UW Continuum College Instructor Resources

Episode 2: Teaching to different levels of professional experience transcript

P: Hi Jan

J: Hi Peter. What are we talking about today?

P: I was hoping we could talk about a question I get a lot from instructors, and that’s how they can tailor their course to students with a huge range of prior experience in the subject matter. In other words, how can they keep students with lots of experience in a subject interested and engaged, without leaving behind students who don’t have much experience in that area. Luckily, there are a few things instructors can do to help take advantage of that range of experience and keep folks engaged.

J: That sounds great. What are you thinking?

P: Well, one strategy that seems to work well is to have students with more experience in an area serve as leads during group work. For example, if someone’s teaching a course on JavaScript, they might have students with more experience in JavaScript lead small group discussions during class. This can involve making sure each group member gets a chance to share their ideas, recording what folks say, and then reporting their findings back to the class. Depending on their level of comfort in this role, instructors might need to do a little bit of coaching on what makes for a successful lead, or at least check-in every now and then to make sure the group is working well.

J: That sounds great. What else could work?

P: In a similar way, they might also have students with more experience serve as leads for larger group projects. In this role, students can help the group identify the goals of the project, help decide how the group wants to go about reaching those goals, establish timelines and deliverables, and, if the project involves some kind of presentation, help lead it. Just like with having them lead group work during class, they might need to do some coaching with these students to help things run smoothly.

J: I like that. In both cases, it sounds like students with more experience can not only get practice with helping other students understand the ins and outs of, in this case, JavaScript, which can help them deepen their own understanding of it, but it also gives them an opportunity to practice their leadership skills. This can be especially valuable if they’re hoping to move up to the next level of leadership in their company or elsewhere, too.

P: Exactly! Going even further, another strategy is to have students lead either part of, or even an entire, class meeting. In this case, instructors might need to help these students prepare, in terms of making sure they know what the learning objectives are for that day, how they might go about meeting those objectives, and what sort of activities they might like have other students engage in. The benefits for students here are similar to those with having them lead group work or projects, but leading a class also gives them a chance to practice being in front of an audience, keeping that audience engaged, and helping that audience make sense of the subject matter.

J: I like it, but how do instructors know what experience folks have or if they’re even interested in taking on a lead role?

P: No that’s a great question. And one option is to just come out and ask. For example, instructors can ask students to share their experience with them and with each other on the first day or during the first meeting, as part of introductions. Instructors can also invite folks to let them know, maybe in-person or over email, if they’re interested in practicing their leadership skills in the ways I mentioned earlier. With this information, instructors and those interested students can decide when and how might be the best way to move forward.

J: Very cool!

P: Definitely.

P: If you have a question you’d like us to respond to, send us an email at peterf3@uw.edu.