Teaching Students with Diverse Backgrounds

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Matias Cattaneo, Economics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

In the fall of 2004 I was the GSI for a graduate-level course in mathematics and statistics taught in the first year of the PhD program in Economics. I initially thought that the students in such a technical class would have a strong background in mathematics, statistics, and economics. However, when I asked students about their academic backgrounds, I realized I was deeply mistaken. Students’ backgrounds ranged from Political Science or Public Health to Engineering or Physics, which meant that some of them had strong skills in quantitative methods while others lacked this kind of knowledge. I was facing a big challenge: I had to teach highly technical topics to a very diverse audience. More importantly, I had to do this while following the pace of the professor’s lectures, attending to the demands of the students with strong technical skills, and preventing those students with relatively less preparation for this class from falling behind.

I had to find a way to make the course challenging enough for high-skilled students and at the same time feasible for low-skilled students. After thinking about alternatives that would help me address this problem, I came to the conclusion that writing section notes could be an effective strategy. I started to write notes that included a summary of the topics covered in lecture, examples, exercises, and, when appropriate, additional material. My goal was to provide students with a systematic discussion of the material before each section meeting so that they could learn about the contents of the section in advance and come to class more prepared. This would allow low-skilled students to follow the class more closely and enable them to ask questions about the material in section. My hope was to make the learning process more gradual for these students. I also wanted these notes to benefit the high-skilled students, and therefore I included optional advanced material related to the topics covered in lecture, more demanding exercises and examples, and suggestions for further reading. For these students my aim was to provide more challenging topics that would deepen their knowledge and simultaneously give them basic material that they could use as a review. Furthermore, I also expected that the process of preparing these notes would allow me to identify topics I should cover in class, relevant examples, and different ways to present them both in section and in the notes.

After writing section notes for a few weeks, I started noticing a change in the dynamics of the class. At the beginning of the semester, low-skilled students would ask very basic questions and high-skilled students would try to move forward to cover more advanced topics. After the introduction of the section notes, however, low-skilled students had already solved their basic questions while reading the notes, and hence they would be prepared to absorb more complex class material. This new dynamic left more section time to cover intermediate and advanced topics, which made high-skilled students more comfortable with the course. Also, students started to take the notes as a reference point in their learning process, and they began to come to office hours to discuss specific issues they had identified while studying the notes. Furthermore, if an important topic came up in class that was not covered in the notes, I would go back and include it for future reference. As a result, by the end of the semester the notes reflected all the work done during the term, and this allowed the students to realize the incredible amount of knowledge they had acquired. It also gave them additional confidence to face the final exam.

I have been writing section notes for the last three years, a strategy that has shown itself to be successful in different graduate classes ranging from Macroeconomics to Statistics. The section notes have helped me to present the material more systematically, address difficult extensions, and discuss related topics. It has proven to be an extremely effective strategy to teach students with diverse backgrounds.