Teaching Students with Different Learning Styles and Levels of Preparation

What do you do when you realize that half the students in your section haven’t done the reading? Or when your class is divided between majors who easily master the material and non-majors who continually struggle? What do you do when you have the sense that a few of the students still aren’t getting it, despite your best efforts?

College students enter our classrooms with a wide variety of learning styles and levels of preparation. Teaching non-majors, majors, and students with a range of experiences and ways of learning all in the same classroom is one of the most challenging aspects of our job. Assessing how students learn, their previous experience with the material, and how their skills change over the course of the semester is the first step in developing strategies to reach all students.

Teachers instinctively teach in the same modality in which they learn. For example, an aural learner will be very comfortable in leading open-ended discussions with few visual aids, while a visual learner may rely on charts and diagrams without adequately explaining concepts aloud.

The most successful teachers incorporate different modes of communication to serve a range of learners. Determining your own modality of learning will make you more aware of your teaching style and help you incorporate visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic elements in your lessons.

Differences among students are not limited to learning styles. Teachers who regularly assess students’ knowledge and preparation levels can modify semester plans as well as weekly lessons to best teach their students the skills and information necessary to succeed in class. Start-of-term assessments give you a sense of what to expect from your students, while midterm and end-of-term assessments help you determine what students have gained from the course and where to focus your efforts. Brief, informal assessments provide a quick-check of your students’ understanding of a particular concept or topic. This document covers a few types of assessment appropriate at various times during the semester and during class meetings.

Assessments often clarify the reasons for a split class, indicating whether the differences among students result from motivation, preparation, experience, or learning styles. When you have determined the underlying cause of your split class, you can tailor your teaching to meet your students’ needs. This document offers some practical strategies and suggestions for teaching a heterogeneous group of students.

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