Diversity in a student cohort’s academic background, A reflective commentary through the critical incident perspectivePublished in November 2016
This incident relates to my teaching experience as a PhD student at Oxford Brookes Business School. I was assigned to lead applied Microeconomics seminars for first year undergraduate students. The seminar sessions comprised of 20 students from different academic backgrounds. 9 of these students were pursuing BSc Economics, 7 of these students were studying BSc Finance while the remaining 4 students were pursuing BA in Politics and International Relations. This was a compulsory module for all these students in the second semester of their first year undergraduate course. The seminar sessions were focused on analysis and application of microeconomics theories and concepts through graphs and numerical questions. This is in consonance with Brookes Graduate Attributes (GA) of building academic and research literacy. The students were also given weekly homework assignments, comprising of numerical questions and graphical analysis based on the previous week’s lecture.
The assessment for the course comprised of 40 percent coursework and 60 percent final examination. The coursework assessment was based on attendance in seminars (10 percent), completion of weekly homework assignment exercises (10 percent) and a comprehensive mid semester assignment (20 percent). The comprehensive mid semester assignment was to be handed in Week 8 and focused on applied microeconomics concepts, similar to the material covered in the seminar sessions and the weekly homework assignments.
The critical incident in context
The first two weeks of the course were focused on covering very basic concepts and most of the students engaged actively in the seminar sessions. However, in week three I found that some students were struggling with solving numerical questions in class. I also discovered that a large number of these students had been unable to do the homework assignment given to them the previous week. I had a discussion about this issue with the students and found that the BSc Economics students had read a compulsory module in Principles of Economics as well as a quantitative methods in semester one and therefore these students did not have any difficulty in the course. The BSc Finance students had taken a compulsory module in quantitative methods, but not Principles of Economics, so they were able to solve the numerical questions easily, but had problems in drawing the graphs and applying economic theory to analyze the numerical questions. On the other hand the BSc Politics and International Relations students had read neither of the two modules in the previous semester. As a result they were finding it extremely difficult to cope with the requirements of the course.
Issues of diversity
This incident alarmed me and I wondered how to facilitate learning for students from these diverse academic backgrounds and create an “inclusive learning environment,” conducive to the needs of all the students in the cohort (Lage et al, 2000; Bucholz and Sheffler, 2009). I began to think about ways to adapt my teaching style to suit the needs of this diverse group of students and the following questions came to my mind:
Q1 How will I deliver the course content effectively to this diverse group of students?
Q2 To what extent should the module be modified in order to accommodate students who are finding it difficulty in the course?
Q3 How can we best facilitate students from these varied academic backgrounds without lowering the standards of the course?
Q4 What new forms of teaching need to be incorporated in this module in order to facilitate this diverse group of students?
Q5 What lessons could I derive from this incident and apply to my future teaching practice?
Reflections through Brooksfield’s Four Lenses
Having these questions in mind, I decided to reflect upon this issue by using the Brooksfield model (Brooksfield, 1995). This model advocates that one should critically reflect on their teaching practice by referring to one’s own experience as a learner and teacher; gaining feedback from students and peers as well as scholarly literature on higher education. Looking at these four lenses can help a practitioner to become aware of the assumptions and reasoning that guide one’s teaching practice, understand their individual challenges in the wider context of higher education and develop a flexible, innovative and student centered approach to teaching.
Firstly, reflecting on the incident myself I realized that I had started teaching the course by wrongly assuming that most students were familiar with “threshold” Economic concepts and basic quantitative techniques. However this did not hold true for many students in the cohort. I realized that I would have to alter my teaching style in order to meet the needs of these students (Wright, 2014). Going back to my own experience as a student, I felt that the students would find it useful to go back to revising “threshold concepts” in economics as well as instruction in basic quantitative methods, which formed the basis of the material covered in the seminars. Threshold concepts are those concepts, which help a student to understand the arguments and build a narrative within a particular discipline (Donnell, 2009). Many authors advocate that these concepts must be mastered in order to enable students to make further progress in a subject (Davies and Mangan, 2005; Becker 2006). Evidence suggests that revision of threshold concepts is useful for students who find it challenging to understand the key theories within a discipline as well as for students who find it challenging to apply theory in a practical setting (Davis and Mangan, 2005). I knew from my own experience as a student that once these concepts are clear to the student, they would find it relatively easy to solve the numerical problems covered in the seminars.
I discussed this problem with the modular leader as well. He was a new lecturer and was also finding it challenging to tackle the needs of such a diverse student cohort. As a first step we decided to talk to the students and understand their specific challenges, concepts they were familiar with and their level of comfort with quantitative methods. We also decided to give some extra classes to students who were facing difficulties in the course. We prepared a series of additional handouts to be distributed to the students for this purpose. They were asked to go through these at home. In addition we decided to go through the content of the module on a weekly basis and make necessary adjustments to accommodate students who were at an apparent disadvantage due to their previous academic background. We jointly decided to institute a number of alternative pedagogies in the seminar sessions from time to time such as classroom experiments, case studies and video clips to create a vibrant learning environment and facilitate students who were at a disadvantage due to their previous academic background (Becker, 2000; Crose, 2011). This alternative teaching techniques are believed to improve learning outcomes and keep students engaged in the course content, without comprising on rigour (Deal and Hedge, 2013). This approach is also in consonance with United Kingdom Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) which advocates that appropriate learning techniques and evidence informed approaches should be adopted in order to create an effective learning environment, while respecting individual needs and diversity in a classroom setting.
I also talked to another colleague in London, who had faced similar problems. She advised me to divide the students into groups for the weekly homework assignments. Her teaching experience revealed that collaborative learning often helps students who are at an initial disadvantage at the beginning of a course. This is also in consonance with one of the seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education, developed by Chickering and Gamson which states that peer learning helps to increase student involvement and deepens understanding by developing co-operation and reciprocity among students (Chickering and Gamson 1987). It is also believed to create stronger social networks within a classroom setting, which in turn enhances student learning and engagement (Wintrup et al, 2012). Recent research by the Higher Education Academy suggests that collaborative learning offers a range of benefits to students. It helps them to take “ownership of their learning experience,” builds academic confidence, improves grades and deepens understanding of the subject (Keenan, 2014).
Following this exercise I had a group discussion with students, regarding the specific issues they were facing in the module and made detailed notes on the same. I also took their feedback regarding the possibility of putting them in groups for the homework assignments. Most of the students welcomed the suggestion. Consequently the module leader and I put them in groups of three. We tried to group students from diverse backgrounds together, so that students, who were stronger on the quantitative side, would be able to assist students who were stronger in theory.
The module leader and I took an additional session in key economic theories and quantitative methods for students who were finding difficulties in the course in the following week, after receiving feedback from students. In addition students were given handouts to be revised at home and I also referred to them some basic economic textbooks, which would prove useful to them.
We begin to review the material on a weekly basis, to support diversity in the student cohort. More theoretical content was added to the lecture slides. We also began to provide the course material in a variety of learning formats such as classroom games, case studies and visual images. In addition, I attempted to be particularly attentive to the students, who were facing difficulties in the course due to their previous academic background and encouraged them to come to me during office hours.
Critical insights for good practice in future
While exploring this critical incident through reading, research and peer/ student feedback I unearthed many important insights, which have shaped my teaching practice. Firstly, I realized that the organization of the module must be centered on the composition of the classroom and embrace diverse needs and backgrounds of the students. One-size fits all framework does not address the needs of diverse students in a classroom. However it is also not possible to cater to the needs of each student individually, therefore a practitioner must attempt to strike a balance and address the needs of all the students in the group (Felder and Brent, 2005). Secondly, this incident made me understand that an introductory Economics module should not be based on pre-suppositions about a student’s theoretical/ quantitative background and be organized in such a way that it recognizes and accounts for differences in academic backgrounds of students. Thirdly, I discovered that revision of key theories and threshold concepts in Economics greatly helps in enhancing understanding and comprehension among all students, irrespective of whether they have read the subject before or not. Fourthly, moving beyond traditional lectures and “chalk and talk” approaches helps to keep student interest alive and create a more welcoming learning environment. Relying on these diverse teaching techniques helps to “equip students with skills associated with varying learning styles” (Felder and Brent 2005, p.58). Fifthly, interaction among students through peer learning and group work helps to enhance understanding of the subject in addition to improving student engagement within the classroom setting (Wintrup et al, 2012).
To conclude, this critical incident made me realize that diversity in classroom can be challenging for both the students and the teacher, however it motivates a lecturer to move beyond their comfort zone and traditional “chalk and talk” pedagogy to embrace a wide range of learning techniques, improve the course content and dispel with pre-conceived assumptions. These practices thus help one to adapt more innovative teaching strategies and foster a vibrant classroom setting, while providing valuable lessons for good practice in future.