Skip to main content

Ask Professor Pedagogy: Teaching to an academically diverse group

Posted by on Friday, January 25, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P,

I am teaching a mixed-level, discussion based seminar – an even split between students working on a PhD or an MA, and undergraduates. When I’ve taught these students in other classes, they are usually open to discussion and engaged in the material, but something is different this time around. It feels like the graduate students are checked out, while the undergraduates resent having to carry on a discussion by themselves. I feel like the graduate students should know better – especially the advanced ones.  Is there a way to challenge the students to participate, each at their own level?

Refuses to Pull Teeth


Dear Pulling Teeth,

You’re in a situation faced by many instructors: how do you teach to an academically diverse group?  We can take a two pronged approach to working with this: one – what do you ask students to prepare ahead of each class session, and two – how can you manage students’ expectations (and your own) about what should happen in each discussion. Resist feeling like you shouldn’t have to intervene because “the students should know better.” Even if that is the case, it hasn’t helped you change the dynamic of the group so far, so try to stay open to new ideas.

When you ask students to prepare, it’s often a good idea to give different levels of reading assignments. You could offer three levels:

  1. background reading that undergraduates might not have encountered yet, or not as thoroughly,
  2. the basic reading for each seminar session, and
  3. recommended in-depth reading for advanced students.

It helps to be explicit about your expectations. If you expect graduate students to complete every in-depth reading, but only require undergraduates to read one or two over the semester, then say so. Ask the graduate students to prepare summaries or discussion questions for all the readings.  If you remind them that they will be leading seminars of their own before much longer, and propose this exercise as a part of their professional development, it will avoid any hint of “busy work.” In fact, it might be helpful for very advanced students to look up their own in-depth readings to suggest to the class. Getting to choose the direction of the discussion will help keep them involved.

There are multiple strategies to employ in the classroom. One might seem a little superficial, but might make a big difference – give your students time to get to know each other! If you have students from three different programs, they might know their own cohort very well, but be reluctant to open up in discussion with others. This is particularly important the more sensitive or controversial the topic of your discussion is. Your undergraduates might have had some of the grad students as TA’s or even instructors, and both could have a hard time interacting with one another as peers. Taking some time to share with each other what they both find intriguing and exciting about the material will give everyone a chance to develop a stronger sense of community, which will make them more ready to engage in discussion with one another.

When you’re in class, it’s important to make a point of including everyone. This might be easier if there is a clear division of reading assignments, and the first part of the class is focused on students reporting out to one another on the different readings they prepared for class.  One way to get conversations started between students, rather than only between you and one student at a time, is to have students discuss the reading in small groups, making sure the groups are as balanced as can be between graduate and undergraduate students.  Assign groups, if you have to – you asked what you can do to help, after all!

Once you’ve let the group discuss the basics of the readings for the first say, quarter of class, have each group suggest one important point that came up in their discussion that they want to add to the agenda for the day. Use these suggestions as a starting off point for a large-group discussion. If you notice that people seem to fall into their established, frustrating patterns, find a way to address them: invite older students to share their thoughts on the current subject, or to make it more concrete, ask them to describe how the topic at hand intersects with the in-depth reading they completed.  This should also keep the students who are participating from feeling like they are contributing more than their fair share.

Finally, you might consider designating a specific time – one office hour every other week, say – to addressing specifically the concerns of each group. Meeting just with graduate students will give them the chance to air any concerns they have, and to discuss some readings at a more in-depth level expected of a graduate seminar.  Meeting just with undergraduates will let off some pressure to not embarrass themselves with a question in class they wouldn’t have asked in front of more advanced students. Either way, it will give you a better sense of how each group is or is not learning the material before you grade major assignments.

And if you want to talk more about designing and grading those assignments, well… write again. Or get in touch with the helpful staff at your Center for Teaching.

Thanks! Professor P.


Barbara Gross Davis. “Chapter 8: Teaching Academically Diverse Students.” Tools for Teaching. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. P. 90-93.


Tags: ,

Leave a Response