couch the content of that class on that basis.

“So if you’re saying the idea is to get them up to a certain level in mathematical skills, for example, then you’re going to have to accept that there are some students there who will have some ability already.

“So: ‘OK, look, there may be elements of this lecture that you’re going to have heard before. Just bear with those because we’re going to extend it later on; it is a building block. There are some people here for whom this is new. We need to go through this so that we can move on to other areas.’

“So you can frame it in a positive way that actually allows people to say ‘Yes, I can see why I’m doing this. Alright, yes I’ve done it before, but I can see why we need to go over this and why others need to be brought up to speed before we can move on.’

“That’s certainly one approach, that requires you to be very familiar with the material (there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be) and to be perfectly happy with what you’re trying to achieve in that session.”

Mary Chapple: “I’ve got a couple of suggestions that you might like to think about.

“If you know that it’s going to be a mixed ability group, you could start at the beginning of the session by actually giving them out a questionnaire of some sort that they all have to fill in, and then getting them to check their answers with the people next to them.

“So what you’re doing there is you’re getting their attention, they’re having to identify what they already know, and then they’re having to talk to the people next to them, and if those people don’t know, to try and explain it to them.

“So the people with advanced knowledge are being actively involved in using their knowledge to explain to the people who don’t know, and then you can go on and take the session from there and start to dig a bit deeper.

“That’s one activity that you could use. It’s obviously going to depend on the type of knowledge that you’re trying to put across.

“And you can do that again part way through a session. It’s something I use quite frequently, particularly if I think the students are starting to drop off and I’ve lost their attention, is to actually pose a question, get them all to think about the answer, and then to share that with their next door neighbour.

“And then you can look at picking on one or two of the groups to actually get the answers from them.

“And that’s another way you can use different people’s knowledge within a group.”

Chris Barnatt: “I think a lot of it is about making it clear at the start that you’re aware of the issue. I teach a first year computing module where you’re going to get massive spans of not just ability but also of attitude towards the module.

“So, for example, at the start when we always put up our learning objectives and outcomes, I always finish off with a ‘Not Learning Objectives’ which is basically ‘I’m not here to annoy all the people who really like computers and worry all the people who really hate computers.’

“That type of presentation sets a tone. I think often the problem with mixed ability groups is partially the ability, but it’s partially the attitude they have. So you’ll have some people saying: ‘I’m never going to get this’ and you’ll have some people saying: ‘I know it all already, why on Earth am I here?’

“I think it helps to acknowledge that, not just at the start, but also as you’re going through. So you might get to a certain point and say ‘If you are really interested in this, and you’ve got some previous knowledge, you might want to look at this.’ Or ‘If you find this particularly difficult, you might want to look at that reference.’

“So you can take the same material through, but you can slant them towards different sources for different ability levels.

“So I think a lot of it’s about not saying ‘I’m going to deliver this, this is the syllabus’ and not thinking about what the audience is thinking about it. If you try and get into their heads a bit, you can win them over, as Wyn says, as to why you’re doing it.

“The other thing is, while you’ll have mixed abilities, a big issue we face these days, is people coming in having done certain things at ‘A’ level and saying ‘I know all this’, and they usually don’t.

“Actually, whilst they might know about Maths, or Computing, or Economics, or whatever it is, they often haven’t applied it in the same ways.

“So you can throw in questions such as ‘Have you thought about applying it to this area?’. And even if you are teaching something like statistics, you’re doing it for a reason, because you are going to use it later on.

“I think if you can show where it applies, it makes the people with no knowledge think ‘Oh, I really must do this.’ and the people who think they know it all realise that actually they don’t.

“So I think showing the application of things to mixed ability groups is also important.”

Wyn Morgan: “I’d also want to reiterate that the lecture is not in isolation. There’s going to be support outside the lecture in small group teaching, tutorials, whatever, and that there’s often a way that you can cater more specifically for this difference in ability outside the lecture setting.

“And that just reinforces the fact that this is a team-teaching approach, or a wider learning environment than the 50 minutes of lecture that they’re going to get.

That reassures those with the lower levels of ability, however you want to define that, that this is not simply a question of ‘Well if you don’t understand it now, well tough’, because that immediately switches them off.

“It’s a very good question to raise as it’s an issue we’re going to have to deal with more and more as the entry net widens, so thank you for that.”

Christopher Barnatt
Nottingham University Business School
Mary Chapple
(School of Nursing, Midwifery & Physiotherapy)
Wyn Morgan
School of Economics

Extracts from a panel discussion on large group teaching at the January 2004 PGCHE Introductory Event. Produced January 2004.
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

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