Teaching Seminar
Dr. Scharff

Individual Differences among students (and teachers)and their implications for teaching.

(Once again, some of this is modified from what I heard in myteaching class, and some is my added opinion.)

Area of the Country

Occasionally, you may have to make some allowances for differencesthat exist between areas of the country. For example, if you are fromNew York and you speak quickly with a New York dialect, you may haveto slow down a little if you are in Texas. Otherwise, you willsometimes lose your entire class on a point. Unless you are teachingin the Mississippi mud swamps and have a really thick Yankee accent,however, this is unlikely to be a serious issue. In fact, sometimesyou may be able to use your dialect or any regional stories you knowto make a point in an entertaining way.

Different issues may also be more sensitive is certain areas ofthe country, so you may need to think before you speak if you’re in anew area. (More on sensitive issues below.)

Language Ability

Here we may push "area of the country" issues to the limit. Thedifferences in language ability that exist among students may beinsignificant in many cases, but for people who simply can'tunderstand English very well (e.g. foreign students), understanding alecture may be nearly impossible. What can we do about this problem?Very little. This is an example of a problem that students must solvefor themselves. If you have a student who is not proficient with theEnglish language, all you can really do is suggest that they see youor the T.A. when they need clarification about things like idioms orculture-specific issues. It may sound cruel, but in the interest offairness, you have to expect the same thing from all of yourstudents. If a person wants a degree at an English languageuniversity, they should become proficient with the English language.

Ethnic Differences

This can be a very difficult issue (and here in East Texassometimes especially so). Perhaps we are just beginning to emergefrom our sordid history of blatant racism, or perhaps the issue isinherently sensitive. We also hear a lot about it lately: diversitytraining, multicultural issues included in courses, etc.. In anycase, it is clear that the issue is often touchy, and it is equallyclear that we cannot (and should not) ignore the issue.

This issue is also more difficult because you will often have awide variety of feelings / beliefs / opinions about matters involvingethnic differences. You've got your own to start with, and then therange within a given class can be wider than you might expect (orwish for in some cases). You may need to alter how you handle asensitive issue depending upon feedback/comments that you receivefrom the group during discussion. Extreme comments can come out ofyour students' mouths, and you need to explore your own feelings andthe facts / available research so that you can respond in an informedmanner, and so that the class does not devolve into an opinion surveyor a study of insults.

Several sensitive issues may arise in Psychology classes. Forexample, the often seen discrepancy in the IQ scores of blacks andwhites. Or, issues involving homosexuality -- are there biologicalinfluences, or is it entirely environmental (unlikely), are thesepeople evil sinners (not a point you need to ask, but you may getcomments....). What about gender differences? (These last two are notstrictly ethnic differences issues, but they certainly can besensitive.)

One other point with ethnic differences -- what should you doabout accommodating different religious schedules, etc.? MostChristians are already accommodated with the set holiday schedule,but you may want to avoid having tests on other religious holidays(or at least acknowledge such misses as excused absences.)

Differences in Intelligence

The intelligence of your students will determine the kind ofmaterial that you can present, and the fact that there are hugeintellectual differences among students means that material whichquite suitable for the average student will be too challenging forthose who are less intelligent and too easy for those who areespecially bright. How do we deal with this problem?

First of all, is it a problem? Yes. Even among college students,you will have a large range of IQ (around 85-130). In freshmanclasses, the range is likely to be even larger. To whom, then, do weaddress our lectures? Do we bore the bright or lose the slowerstudents?

Like many problems this one has no easy answer, and as thequestions above indicate, there are trade-offs to consider. Thefollowing is an illustration.

Perhaps the answer lies in the piano. "The piano?" someone asks.Yes, the piano, " responses Prof. X. "When you play the piano, yougenerally use almost all the keys, but you spend most of your timeplaying the keys near the middle." "I still don't get it", somedullard responds. "So, do the same kind of thing when you lecture",says Prof X. "If the average student in your class has an IQ of 110,make most of your points in such a way that people with IQ's of 110will find them interesting and challenging, and, most important,UNDERSTANDABLE. "I still don't get it", responds the dullard. "See meafter class, and we'll discuss it", responds Prof X.

Notice you can help those that are a little slower than most byusing some redundancy, but you need to present redundant informationin different ways so that the smart kids won't be bored to tears. Ifsomeone is really slow (or having a mental block), don't waste classtime; have them discuss it with you after class. You can also tossout challenging ideas every once in a while for the benefit of thereally bright kids, but here again, it is nice if the things you doto challenge your top students are at least comprehensible to theless gifted.

Other points to consider:

1) Be careful not to make too many concessions to students who are not bright. For example, if students aren't at least average in intelligence, they probably don't belong in college anyway (if they do come, they at least better be prepared for a lot of work).

2) Despite what many people believe, the material in Psychology is NOT inherently easy. So, some students will have a hard time with it.

3) How do you deal with questions in class? Unless they indicate that you have somehow miscommunicated a basic idea, very briefly. For example, if the question suggests that you haven't made something clear, clarify. But if it suggests that the questioner simply doesn't understand, try to answer as concisely as possible and invite the student to discuss the issue further with you after class.

4) Some students will have documented learning disabilities. At SFA the disability services office handles documentation, and you will receive a notice with a student's name and the special requirements that the student will require (e.g. extra time on tests, sit at front, etc.). If a student asks for extra time or some other special request, and they have not gone through disability services, recommend that they do so. Otherwise, say you are sorry, but to be fair to the other students, he/she cannot get special accommodations. (Now of course, there are obvious exceptions to this advice -- life is never easy! If a student has a broken arm/hand, that may justify extra time, etc.).

5) Finally, you may see individual differences that reflect previous exposure to related material. Such previous exposure may give to give a student an advantage over other students, but is not necessarily due to differences in intelligence, per se. Before starting a new topic, it might be helpful to poll the class to see what background knowledge the various students might have.

Work Habits and Motivation

There are clearly individual differences in students' work habits,but there is very little that we can do about this. We can do alittle, however, about motivation. If we spice up our lectures andmake them interesting and even funny now and then, we can lead moststudents to expect that class will be kind of fun and eveninteresting. Due to a partial reinforcement schedule effect, this islikely to pay off later even if the lectures may gradually becomemore serious over the course of the term period. Students willprobably learn more if they enjoy class more. Spicing up the classwith humor or surprise will also help keep your students' attention.Since the attention span of most college students is only 5 or 10minutes (and it's worse on Friday mornings), you'd better think aboutthe cost of NOT waking them up every once in a while.