Tailoring teaching to hundreds of students’ needs - can it be done?

Ashleigh Steele
August 15, 2022

Effectively tailored teaching ensures every student learns in a way that is suitable for them. By changing the delivery, educators can maximise the potential of each student, including those with defined disabilities, and make learning outcomes accessible and attainable to all. This, is differentiation.

Various levels of confidence, prior understanding and attitudes to learning make every cohort of students unique (and never boring!). Effective differentiation is by no means easy or straightforward even for relatively small groups of students. With cohort sizes still sky-high, how do you deliver differentiated instruction in science to meet hundreds of students’ needs? Here we explore four strategies for teaching large classes and making differentiation as effective as possible.

1. Make the most of effective feedback methods that save you time

A regular one-to-one dialogue between educator and student focussed on feedback is ideal for progression. However having those conversations throughout lecture and lab classes when you have a large number of students can be impossible. Time saved by using technologies and procedures that give personalised, immediate feedback allows you to provide more dedicated support to those students that need it most. Smart Worksheets are just one solution that can provide such feedback that supports progression and mastery of scientific content and skills.

The payback in terms of revenue time year-on-year was very significant. In the long run it has saved me a lot of time, a lot of energy, and students get better feedback. It’s a win win situation!
Dr. Roy Lowry, Associate Professor at Plymouth University

2. Support students to be accountable for their learning

Fostering self-aware students that are accountable for their own learning is a goal of any educational journey. Being able to identify what is needed to be successful and address areas of weakness is a skill that needs to be demonstrated and learnt, be that seeking support or knuckling down in independent study. With large classes this skill is relied upon by the educator even more. 

The Timeline Mode within Smart Worksheets enables students to playback their attempt and identify the areas for improvement. It helps students gain deeper insights into their understanding of concepts and skills so they can address any problems. The instructor can also access these insights which is a fantastic tool to use in one-to-one support sessions.

A screenshot of a student attempt of a Smart Worksheet via the Timeline Mode.
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3. Use asynchronous tasks

Being able to practise, repeat and review tasks at their own pace is invaluable to students. Well-planned asynchronous tasks can offer this flexibility whilst challenging each student at the appropriate level. Monitoring completion of these tasks will help you identify those students who need your support most. For example, LabSims can be used as pre-lab activities which build the confidence and familiarity of students with equipment and scientific techniques. Time saved, that would have originally been used to introduce these to students, can now be used to provide more one-to-one or small group support.

4. Give students choice

Learning activities must challenge each student, but not be so difficult that it results in perceived failure. The student must be challenged just the right amount to be in their “struggle zone” where effective learning can take place. This is the same for effective questioning.

The 'comfort zone' include limited thinking and learning, low challenge and stress. The 'panic zone' involves cognitive overload, very high challenge and stress, and limited learning. Ideally students would be in the 'struggle zone' where thinking is required, challenge is high but stress is low, and therefore learning is effective.

Giving students choice in their learning activities, be that the task, application scenario, or assessment type, helps to support the diversity of challenge required whilst supporting students in being accountable for their learning. For example, application scenarios with varying levels of difficulty are a great way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a subject. Students pick the application-style question or scenario that puts them in their struggle zone. These learning activities can include scenarios that are completely new and never discussed in class before, extensions of class discussions, or reviews of original taught content. 

Choice in assessment type is another hugely beneficial way to differentiate. By allowing students to pick from demonstrating their understanding via oral presentation, essay, creative video, answering exam-style questions and other assessment methods, you are giving them the best opportunity to succeed, whatever success may look like for them.

So is differentiation possible with hundreds of students?

Yes. There are a variety of strategies for teaching large classes, a handful explored here, that support students’ learning in a way that is suitable to them. 

Our LabSims and Smart Worksheets can save you time, so you can provide more dedicated student support to those who need it most. Request a demo and find out more how we can support you.