In our current culture of international emigration and the global village, we are more and more likely to teach a wide diversity of students in our universities. In the interdisciplinary institute of which I am a part, students come not just from a range of universities from across the globe, but also from a broad spectrum of academic backgrounds and paradigms. In my Ecology for Natural Resources Management course, for example, I have students with undergraduate degrees in ecology, students who have never taken an ecology course before, and everything in between. It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate the problems we might encounter when I try to teach all of these students something new about … ahh … ecology.
While this population of students is unusually diverse, I don’t think it is qualitatively different from the spectrum of Canadian, international, young, and mature students we find today in any Canadian university classroom. Here are a few of the techniques I use to make sure that everyone learns something from my ENRM class:
- Provide power-point slide handouts (avoiding distribution of copyrighted materials!) a day or two before each class. It’s true that some students focus more on the tiny black and white notes rather than my beautiful, colorful, carefully composed slides. However, handouts are great for taking notes, and minimize the amount of time that students have to spend writing rather than listening. Most importantly, students who are slower readers, or for whom English is not their first language, or who have little background in the subject matter, can take the time to read over the notes ahead of time, and are then able to follow the lecture material much more effectively. Sure, it’s a minority of students who take the time to do this, but those that do have been so grateful for the opportunity that it has reinforced my conviction that it’s worth the time and effort.
- Ensure I explain the theory, but usually not the math, behind all ecological concepts that I introduce. This is usually review for students who have an ecology background, but many of them benefit from the reminder anyway.
- Illustrate each theory with real-world conservation or management case studies, and give enough detail that the example is genuinely interesting. The example helps students without an ecology background to understand the theory, and provides a new context in which more experienced students can apply their knowledge.
- Use lots of photos and illustrations. These aren’t just for show; they help communicate the course materials to students who might not understand all of the text or the odd bit of jargon that I’ve failed to purge from the course materials. And who wouldn’t like looking at pictures of liverworts once in a while?!
- Give a range of different types of reading assignments, about a wide diversity of habitats, countries, and taxa, that are written clearly and relatively simply. Inevitably, some of the students still find the readings challenging and frustrating. However, these students still benefit by getting a feel for the types of research that ecologists do. The average student is able to understand the concepts addressed and how each study adds to the literature, while the most advanced students can learn from the range of study designs and statistical approaches applied.
The diversity of students in our classrooms creates challenges for instructors, but also a rich breadth of learning opportunities for professors and student peers. By accommodating a range of learning styles and backgrounds, we help to promote respect for other disciplines, and a genuine interest in collaboration and cooperation with others.