“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Differentiation in the Lecture Room

Students come to university with a wide range of ability and prior knowledge, and take to different subjects with different levels of engagement and competence. This spread isn’t as wide as in other areas of education—after all, students have chosen to attend, been selected in a particular grade boundary, and are doing a subject of their choice—but, there is still a decent amount of variation there.

How do we deal with this variation? In school education, they talk a lot about differentiation—arranging teaching and learning activities so that students of different levels of ability, knowledge, progress, etc. can work on a particular topic. I think that we need to do more of this at university; so much university teaching is either aimed at the typical 2:1 student, or is off-the-scale advanced. How can we make adjustments so that our teaching recognises the diversity of student’s knowledge and experience?

In particular, how can we do this in lectures? If we have a canonical, non-interactive lecture, can we do this? I think we can: here are some ideas:

Asides. I find it useful to give little parenthetical asides as part of the lecture. Little definitions, bits of background knowledge. I do this particularly for the cultural background knowledge in the Computational Creativity module, often introduced with the phrase “as you may know”. For example: “Picasso—who, as you may know, was a painter in the early-mid 20th century who invented cubism which plays with multiple perspectives in the same painting—was…”. This is phrased so that it more-or-less washes over those who don’t need it, but is there as a piece of anchoring information for those that do. Similarly for mathematical definitions: “Let’s represent this as a matrix—which, you will remember from you maths course, is a grid of numbers—…”. Again, the reinforcement/reminder is there, without patronising or distracting the students who have this knowledge by having a “for beginners” slide.

Additional connections. Let’s consider the opposite—those students who are very advanced, and have a good knowledge of the area are broadly. I differentiate for these by making little side-comments that connect to the wider course or other background knowledge. Sometimes introduced with a phrase such as “if you have studied…” or “for those of you that know about…”. For example: “for those of you who have done an option in information retrieval, this might remind you of tf-idf.”. Again, this introduces the connection without putting on a slide and make it seem big and important for those students who are struggling to manage the basics, but gives some additional information and a spark of a connection for the students who are finding the material humdrum. (I am reminded of an anecdote from John Maynard Smith, who talked about a research seminar where the speaker had said “this will remind you of a phase transition in statistical physics”: “I can’t imagine a time in my life when anything will remind me of a phase transition”).

Code examples. A computing-specific one, this. I’ve found that a lot of students click into something once they have seen a code example. These aren’t needed for the high-flying coding ninjas, who can go from a more abstract description to working out how the code is put together. But, for many students, the code example is the point where all the abstract waffle from the previous few minutes clicks into place. The stronger students can compare the code that they have been writing in their heads to mine. I sometimes do the coding live, but I’ve sometimes chickened out and used a screencap video (this also helps me to talk over the coding activity). A particularly clear example of this was where I showed a double-summation in sigma notation to a group, to largely blank looks, followed by the same process on the next slide as a nested loop, where most students seemed to be following clearly.

Any other thoughts for differentiation tricks and tips specifically in the context of giving lectures?

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