Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching Students with Different Levels of Preparation

What do you do when you realize that half the students in your section haven’t done the reading? Or when your class is divided between majors who easily master the material and non-majors who continually struggle? What do you do when you have the sense that a few of the students still aren’t getting it, despite your best efforts?

College students enter our classrooms with a wide variety of preparation, exposure to knowledge, and habits for learning including how they take notes, approach papers or projects, and study for exams. Teaching non-majors, majors, and students with a range of experiences and learning habits all in the same classroom is one of the most challenging aspects of our job. Assessing how students learn, their previous experience with the material, and how their skills change over the course of the semester is the first step in developing strategies to reach all students.

Teachers who regularly assess students’ knowledge and learning habits can modify semester plans as well as weekly lessons to best teach their students the skills and information necessary to succeed in class. Start-of-term assessments give you a sense of what to expect from your students, while midterm and end-of-term assessments help you determine what students have gained from the course and where to focus your efforts. Brief, informal assessments provide a quick-check of your students’ understanding of a particular concept or topic.

Assessments often clarify the reasons for a split class, indicating whether the differences among students result from motivation, preparation, experience, or learning habits. When you have determined the underlying cause of your split class, you can tailor your teaching to meet your students’ needs.