Within discussions on the diversity of our students and strength-based approaches to learning, a common question that’s been posed throughout my career is, “Given that my class has a range of students from weak to strong, how should I plan my course?” This question raises the following conundrum: If I design my course for the weaker students, the stronger students are bored. But if I design my course for the stronger students, the weaker students will be lost. What should I do? 

Traditionally, the answer given (and I have to admit having provided this answer many times myself) is that one should “aim for the middle.” Done right, the logic goes that the stronger students won’t be that bored and the weaker students that get lost are probably the ones that don’t really want to be in the class or are struggling for other reasons. Over time I have come to find this a very unsatisfying answer, and even more importantly, this question has a fundamental flaw in the way it categorizes students as “strong” or “weak.” Once you realize the mistakes made by this categorization, the challenge of effective course design is still an interesting one, but it has many more likely solutions!

At this point, I am going to briefly retreat into my STEM language, so my apologies to those outside of STEM. Hopefully, it will translate for others! The root problem I see when categorizing students is that we have taken students with abilities that are distributed in a highly multi-dimensional phase space and projected their ability onto a one-dimensional subspace. This one-dimensional subspace is defined by the narrow criteria for success in our courses, especially in the first and second year courses. This takes students that certainly have a wide variety of relevant strengths (after all, they are among the select few that were admitted to UCI) and forces them to be categorized across a range of “strong” to “weak” along a very specific axis. 

I want to be clear that this “projection onto a single axis” has occurred over time for many good reasons, and by itself, is not inherently an issue. Especially when students have fairly homogeneous backgrounds and training, it can have all sorts of benefits for establishing standards at scale in our introductory courses. However, when you are teaching students with a wide range of backgrounds, this issue becomes even more important. To understand this dynamic, it is useful to look at a specific example.

I have written about this before, but if one considers a traditional introductory physics course, the main measure of success is the ability to do physics “word problems.” This translates to having most of the grade dependent on a student’s ability to do algebraic calculations by hand. This has emerged through a mostly organic process driven by many factors including grading considerations and has served in the past as a reasonable way to establish standards under certain conditions. But the focus on mathematical problems early in the curriculum was not always the case for physics. There was a time when the focus of these courses was primarily phenomenology and conceptual understanding! 

If you think about the skills that make a student a “strong” physics student, this would include a range of skills like spatial visualization, critical reading skills, qualitative understanding of concepts and how they fit together, logical reasoning to determine when a particular principle applies to a specific situation, observational skills within the experimental space, design skills that enable the creation of new experimental techniques and approaches, and so on. Many of these skills would have been very relevant to a more conceptually-based course but rarely matter in courses as currently designed. Therefore, very few of these skills show up in our determination of “weak” and “strong” students as we attempt to design our introductory physics courses. I admit that this could be because physics is unique in having courses that leverage a surprisingly narrow set of core skills. However, I suspect that many introductory courses have a particular set of standards that are actually narrower than the full set of skills required by that discipline. As I said, there are many valid reasons for having a narrow set of criteria, but it is important to evaluate the impact of these choices, especially as the experiences our students bring to the classroom evolve.

When considering this example, the question shifts from “How do I teach to a wide range of weak to strong students” to “How do I identify the student strengths that are missing from the current course design, and what can I do to leverage these strengths so students can master the key elements of the course?” Shifting the question creates a new challenge, and this is not something we can reasonably expect individual instructors to do on their own! This is where we have to leverage educational research and professional development through our teaching and learning centers. As research is able to identify the areas of the “multi-dimensional phase space” that are being missed and the ways we should modify our courses to leverage these skills and abilities, it is critical that the university deploys the necessary resources to make it relatively easy for instructors to adapt these approaches.   

It is interesting to note that, from my experience, discipline-based research into pedagogical approaches has not explicitly looked at the issue from the perspective of a “phase space of strengths.” But when you consider many of the elements of active learning, you can understand some of the success of these approaches from a “phase space of strengths” framework. One very strong example from my experience—that connects directly with the work of Harvard physicist Eric Mazur (and others)—is collective learning. This is often called “group work” and is something many instructors and students dislike! I have taken to calling it collective learning as this is a strength that many of our students identify; they are good at learning together. However, many of our courses emphasize the individual elements of learning, even when there is an expectation that students work together outside of the classroom. This expectation is often confusing and therefore underutilized by students. By integrating collective learning in the classroom, we create an opportunity to model this practice for the students and encourage them to adopt this as an effective learning strategy outside of class.

Returning again to the specific example of physics courses, an element of collective learning that Eric Mazur discusses is that one can provide problems for students to work on collectively that are more challenging than traditional problems. In fact, he focuses on problems that “traditionally strong” students generally cannot solve on their own! What happens in the groups is a fascinating set of interactions where the “weaker” students contribute and discover their strengths, and the “stronger” students learn new things and are highly engaged. Essentially, all students improve in areas where they are “weak,” discover they have “strengths” to contribute to the group, and remain engaged. 

While this is just one example of integrating collective learning in the classroom, it offers a glimpse into the potential that this strategy offers. It recognizes that students often have gaps in their preparation that need to be addressed and realizes that students often have underutilized strengths that can help them address those gaps in-situ during our courses! This will not completely eliminate the need for co-curricular support and other direct student services, but it represents an exciting and relatively untapped potential for addressing student success. Identifying the strengths that make sense to leverage is a challenge, but one worth pursuing. 

At the end of the day, I recognize that identifying and leveraging untapped student strengths (through utilizing collective learning and other active learning strategies) to create more equitable and effective courses is not an easy change. This requires hard work, careful planning, and thoughtful design. And this should not fall on the shoulders of individual faculty, but needs to come from a place of collective, institutional support.