Teaching the 3-Speed Class

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jason Purcell, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

In the Spring of 2008, I realized that I had a problem: I was teaching a 3-speed class. While some students were content with the pace of section, others were struggling to keep up, and still others were starting to get bored. How can one GSI keep pace with students learning at three very different speeds?

Understanding the Problem: Once I realized that I was teaching a 3-speed class, I decided to take note of a few “representative” students who were learning the course material either more slowly than, at the same pace as, or more quickly than the “average” student. I stopped those “representatives” to talk after class so that I could figure out what each would need to stay on-pace and engaged.

It turns out that, while I was diligently distributing weekly section agendas to my students — agendas that included critical thinking questions on individual readings as well as enrichment activities — the slower students were finding those questions too specific in the context of readings that they were having trouble accessing, while the quicker students were learning nothing new and so starting to tune out. I thus realized that I’d have to include both more remedial material and more enrichment-oriented content on my section agendas — a non-trivial challenge.

Crafting a Solution: After a bit of reflection — as well as some trial-and-error — I came up with a fitting response to the needs of my 3-speed class: a 3-speed agenda. First, at the beginning of each section of reading review/critical thinking questions, I inserted a small summary of the main argument of the reading. I was careful not to discuss that summary in class— for many it would have been redundant and so (in their view) a waste of time. Having it typed out on the agenda also enabled students who were reluctant to ask questions they perceived as being too basic to get the background information they needed to keep pace with everyone else. Second, I started asking members of the class, at random, to read the critical thinking questions aloud, hoping that this would empower students learning at all speeds to speak up. And third, I added a more informal component called “Fun Facts” (after the Dave Letterman segment) in order to pique and hold the interest of those students who were already in command of the readings, and so hoping for “something more” out of section.

In truncated form, my agendas started to look like this:

  • At the outset of their article “Human Rights in World Politics,” Rhoda Howard and Jack Donnelly posit: “Human rights are, by definition, the rights one has simply because one is a human being.” As such, human rights should be universally applicable to all humans — not differentially applicable to individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
  • Critical Thinking Question: How do Howard & Donnelly respond to “Cultural Relativists” who claim that “adjustment to new norms disturbs the equilibrium of fragile societies, causing unrest and sowing division”?
  • [“Fun Fact”: When the EU insisted, as a precondition of the start of Turkey’s accession negotiations, that its government instruct state-run broadcaster TRT to establish a television station in the language of the country’s minority Kurds, Prime Minister Erdogan warned that a nationalist backlash could result. Nevertheless, TRT’s Kurdish-language broadcasts began on January 1, 2009. The “fun fact”? There was no backlash as a result; nothing happened!]

Assessing the Results: Nearly immediately, I noticed a significant change in section. Slower students began to raise their hands and chime in with answers. Quicker students stopped fidgeting and sat alert, taking notes. I had initial indications of success.

I was thrilled to see those indications reinforced via my end-of-semester evaluations, in which students praised the way I summarized the readings and “encouraged students speaking up.” Some even demanded that I “bring in more fun facts!” I believe that my job is to help students participate in their own learning process; what my students confirmed for me was that my 3-speed plan helped me empower them to do just that.