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Teaching to Student Diversity

What may be considered to be typical undergraduate behavior in the United States does not apply to all students. As in all cultures, individual styles exist. It is important to remember that student academic performance can increase when methods of instruction match the learning styles and cognitive styles of individual students (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Messick, 1976; Sperry, 1972).

One of the most effective ways to deal with student diversity within group instruction is to vary teaching methods. Instruction can be varied within one class session and from session to session.

Some students learn easily via auditory methods and others via visual or kinesthetic means. A TA who is aware of these different modes of learning can help students learn more efficiently and effectively. For example, the TA can give an explanation (auditory model), show slides depicting the subject or draw a diagram of what was explained (visual mode), and then have students use the information by asking them to solve a problem, give an example of how to apply the concepts explained, summarize the explanation, or physically manipulate equipment (kinesthetic mode).

Another way to vary instruction is to vary the use of inductive and deductive teaching methods. In the deductive approach, students are given information and then asked to perform a task or answer questions based on the information given. In the inductive approach (sometimes called the discovery approach), students are asked to perform a task (e.g., draw a diagram, solve a problem or answer a question) before they are given information about the task. Explanations can be given after students either discover how to do the task or discover that they are unable to perform the task. For some students, explanations are more meaningful once they have had some experience in working with or thinking about a particular idea or concept.

Student diversity can also be addressed by increasing the degree of student participation. Students are more attentive when they are asked to actively participate in the class. Students can be asked to participate in a discussion by responding to structured and focused discussion questions with the TA as leader and facilitator.

Instructional variety and student participation can also be increased by asking students to respond to questions within particular theoretical frameworks, ideologies, or their own personal experiences. Further variety can be introduced by asking students to debate an issue, roleplay situations, or engage in group activities (such as producing a chart that compares and contrasts two or more theories).

Involving students directly with the material to be learned not only varies instruction but can also enhance learning and retention of information. Some students need a great deal of personal involvement with course material in order to learn and understand it well.

Teaching to student diversity also requires taking individual student needs into account, identifying the various levels of student understanding and providing encouragement to students. The following comments by international TAs indicate ways in which students' varied backgrounds can be taken into account while teaching.

"Any time the instructor goes to the classroom he must imagine that this is the first lecture that he's given, and then--imagine himself as a student with the same knowledge as the student, and before he goes to the lecture, he thinks about what the student is going to ask: what is difficult, which part should he spend more time on? As Americans say, it's important to put yourself in the shoes of the students." (International TA, Computer Science)

"Usually you can expect about one or two poor students at the maximum. You can spend a few hours in the first week with them to review material and catch them up, especially if these students are willing to learn." (International TA, Engineering)

"Let the students know that you know about the course and their problems. I myself always disliked a teacher who does not know the potential of the students and the problems the students are facing. Let them know that your target is for them to learn something out of this class." (International TA, Social Science)

"Even for similar levels of students, you need to use different methods for different individuals. Students understand the same question from different ways." (International TA, Social Science)

"It's better to know students very well. When I know students, I know what they need, and I am better able to explain." (International TA, Engineering)

"It's important to encourage students. Students have different interests and different motivations... All students want to get something from the class, so you can still find some way to help them get more." (International TA, Social Sciences)

Although it is important for the TA to endeavor to meet the diverse needs of students, some students will need more help than can reasonably be given during class and office hours. Most colleges and universities have student services such as academic and study skill centers or a tutorial office that these students can be referred to. In referring the student, it is helpful to inform him or her of the specific skills that need improvement.

It is also important for TAs to be aware of diverse student learning styles. Learning styles refer to how students learn and study. Researchers Entwistle & Ramsden (1983) have identified two extreme types of learning styles that have been called the "deep" or global approach and the "surface" or atomistic approach. The global approach is a holistic style of learning in which the student integrates the main points of the lesson into a structural whole. On the opposite end of the continuum is the atomistic approach in which students concentrate on parts of the lesson, often without interrelating or integrating the information. Although both styles are important in learning, the predominant use of one style over another can be detrimental to the learning process.

In terms of study habits, students who tend to use the global approach spend a longer time studying, find the material more interesting, and feel that studying is gratifying Students who use the atomistic approach spend a great deal of time on rote memorization of facts and may find studying tedious and unrewarding.

Successful learning depends on the student's ability to combine the best of both learning styles. The global approach learner must learn to pay attention to details and the atomistic approach learner needs to view the details in relation to the larger picture.

Students tend to have a preference for one learning style over another. However, the method of teaching, the type of testing and the nature of the subject matter can influence student choice of learning style (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983). For instance, in large survey courses, it is easy for students to be overwhelmed by the amount of factual information and turn to a more atomistic approach. Consequently, they may focus on the details of the course and lose sight of the overall implications of the conceptual and theoretical course material. When this happens, students need to be directed toward developing a deeper approach to studying the subject matter. On the other hand, students predominantly using a global approach may need to be reminded that a certain amount of factual and detailed information is needed to support conceptual and theoretical assertions.

Learning Styles Chart
There appears to be a relationship between student learning styles and the subjects they choose to study in college (Entwistle & Ramsden,1983). Atomistic learners tend to be attracted to departments in which knowledge is hierarchically structured and related to accepted paradigms (i.e., natural sciences, computer science and engineering). Students who favor the global approach are most often found in departments in which knowledge is more subject to personal interpretation (i.e., social sciences and the humanities). Although students will probably choose a college major compatible with their learning style, they still must take courses in other departments to meet the general education requirements of the B.A. or B.S. degree.

TAs can help students to become more aware of their own characteristic learning styles as well as show them how they might most effectively capitalize on their intellectual strengths. For example, the TA might help students to recognize their ability to memorize facts (atomistic style), and then help them to explore how they might make use of these facts in explaining an overall concept (global style). The goal is to encourage the students to try to go beyond the limitations of one particular style.

Through an awareness of learning styles, a TA can effectively balance instruction to include both learning approaches. Probably the most effective technique a TA can use is to vary teaching strategies to include examples and discussions that utilize both the atomistic approach and the global approach. In this way students can be encouraged to practice both styles and learn to use the best of each when most appropriate.

The TA's teaching methods and the course testing procedures tend to encourage and expect certain learning; therefore, students should be informed of these expectations so that they can direct their learning process according to the most appropriate style. The TA can help students choose the expected learning style by clearly explaining testing formats, grading procedures and course content requirements.

Knowledge of these different approaches may also help the TA to explain puzzling student behavior. For example, when students ask extensive questions about the exam it might be easy to assume that these students don't want to study or are not interested in learning, and therefore want to be given answers (i.e., "spoon-fed"). However, in light of the research on learning styles, students may just be trying to find out what is expected of them so they can concentrate their efforts on the appropriate learning style necessary for success in each particular course and on each type of exam.

One international TA recalled his own first year experience with student learning styles while teaching a statistics course. He initially thought his students were not understanding him because of his difficulties with the English language; eventually, he discovered this was not the case.

"The students didn't understand what I was saying. At first I thought it was my problem with the language. Later on, in my second year, I realized maybe my English was a problem, but also students had a problem because they had such a low level of math background.

First I tried to give them more problems from the textbook, and I repeated what they had learned in class. They didn't have patience to listen to that; they were really interested in the techniques of solving problems.

With very poor students, I really had to explain the purpose of the class, the purpose of each particular question, ask them to explain what exactly the question is asking, and how to deal with that problem. So basically I had to explain the problem sentence by sentence. I did not expect to have to do this for students, but it was necessary for some, and I was able to help them, particularly during office hours."

Without being aware of it, this TA had diagnosed the different needs of his students in terms of global and atomistic learning approaches. He adapted his teaching to fit both styles of learning.

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