My students vary all over the place in background and skills, and there’s just one of me. What am I supposed to do? (RF)

I’m writing this from 37,000 feet on what feels like an endless flight from Doha to New York. If you’re like 100% of the people I told where I was going before the trip, you’ve probably just thought “From where???

Glad you asked. Doha is the capital of Qatar, a small country on a peninsula growing out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Rebecca and I were there to give a new workshop for faculty at Texas A&M University‒Qatar (TAMUQ) on how to teach effectively in courses filled with students who stretch the limits of the term “diversity.” To most of us academics, diversity means mainly variations in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. To the faculty members at the workshop, it means all those things plus massive variations in math and science backgrounds, command of course prerequisites and of English (the language of instruction in all TAMUQ courses), and interest in the course subject. Designing a workshop to address all that was an interesting challenge for us, made even more interesting by our having only 3½ hours to present it.

We love a good challenge, and a colleague of ours who had given a workshop in Qatar told us that the staff members of the TAMUQ Center for Teaching and Learning (our host) were competent and friendly and treated their guests royally, so we accepted their invitation. (All of what our colleague told us turned out to be true.) We gave the workshop once on each of two successive days. The first time we had to just wave at some of the content, since we had been much too optimistic about how much we could cover in 3½ hours. We did some ruthless cutting that night, and the second offering was better but still too ambitious. When we give this workshop again, we expect to get it right.

So, out of the almost limitless array of topics we might have covered, what did we settle on? Here are the questions we addressed and some of our suggested answers, along with citations of where in our book [Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide] you can find details on the answers. You can find even more details in references cited in the book and in papers archived on my website.

  1. How can I identify and correct gaps in my students’ prior knowledge and understanding without spending a lot of class time reteaching course prerequisites?
  • Give a test on the prerequisites about a week into the course after handing out a study guide on Day 1 and holding one or two review sessions. (TLS, pp. 60‒61)
  • Give ConcepTests (in-class multiple-choice quizzes on important course concepts) and use them to correct common student misconceptions. (TLS, pp. 162‒163)
  1. How can I specify what the students should be able to do if they have learned what I am trying to teach? How can I maximize the chances that those with the necessary study habits and skills will meet my expectations?
  • Write learning objectives—clear statements of observable tasks the students should be able to complete if they have mastered the knowledge and skills the course teaches. The objectives should include some tasks that require high-level thinking and problem-solving skills and—for programs accredited by ABET—address specified ABET outcomes. Share the objectives with the students as study guides for exams. (TLS, pp. 19‒34)
  • Be sure that assessments of students’ mastery of the learning objectives (assignments, projects, quizzes, and exams) are both rigorous and fair. (TLS, Ch. 8)
  1. How can I motivate the students to work hard to learn what I am teaching?
  • At the beginning of the course, try to establish personal rapport with them (TLS, pp. 54‒56). Then preview the course content and outline how it relates to students’ goals, interests, and prior knowledge and to important authentic (real-world) problems. (TLS, pp. 58‒59)
  • Consider using inquiry-based learning, preceding coverage of each topic with a relevant authentic problem and presenting the course content in the context of solving the problem. (TLS, pp. 59‒60)
  1. How does active learning help students who span the full range of diversity? How can I get my students actively engaged in class, no matter how many are in the room?
  • Define active learning (interspersing lecture segments with brief course-related student activities) and review the research that shows how well it works. Describe mistakes instructors commonly make that limit its effectiveness and outline how to avoid them. (TLS, Ch. 6)

Rebecca and I were pleased with the workshop content, as were the participants judging from their end-of-workshop evaluations. We have added the workshop to the list of programs we offer.

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