Pair Up Students for Better Learning

When I was in middle school, my parents told me that being a lecturer at college is the easiest job on earth. You can talk to students freely in 50 min and then leave the classroom to enjoy life. Since then, I have dreamed about becoming a lecturer in university with all the respect, authority, and most importantly an easy and cozy life. Once I was admitted to the university, I found that not every teacher is cool and charming. Instead, boring teachers with unchangeable tone can be the best lullaby. Some teacher’s voice is so low that I cannot hear from the 5th row, whereas another small portion of lecturers speak too fast that I can barely catch up with their pace. That was the first time I felt that being a good teacher is not easy from a student’s perspective.

Going to graduate school gives me more opportunities to get involved in teaching. Last year, I was a teaching assistant for one semester. In this course, the instructor was in another campus, which gave me a rare opportunity to present in every class and act as the mediator in between. The first few class went smoothly, but the situation got tougher as the teaching content became more difficult and complicated. Though the instructor was fully prepared before the class, students still had lots of questions during the class, which greatly hindered the class progress. As a PhD student seating in the classroom, I felt all the knowledge was quite easy and should be understandable, so did the lecturer. Still, as a 4000 level class, students were made up of seniors and master students. The master student tended to be more experienced whereas seniors were struggling for the coursework. In the end, the teacher slowed down the pace for undergrads, and everyone is happy.

Now I cannot help imagine what I should do if this is my class. How to approach to all students at different levels? Like Sarah wrote in the “Finding My Teaching Voice”,

The more I understand of my students, the less important it is to me that I treat them identically. They don’t enter my classroom with identical backgrounds, and they won’t leave it with identical understanding, no matter what I do.

I always believe that no one should be left behind. But simplified the class content or slowing down the class pace is definitely not my preference. But what is the more efficient way to deal with students with diversified background? Back in China, students are categorized into various classes based on their current knowledge level and learning capabilities (e.g. learning speed), especially in high school. Then students with similar background will be taught together with quite good results. However, besides potential discrimination, this approach is still not ideal since one-time exam-based categorization is not accurate. Sometimes, I think about pairing students into two-people small groups, usually with one learning much faster and the other feeling quite miserable in catching up. The class will still be taught at the normal pace, but paired students can help each other after the class. The assessment will be performed on the group basis, as two people will get the average score for their individual homework, quiz, and exam. Through this way, smart students will not feel boring about class content while no one is left behind.

4 Comments on “Pair Up Students for Better Learning

  1. Very interesting post! Regarding your experiences in China, I would like to share with you some similar experiences in our high school where the students were categorized into different groups/sections based on their performances (i.e. ranked based system). We had 5 different class sections: A, B, C, D, and E and students were placed in those sections based on their ranks they got in their exams. So, the well performing students were put in Section A and the worst performing students were put in section E. This changed every 3 months after the results from the terminal exams were out. This would help teachers identify the poor group and put extra efforts in teaching them and helping them improve. I think this is both a good and bad thing. Bad in a sense that the students who are put in sections E may feel demoralized, however, if you look at it in a good way, the students can get extra care and support that will help them upgrade to a better section or group. Also because the grouping changed every 3 months, the students do not have to be in the poor group forever if they did well on their terminal exams.

  2. You explore some interesting questions related to how best to handle differences in learning styles and abilities across those various styles. I think this is a challenge all of us face, and you offer some novel – but as you acknowledge, problematic – ways to manage these challenges. I like the idea of group work, but I’m not sure about the group assessment. I tested the waters of peer grading last fall, but the grades seemed to lack honest assessments. I just think group dynamics are difficult to determine, much less assess. At the same time, I think group work is beneficial, but we need to be careful with assessment. From my perspective, I believe students may need supplemental support outside of the confines of the classroom, but the main challenge is to encourage students to recognize such situations. I think it is difficult for all students – myself included – to admit that assistance is needed. I’ve tried to provide as many opportunities for students in my classroom, but I never feel like it is enough. I think that’s because we always feel like there is more we can do.

  3. This is such an important topic! It can be challenging to teach a concept or a class when students have different levels of understanding, and I appreciate your thoughts about ways to ensure that students are not left behind. You raise a lot of interesting questions and points about different ways to do this. I think it can be helpful to get a sense for what students know and understand coming into the class and encourage students to work together (maybe not always just in pairs) to learn from each other.

  4. Thanks for your post. Its been a thought-provoking read.

    In your consideration of pairing students up to study and work together, have you considered the free rider problem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-rider_problem) in how you assess them / assign grades?

    I’ve found that when students are asked to work in groups, the work typically falls unfairly on the student who has a higher attachment to their grade.

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