Students differ in terms of interests, prior knowledge and skills, and learning preferences to a great extent. As a consequence, students have different levels of motivation, attitudes about teaching, and responses to specific instructional practices. How can you address these differences in your teaching?
Students in higher education differ in (Felder & Brent, 2005):
Some students are comfortable with theories and abstractions; others feel much more at home with facts and observable phenomena; some prefer collaborative learning and others value individual learning; some prefer verbal explanations and others prefer visual representations.
Approaches to learning and orientations to studying
Students tend to approach their courses in three ways:
Students who have an orientation to reproduction tend to adopt a superficial approach, relying on memorisation and making little or no effort to understand the material being taught.
Students who have an orientation towards meaning tend to adopt a deep approach; probing questions and exploring the (conceptual) limits.
Students who have an orientation towards achievement might adopt both a surface or deep approach, doing whatever is necessary to get the highest grade they can.
Firstly, try to get to know your students. A straightforward way is being aware of verbal and non-verbal feedback from your students. Students might complain about the level of the course content, express demotivation, show procrastination or work in a superficial manner. This may indicate that students either need more instruction or need to be guided towards an orientation that promotes meaning. Another approach would be to discuss the differences and resulting preferences. Some students may feel uncomfortable expressing their needs and aims. Online tools give students the opportunity to be more honest in their responses as they can stay anonymous to their peers.
Secondly, adapt to students’ need in terms of the content, the learning activities, the level and/or educational tools or challenge students to go the extra mile. Some example are:
Learning activities: Taking differences in learning preferences into account, alternate between individual and group work, concrete and conceptual exercises and written or visual explanations. For (small) group work, alternate between group arrangements based on prior knowledge or learning preferences and between homogenous and heterogeneous groups.
The level: To adapt to or challenge students, try to create more time to provide personalised feedback. A well-known method is flipping the classroom in which students watch lectures at home so that the face-to-face time in class can be used for students’ questions and collaborative work.
The content: Let students decide what (sub)topic they want explore further; working from and thereby developing their individual talents stimulates students’ sense of autonomy.
We aim to design education in such a way, that students take responsibility for their own learning. However, not all students are used to take responsibility for their own learning; not all students know how to do so; and not all students appreciate education wherein they are expected to take the lead.
Consequently, as a lecturer, you may need to help students ‘learn how to learn’. Letting students experience friction by not meeting their initial needs can be a way to do so.
Taking responsibility for own learning is conceptualised as students’ self-regulated or self-directed learning in the literature. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how different interplays between a teacher’s and a student’s regulation of the learning process can have different outcomes:
Congruence occurs when the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning is compatible. Typical examples are strong regulation of learning in a first course, as students are not (yet) used to the regulation expected in the educational setting and loose teacher regulation in a master thesis, when students are expected to be able to take the lead.
Friction occurs when teaching and learning are not compatible. A typical example is when students are expected to manage group work themselves, but struggle to do so without teacher support and/or deadlines. Yet, (destructive) friction also occurs when lecturers provide too much guidance and support and fail to call upon students’ skills and knowledge.
Interplays between teacher and student regulation of the learning process
Degree of student regulation
Degree of teacher regulation
Adapted from Vermunt & Verloop, 1997, p.270
Friction can be unpleasant to start with, however it could also provide an important boost to learning when friction is used in a constructive manner; that is, when students are challenged to develop their competences and expertise. By providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating ‘constructive friction’), lecturers can give students the opportunity to develop in ways that they did not expect they were capable of doing on their own (cf. ‘out of a comfort zone’).
You can create constructive friction to promote independent learning at different levels:
in lesson/lecture, for instance by asking students to prepare and present part of the content themselves
in an assignment, for instance by inviting students to design and complete part of the assessment (of the process/group work)
in a program (line), for instance by having students plan their curriculum, including when and where they will conduct an internship/thesis/capstone
Vermunt, J. D., & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and instruction, 9(3), 257-280.
This article describes teaching activities that elicit the most often used cognitive, affective and metacognitive learning activities, differentiated for teacher, shared and student-regulated learning processes.
The University recognises the diversity in backgrounds, skills, talents and needs of its student population. To satisfy their interests and meet their personal ambitions for future careers, it endeavors to meet students’ demand for personalisation of the curriculum and learning routes. It further recognises the importance of an enriched curriculum by offering multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to learning, choice through enhanced curricular pathways and a variety of opportunities to gain international experience including work placements, study/research abroad and attracting international staff.
What are the university's objectives with this theme?
What are the key aspects?
What are important questions?
How do we know we’re making progress?
Example: individual track (Honours College FSW)
Students develop the skills to help fulfill their ambitions;
Facilitating more personalised learning experiences;
Programmes offer the opportunity to students to develop a wide range of talents.
In order to achieve personalisation of the curriculum, and engage and motivate students, it is important to actively engage them in their future career path based on their interests and ambitions. This can be done by offering them choice in modules, differentiation methods in teaching and learning, interdisciplinary minors or extracurricular opportunities, for example through the Honours track. Also, Leiden University is one of the nine high-ranking universities that have signed an agreement for a virtual exchange, whereby they offer the option of taking online elective courses to gain credits for bachelor or master degrees in the Netherlands and abroad. (See Internationalisation and diversity)
When giving students a lot of freedom in the choice of modules, it is important that they get help with their module choices and producing a rational study pathway. For example, do the chosen modules complement each other and will they form a comprehensive body of knowledge, or a programme of transdisciplinary subjects? For students, choosing an individual study pathway is an important decision that will impact on a future career. Lack of appropriate information and guidance, could lead to poor choices, which can lead to disengagement and in the worst-case scenario even drop out. Consequently it is important to provide comprehensive information that is easily accessible (information days, Honours track orientation module, websites, student one-stop services). Students should also have the opportunity to get personal advice on their study trajectory from both the academic (study advisors) and career perspective (career service)
Besides offering students choice in modules and extracurricular opportunities, we should also consider differentiated learning and instruction approaches to give students choice in the pace, place and mode of their learning. For example, when teaching a group of students with different needs and talents, we should consider giving students the opportunity of employing a variety of talents in assignments and learning new skills in a safe environment. (see also Activing Teaching and Learning). Differentiation requires lecturers to tailor their practices to their students’ profiles and requires flexibility in terms of design, content, assessment and the grouping of students.
Flexible learning focuses on giving students choice in the pace, place and mode of their study, and all three aspects can be delivered through appropriate pedagogical practice. Examples of pedagogical practice are Problem Based Learning, Project Based learning and Programmed Instruction. A common strategy for facilitating this is through e-learning or blended learning. The availability of technology can encourage flexible approaches to the delivery and assessment of learning. Pace typically focuses on different delivery schedules, e.g. faster or slower completion of the module/course. Place is concerned with the physical location, which could be at home or in a classroom. Mode covers learning technologies, which provide new and flexible approaches through the wide range of ICT products, including virtual reality applications. (see Application of Technology in Teaching and Learning)
This short publication focuses on how e-learning can support flexible pedagogies. It also explains how technology could enable new choices for learners.
Individual track in Honours College FSW
Open to: All bachelor students of Leiden University
When meeting the entry criteria for the Honours College, students may compose their own individual programme. Under supervision of the Faculty Honours coordinator students plan an Individual pathway. There is a great deal of freedom and flexibility and students have the opportunity to organise internships, trips abroad, attend master’s courses, etc. However, to guarantee quality the proposed track must be approved by the Examination Board.
All students have the opportunity to take an Honours Class of 5 ECTS as part of the Honours College or as an extra-curricular module. In the video lecturers and students explain the benefits of an honours class.
Differentiation refers to a teaching approach that is employed to instruct a diverse group of students, with different learning needs and talents. In traditional step-by-step teaching approaches, in which all students receive bits of instruction at the same time, the more advanced students may get bored and other students may not be able to keep up.
By applying a differentiation approach to teaching, students will be given a challenging (end) assignment and are allowed to work in their own pace towards completion. How can this be done? One way of facilitating a more individual approach to learning is by offering the student help and support at the moment the student needs it. This approach is also called scaffolding. It may seem time-consuming for lecturers, however, there are simple strategies to avoid differentiating teaching from taking more time.
The starting point is to redesign an existing course and fit all the face-to-face teaching within the same timeframe. This will require extra time to start with, as it will take time and effort to redesign a course. Once designed, tried and tested, it should not involve more teaching time than before, but will have the advantage of more engaged students, better retention rates and better assessment results.
Step 1: Redesign your course
Review al lectures and seminars (workgroup sessions) in your course and break them up into small chunks of content and skills instructions.
Decide which chunks can be offered on Blackboard and which need to be delivered face-to-face.
Pre-record Blackboard instructions and distribute the face-to-face instructions over the same amount of lectures as before.
List the prerequisite skills that are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on the major assignment(s) and publish them.
Step 2: Teaching approach
Brief the students with the major assignment(s) (the one(s) they are going to be assessed on at the end of the course), so they know what they are aiming for. In doing so, the student is activated in drawing upon prior knowledge and skills and build upon it. This approach works as a motivational device.
Publish the prerequisite skills that are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on the assignment. They will quickly identify knowledge and skills gaps. (self-assessment)
Let the students know at what moments they can get instructions or help (e.g. office hours or by email).
Be clear about expectations: give the students responsibility for the organisation of work and to attend the sessions they need.
Practise the skills and knowledge needed for the assignment at a lower-level at the start of the course. This could be a task that needs to be completed in one day. This way the students get a better understanding of what is required of them.
With this approach, the students can choose what kind of help they need. Instructions on Blackboard allow the students to revisit certain instructions on demand.
Additionally, students could be asked to work in small study groups so that they can support each other in the learning process (you may or may not want to assess group work).