Teaching effectively for all students

Sarah here –

I’m in my first year of teaching at the University of South Florida. I’ve had almost 700 students come through my classroom, just in my first two semesters! I wanted to write a little bit about what I’ve learned about making my lectures work for students of all different backgrounds. USF is a wonderful place to do this because our students come from every background imaginable! We have students from nearly every country on Earth, every native language, religion, socioeconomic and veteran status, etc. imaginable! It’s one of the things I love most about USF- I get to learn all about the world through my students. This unique community also presents me with the opportunity to make my lectures and my teaching style accessible to students who are English language learners (ELLs)-you may have referred to these students as ESL (English as a second language) in the past-educators have moved away from using that term because many students are actually learning English as a third and even fourth language! A large percentage of USF students are classified as ELLs-and they come from all over the world! Just in the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with students from Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and more.
The introductory course I teach-History of Life-is very heavy in scientific jargon, no matter how you slice it (e.g., the names of dinosaurs, geologic time periods, etc.), so I’ve been working with my ELL students to help them feel more confident in the class. I’ve listed some of the methods I’ve found useful below!

Essay questions

All of my exams have short answer components, where they have to take scientific evidence and present conclusions. I write 2-3 questions per lecture topic and post them as a discussion board on Canvas (or Blackboard, or any sort of other online gradebook/digital classroom environment). I have seen dramatic improvements in the confidence levels of ELL students, as well as native English speaking students, when handling the essay portions of the exam. Allowing them to practice their communication skills in advance has allowed them to excel. I never tell the students which questions I am choosing for the exam, but this way, students can post their answers on the discussion boards, so that I can spend a few seconds working with them one-on-one. It might seem like a lot of work, but truthfully, it’s only about a ½ hour out of my week, usually.

The geologic time scale

To help students learn these very odd words more easily, I have located geologic time scales in as many languages as possible. Students who speak languages, especially, that aren’t rooted in the Roman alphabet have found that it is much easier to make connections with these terms. (The ICS has a bunch of those time scales listed here)

A vocabulary list

As a rule, my exams are not about vocabulary. Meaning, my multiple choice or essay questions are not asking you to define terms-students have to use the terms to explain phenomena we see in the geologic record. However, the amount of vocabulary in a science class is daunting for many, so one way that I can boost students’ confidence is to provide a list of vocabulary I expect them to know (e.g., Tyrannosaurus, Devonian, albedo) so that they know on the exam what words they will be expected to know.

An example of one of my slides with the term defined (this day, I had a  Star Wars themed lecture).

Posting unfamiliar terms on the PowerPoint slides

I generally don’t use too much text on my slides-but I do make sure to put the topic of the slide, any scientific words, and image descriptors on the slides (or at least in the notes). This helps students who may feel overwhelmed with just trying to figure out vocabulary words merely from me saying them out loud (English words really aren’t the easiest to spell, are they?)

Using familiar words

I’m still working on this one, for sure. I try to make sure that my lectures and my exams use common words. For instance, I have used words like ‘hypothetical’ and ‘plummet’ before on exams. ELL students who might be unfamiliar with some of these words can often feel overwhelmed. I do my best to a) make sure students know that they are welcome to ask me to define non-vocabulary words b) provide alternatives to these words on the test (for example-hypothetical (imaginary)) or c) avoid using words (e.g., use “drop sharply” instead of “plummet”) that might add to the stress of exam day.

Only assign videos that have great subtitles

I have my students watch a number of documentaries to learn more about certain materials. However, I have noticed that a number of videos posted on, for example, YouTube, might not have reliable captions, making it very difficult for ELL students to fully capture the science presented.

Use the microphone

My classes are big-my largest is just under 200 students. I am not a very loud person, usually, but if I need to, I can make myself heard for a 75-minute lecture. However, many students find it harder to understand words if they cannot hear them as loudly and as clearly. Using a microphone relieves the stress of many students. Even if you feel that you are loud enough, still consider using the microphone! (Bonus-this is also a huge help for hard of hearing students).

These techniques are meant to help my students feel more confident about their knowledge in my class. By making these small changes, I have found that my class is much more accessible to a larger percentage of the class and that students are giving me better and more detailed answers and they are able to make higher-level scientific deductions-which is what any science instructor wants, right? As an added bonus, many of these methods are also very helpful to students from any background who aren’t so confident in their writing skills, or who missed class due to illness or emergency, or to students with accommodations (e.g., ensuring that there are captions on videos and that your PowerPoint slides have image descriptions) also allows Deaf and hard of hearing students to have full access to your class, too! I hope that I can continue to make my classes more accessible-if you have any tips, please feel free to comment below!

2 thoughts on “Teaching effectively for all students

  1. Betsy Mendelsohn May 25, 2018 / 7:16 am

    these are excellent techniques! maybe share with the Alan Alda center for Science Communication

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