We have all heard that the best teachers “meet the students where they are” and cater well to individual needs and learning styles. This can be a daunting task, and raises the question, “Well, how do I know where they are and what their learning style is?” This article will attempt to give a very brief answer to these questions, as well as a few tips and examples.
We all struggle with knowing where students are coming from and what they already know. This can make designing units and lesson plans very challenging, as we feel like we are taking a shot in the dark. Since college classrooms contain students of varied abilities and backgrounds, instructors are tasked with collecting student learning data that will guide them toward good instructional decisions. This, as with everything, can be as simple or as complex as the curriculum demands.
In some classes, I’ve used pre-tests with unit-specific sections to help students identify areas of strengths and weaknesses. Students were taught how to interpret the data from their pretest, and given extra help on areas of weakness. When assessment precedes the teaching of a concept, the instructor can design a more effective unit for the class as a whole and for each individual. While this is a little more complicated, it’s one of those strategies in education that I see as an investment. Students who enter a course with misconceptions or gaps in their learning will eventually require more help – the earlier, the better for everyone.
A much simpler method that I like to use is an “exit ticket.” Simply save a few minutes at the end of class to preview the following class meeting with a few simple questions. Students can write their responses on a slip of paper and have to hand it to you before exiting the room. For example, a professor can ask questions about students’ prior understanding of a topic, their exposure to it, and any questions they may already have about it. This helps you to design an engaging lecture that addresses misconceptions, answers questions (many of which students are too shy to ask in a classroom settings), and does not waste time repeating concepts that students have already mastered. Most importantly, it gives us a reality check of where students stand, helping us to avoid skipping ahead and subsequently leaving harmful gaps in student learning. It also gets students excited about the next class meeting, which I believe really helps with student attendance.
Typically when we think of assessment, we are thinking of the traditional assessment of student learning (known as summative assessment). Since these assessments are usually done at the end of the unit, the results do not have a lot of impact on the teaching of the tested concepts. They do typically have a heavy impact on students’ individual grades.
In contrast, formative assessment is assessment for learning. These assessments usually carry little to no grade weight, and may even be anonymous or not recorded. The methods can range from in-class discussions to pop quizzes to students writing the main points of the lecture on a slip of paper. The purpose is to give feedback to both students and teachers on what needs improvement before the higher-stakes testing takes place. Students will learn areas of weakness and be able to step up the study habits or seek extra help. Professors will know where the class stands and be able to adjust instruction, assignments, test dates, and even test content accordingly.
You can be as high-tech or as simple as you want with formative assessment. Our instructional technology staff can get you set up with the Turning Point software, where students can answer questions in class and the data appears instantaneously on your computer and / or the projection screen. If instantaneous survey results are not conducive to the lesson or your teaching style, you can collect quizzes, surveys, or short writings to mull over in your office before the next class. Regardless of the method, the purpose is to get (and give) feedback that allows students and professors to adjust study habits and instruction before the summative assessment takes place.
This term intimidates some, because it sounds like having to do our job multiple times. The simplest way I can describe it is to first acknowledge that the student body is diverse, and then find ways to vary instruction to best reach them. This applies to assignments, activities and assessments. You can offer multiple options for a project, all of which accomplish the targeted learning objective. When repetition fits in a presentation or lecture, try to present the material in ways that apply to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.
One thing I have used in the past is a learning styles inventory, which students can take to determine which learning style best describes them. Teachers can use the data from their classes to steer their classroom time and assignment design, and students can learn a lot about how to be efficient and effective with their study time.
While this entry was pretty specific to a few teaching strategies, I have one very general piece of advice to share with my friends and colleagues: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! We all have unique gifts and talents, and unique struggles. We all have days when we feel like our classroom time went well, and some when the blank stares and chaotic activities (that had seemed so clear in our head) haunt us. This institution is blessed with so many gifted individuals, and there is absolutely to shame in turning to a colleague and saying, “How do you make sure students are learning before giving a test?”, “Could you come watch my lecture and give me tips on how to make it more engaging?” or “What technology have you found effective for group projects?”
The best teachers are great thieves, really – they seek out people who have more experience, creativity, or time on their hands and take their ideas to use in their classroom. And since imitation is the greatest form of flattery, I have never met an educator who objected to this sort of thievery. We owe it to the students to be the best we can, and we can certainly learn infinitely more when we combine our decades of experience and our unique talents.
I’d like to thank Hannah for taking time from her busy schedule to share these valuable tips and suggestions. I’d also love to hear from more of you, our faculty at Greenville College, about your favorite methods for instruction and assessment. Post a comment to share with your colleagues.