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Easing the Burden of Different Student Levels in the Same Classroom

Different student levels. Children looking at a computer screen.

All children come to school with vastly different backgrounds, which can directly impact their core knowledge base and how they learn. Some students have parents who are more than willing to help in the education process, while other parents are skittish at openly demonstrating skills they may not remember very well or even possess themselves.

When you also take into account socio-economic status, religious background, gender differences, language skills, disabilities, and even the desire to learn, the classroom can exhibit great variances in ability. So how can teachers reach an entire classroom?

There are three distinct types of learning that can help even the most crowded of classrooms: peer tutoring, ability grouping, and differentiated instruction. Depending upon the subject and the teacher, some methods may work better than others and it may take some trial and error to discover which method benfits most students.

Peer Tutoring

Peer tutoring enables students who quickly understand information to help those who don't. Once a teacher provides learning material, the students who grasp it quickly can then help those who are struggling. This type of help works for all subjects. When students are working together, it frees up the teacher to observe each small group, in turn, to ensure the proper information is being taught. Even well-meaning students may think they understand a concept only to find out they don't.

Students may instruct differently than the teacher, giving the peer another method of understanding the material. An added benefit to this method is that students who are teaching others can demonstrate mastery of a given topic. Students are also able to create a bridge to learning because of the way peers relate to each other, versus the more formal teacher-student relationship.

Ability Grouping

This type of learning places students with similar learning skills and academic abilities in the same group. The group will then all learn at the same pace and can encourage others in the group to work up to their ability. Typically, smaller groups work better for ability grouping, although depending on the overall learning capacity of a group, they can be larger. Students working together in this type of learning environment often help to encourage others to work to the best of their abilities in an effort to keep the overall group learning.

Teachers who desire to utilize this type of learning can group students together based on past performance, including grades and level of class participation. If a given student seems to be misplaced it is easy to have them move to a different group and quickly begin to learn in a more or less advanced group.

One benefit of ability grouping is that teachers can either increase or decrease the workload to different levels for students to fully absorb and learn it. Occasionally, peer tutoring will be a natural outcome of ability grouping. Ability grouping can be a less formal way of learning and there is more individualized attention, whether from a peer or teacher. Some students even benefit from knowing they are with the same level learners, so they are more apt to contribute without fear of being ridiculed by others.

Differentiated Instruction

It has long been known that people enjoy learning differently and using this method of teaching provides more than one way for students to learn. Some students enjoy and mentally engage while watching videos, while others learn better from the written word. Most students do well with hands-on learning, regardless of the subject. So when teachers incorporate more than one method in the classroom, there is a higher chance of success for the whole classroom.

Take for example an American history lesson. Teaching or reading about what happened at a specific battle might engage some of the students, but not all. Following up with a video that goes over the information again will help those who might not have followed what the teacher or book was saying. Creating a project, such as asking students to create a diorama of the battle will further ensure they understand the material.

When it comes to testing, differentiated learning takes into account that some students do better with different types of tests, such as one on paper or one in which a student is asked questions. Some students freeze when they see a written exam while others flourish and can't wait to demonstrate their knowledge. Using a variety of testing based on student needs allows students to demonstrate what they've learned in a comfortable, more relaxed manner. Using this method may take more time on the teacher's part, but is beneficial for many students.

Overall, there is no one right way to teach. Different teachers can use the same methods and have varying results. Like most things, however, there is a period of trial and error before one specific method proves more beneficial over others. For teachers willing to teach outside of traditional classroom mindsets, though, one of these methods may prove to increase student retention and overall understanding of subject material.

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