Teaching students with diverse levels of existing knowledge

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Dr Steph Fuller explains some techniques for teaching a group of students with diverse levels of previous knowledge.

The question of how to cope with teaching large groups of students with varying levels of existing knowledge is one that regularly comes up in my discussions with teaching colleagues at QMUL.  Lecturers from a variety of subjects find it challenging to deal with students who may come from different international backgrounds and have therefore studied different topics or subjects prior to coming to university.  Others find a wide variation in students’ abilities, even though they may have studied the same subjects at school.  Lecturers are concerned that they have to ‘slow down’ or hold back more able students in order to ensure that others can keep up.

This is, I think, quite a common feature of teaching at QMUL, and something I would argue is very positive about the university; it has a very diverse intake with students from a wide range of cultural and national backgrounds and a high proportion of students who come from widening participation backgrounds (see About QMUL for more details).  This diversity in the student body can make teaching challenging, but can also be an opportunity which benefits all students – and staff.

The principles of developing an inclusive curriculum are a useful starting point for addressing this issue.  Inclusive curriculum design focuses on ensuring that the curriculum is accessible to all students, enabling all students to learn and making changes which benefit the whole group rather than singling out individuals who have special requirements.  For example, if a lecturer has been providing a written copy of lecture notes available to dyslexic students, they could consider instead providing these to the whole student cohort, as this may be of benefit to others as well.

Applied to the issue of differing levels of existing knowledge, inclusive curriculum design means attempting to ‘level the playing field’, and giving all students the same chance to succeed at the subject, whatever their prior knowledge or ability.  This does not have to mean holding back more talented students, but it does mean giving careful thought to course design, making sure that extra support is available, considering the mode of teaching and the amount of ‘content’ that really needs to be covered in any given module or unit.  Here are some suggested approaches to beginning to tackle this complex issue:

Outside of the lecture theatre (if there are accompanying labs, workshops or seminars), group work and projects are an excellent way of getting students engaged in peer-to-peer learning.  There are great benefits for all students engaged in peer learning – both those with more and less existing knowledge of the subject.  You can arrange groups to that more experienced or able students work with those who have less prior knowledge or who may be struggling.  There may also be tasks you can set which enable you to capitalise on the students’ varying experiences and expertise (and demonstrate to everyone that these are valid and valued), for example, exploring case studies from different cultures or disciplines.

Through the online learning environment you could provide links to extra support for those students who need to catch up, or tasks set at varying levels of difficulty for students to choose from.  You could also provide extra activities or readings for those who want to explore the topic further.  Peer feedback exercises can work well online, for example, through forums where students are asked to comment on or assess each other’s work, giving them an opportunity to learn from each other as well as engage more closely with any marking criteria or instructions for a task.

Within the lecture itself, quizzes or quick tests of knowledge at the start of sessions (or modules) will help you get a more accurate idea of the students’ existing levels of knowledge so you can tailor your teaching accordingly.  Again, setting activities or tasks at different levels could be useful, as could be pointing students who want to know more in the direction of further reading or resources.

Returning to the idea of inclusive curriculum design, some useful pointers for enhancing teaching with a diverse student body are: (adapted from the HEA report ‘Framework for Internationalising Higher Education’):

  • Ensuring equality in assessment (giving the option of submitting assessment in different formats, or multiple assessment types)
  • Discuss learning outcomes with students (tell them explicitly what you want them to learn and why you think it is important, how you will teach and how you expect them to learn)
  • Discuss students’ previous learning experiences and their expectations (demonstrate these are all valid and valuable, clarify any misconceptions at the outset)
  • Negotiate ground rules for seminars / groups, involving all students in the process
  • Actively involve students in assessing examples of work (the act of assessing or giving feedback can be a really valuable learning experience – this could be past exemplar papers/examples or a peer feedback activity)
  • Draw examples from range of different contexts or ask students to provide examples from their backgrounds
  • Acknowledge and debate perspectives on a topic from a range of sources

Some select readings and resources on these topics:

Practical ideas for managing differing levels of existing knowledge in students




On peer learning 



Diversity and inclusivity